By sports editor Russell Bennett
The biggest strength of any club is almost always its people, so it’s little wonder that, for generations now, the Catani Football Netball Club has punched well out of its weight division.
These days, there are more people involved at the Blues than live in the town.
According to the 2016 census, 294 people live in Catani – but a hell of a lot more consider it their spiritual home.
And two of those people, Ron and Beryl Banbury, are one of the key reasons why.
When ‘Bez’ spoke to the Gazette just before the Blues’ drought-breaking A Grade netball premiership earlier this year, she said that she and ‘Ronnie’ – her husband of 58 years – never considered flags as a reward for all their years of dedicated service to their club.
Rather, it was their “thrill”, she explained.
That says everything about the couple affectionately known as ‘Mr and Mrs Catani’.
On Friday night they were honoured by the AFL at the AFL Victoria Community Football Awards night – named joint winners of the WorkSafe AFL Victoria Country Volunteer of the Year Award.
What they’ve done to make their club what it is has been nothing short of extraordinary, but in their eyes they’re just ordinary people playing their part.
“We were gobsmacked when we first heard about the award,” Bez explained.
“When you do something you love, and you get recognised for it like we have been, it’s just unbelievable.”
Ronnie and Bez were swamped by well wishes and congratulations from complete strangers on Friday night in a sign of just how respected they are in the community football landscape.
As part of the prize they received, along with their award, Ronnie and Bez were given a copy of the ‘Encyclopedia of AFL Footballers – Every AFL/VFL player since 1897’.
Astonishingly, listed in that book, was none other than Ronnie’s father’s cousin – Vernon Banbury.
He played three games for St Kilda before a long and distinguished career with Footscray in the VFA.
In another book, titled ‘The Bulldog Heritage’ – which Ronnie and Bez have excerpts from – Vernon Banbury was described as “perhaps the most brilliant player to wear the Tricolour guernsey”.
And it was actually at Bunyip – another Bulldog breed – where Ronnie’s footy career began in the mid-1950s. He was invited down to South Melbourne in 1959 but his big league career could never really get off the ground as he wouldn’t be granted a clearance.
But soon after, a move that would help shape Catani’s history took place – he followed his heart, and a particularly convincing Blues ‘recruitment officer’ (a somewhat unofficial term) to Taplins Road.
That persuasive person was Bez. They were married in 1961 and lived on a dairy farm in Catani just over a mile from the football ground.
Of course, Bez’s involvement with Catani started well before – in 1954 – when as a teenager she started playing ‘basketball’ (now netball).
Since ’54, the only season she’s spent away from Catani was when she followed Ronnie to Moe when he played there for a season.
Together, over a period of well over 60 years, they’ve made an impact on their beloved club so large that most couldn’t even fathom it – let alone dream of replicating it.
Ronnie and Bez are both 81 now, but their commitment to the Blues is as strong as ever.
“We’d be lost if we weren’t around the club, even now,” Bez explained.
“Other people go and play bowls or work in the op shops, but we’re here. A lot of people get involved in a lot of things, but some of them suffer. I’d rather do one thing properly, and this is my thing.”
Bez was part of the Catani A Grade side that made grand finals each year from 1956 to 1961. In amongst those were three straight premierships – in 1958, ’59, and ’60 – which she captained.
Nowadays, she watches just enough netball to keep up with the Catani sides’ progress – particularly B Grade, featuring its player-coach, Ronnie and Bez’s daughter Angela.
To say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree when it comes to Angela’s own commitment to the Blues is just about the understatement of the millennium.
After playing well in excess of 450 games, ‘Ange’ – the Blues’ current netball president – finally won her first ever Catani premiership as part of this year’s B Grade side.
Ronnie and Bez have legions of admirers right throughout Gippsland for their decades of dedication to their club – but none more-so than Ange, who is the only person at Catani who’s both a football and netball life member there.
She idolises them, and fittingly so – sharing their undying commitment to the Catani cause.
“When she was seven she used to peel the potatoes at home while we were milking the cows, and she used to cut them up into chips and come down here to the club and cook them. She was seven years old,” Bez said of Ange.
Whether it’s helping to cook meals, performing game day roles in the timekeeper’s box, selling raffle tickets, pumping up the game day Sherrins, or even sewing numbers on the back of guernseys – Ronnie and Bez have done the lot, and are continuing to.
Bez sewed the numbers on the back of each jumper from 1976 until the end of the age of the woollen guernsey, while Ronnie was club secretary for 22 years.
Ronnie has been known to meticulously wash the windows and vacuum the carpets at the Blues’ Taplins Road base, but it’s become a bit of a running joke that he does no such thing at home.
Catani hasn’t just been one of the biggest constants in the lives of Ronnie and Bez – they’ve lived and breathed it for decade, after decade, after decade.
And, at various times, they’ve played key roles in keeping that Blue blood pumping for so many others.
The vote that changed Catani’s history in 1976 – when a special meeting was held in January of that year (33 votes for, and just two against) to switch to the Ellinbank league from West Gippsland – still looms as arguably its most defining chapter.
Ronnie’s vote was one of the two against.
That 1976 season was also the year in which Catani changed from its formative royal blue and yellow colours, to the navy blue and CFC logo that has since become synonymous with the club.
In the mid-1970s, the Cats – as the Blues were then known – were battling to stay afloat in the West Gippsland Football League. They were losing young players left, right and centre because jobs in the local area had dried right up.
Confronted with the task of playing against teams from much larger towns such as Pakenham, Drouin and Korumburra, as well as Garfield, Bunyip and Nar Nar Goon, for the best part of a decade the Cats struggled to pull themselves up from the bottom rungs on the ladder. Facing the prospect of having no money or players, they made a decision that changed the course of their history – saving the Catani Football and Netball Club as everyone now knows it.
Since the move into Ellinbank – which Ronnie voted against as he was part of the West Gippsland scene since 1953 and was worried about the state of the grounds and facilities throughout the EDFL – Catani has suffered more than its share of heartbreak. But the Blues have also experienced more golden periods than most other clubs.
And throughout it all, the two biggest constants have been Ron and Beryl Banbury.
They’re the beating heartbeat of the entire club, and it’s why so many people smile every time they see their white Nissan X-Trail parked near the boundary of the Taplins Road ground.