By Nick Creely
There was plenty of emotion at Holm Park on Saturday, whether it was in the stands or in the packed social rooms for the annual Past Players and Luncheon and inaugural Russell Rowe Shield, named after a legend of both the Woori Yallock and Beaconsfield football clubs.
While the two clubs battled it out in a thrilling clash in his honour that culminated in a narrow win to the Eagles, Rowe himself was reflecting on his football life upstairs overlooking the ground, and was full of emotion when describing just what this honour means to him.
“It’s an absolute honour (to have the shield in his name), and I want to thank the Beaconsfield and Woori Yallock Football Clubs, it’s extremely humbling,” he said.
“I’ve had a great life in football.
“But, I’ll be going for the Tigers today.”
Starring for Woori Yallock in its 1971, 1973 and 1974 premierships, as well as winning a best and fairest in 1975 along with a successful VFA stint with Caulfield, Rowe was recruited by Melbourne, famously kicking four goals among 25 possessions in his debut for the Demons against St Kilda in 1980, despite being of the belief that it was actually 27 possessions.
But in Round 9 against Richmond, Rowe got injured, and featured only two more times that season.
“I pulled my thigh muscle, and the trainer who I was dealing with was called ‘Skull’, and he said ‘you can’t play for six, seven weeks’, and typically being pig-headed, I tried to play after about five, and wasn’t game enough to go back to the trainer because I actually pulled my thigh muscle again,” he said.
With a change of coach at the end of 1980, the legendary Ron Barassi replaced Carl Ditterich, and Rowe was of the belief that he would get another chance after a successful pre-season.
“I did all the pre-season, played all the practice matches, and thought I was doing okay,” he said.
“In that last pre-season match against Richmond at Port Melbourne I was playing in the back pocket, and I’ll never forget this as long as I’ll live, Barassi comes up to me and says he’s got some bad news.
“I thought someone in my family had passed away, and he said ‘we’ve decided to go with youth, you’re 28 years of age, see you later’, and that was it.
“It was very disappointing, I then decided to go back and play with Caulfield, which was probably the wrong move, before returning to Woori.”
Rowe – who eventually coached Beaconsfield to its drought-breaking 1999 senior premiership in the West Gippsland Football League after a stellar playing and coaching career with the Tigers– came to the Eagles after his son Joel joined the club, linking up with a prominent name in football in the south-east.
“Joel and I went for a run, it was on a Thursday or Tuesday night down at the old Beaconsfield ground, and we were watching training, and Doug Koop (current Officer coach) – obviously an ex-Melbourne player too – noticed I was watching, and that’s how I got involved,” he said.
He would go on to lead the Eagles to the ultimate glory in 1999 – its first premiership since joining West Gippsland – despite a slight stumble in the first final, and remains grateful for one of the most enjoyable seasons of his career.
“I was very confident as the coach,” he said.
“And I was lucky to coach them, they were a great team, and we achieved the ultimate glory.
“It was a fantastic year.”
Rowe even got the chance to pull on the boots against Warragul in a one-off game in 2001 (at the age of 47) for the Eagles, one of the great thrills of his football life.
“That was a great thrill for me that day, I played with Joel, I never thought that would happen, and it did. I had a great time,” he said.
“Joel was best on the ground, because my ex told him to not kick it to me.
“I actually got first goal of the game, I was pretty excited about that.”
While Rowe was a star of a footballer and an innovative coach, he could very easily have made it in Australia’s favourite summer sport, cricket, but went down the path of footy.
“I loved my cricket, and that pissed me off when Ron Barassi took over at Melbourne, because I gave it away when he took over as coach, I gave everything I had to play footy,” he said.
But there’s one highlight, the day that he faced the famous West Indies bowling attack as part of the Victorian Country cricket XI in 1979.
“It was the top team, Joel Garner, Colin Croft, Michael Holding, and Malcolm Marshall, I faced them all,” he said.
“I was lucky enough to last about 20 overs, but I only made 19 – my plan was to just survive, and I did, they brought a spinner on, and I got caught behind.”
Rowe also weighed in on the issues facing grass roots football in the country, and hopes that the AFL can listen to the country clubs and supporters.
“It’s very hard to fun football clubs, I feel sorry for administrators, it’s tough going,” he said.
“I personally think the AFL need to do more, most of the players come from the country, and they need to do something.
“I think country footy is in genuine trouble.”
The past players and officials of Beaconsfield were also treated to an entertaining talk by ex-Collingwood and Woori Yallock champion Damian Monkhorst, as well as ex-Hawthorn and Beaconsfield-listed defender Brendan Whitecross, who kept the crowd engrossed with their tales of football.
Prior to the senior game, both Beaconsfield and Woori Yallock also paid their respects to the late Frank Deegan and his family who were present with a minute’s silence, and the Eagles also donned black armbands on the day, in a touching moment felt by many across the ground.
Frank owned and operated the Central Hotel in Beaconsfield, the Cardinia Park Hotel in Beaconsfield and the Royal Hotel in Kooweerup, and was admired by those in the local community.