RODNEY Wilkinson, the runner to Carlton Senior Coach Ron Barassi on Grand Final day 1970, has offered fascinating insight into the dramatic events of that last Saturday in September some 50 years ago.
In doing so, he has also lifted the lid on what Barassi really told his players at half-time, as he was with the Senior Coach and the players – 22 men in total – when they gathered behind closed doors in an annexe of the changerooms deep within the old Olympic Stand.
Now 70 and living in retirement in Adelaide, Wilkinson was just 20 when he agreed to run Barassi’s messages in equally dramatic circumstances midway through the 1970 season – after the then runner Sergio Silvagni completed an impeccably-timed comeback as a Carlton footballer.
Wilkinson would continue as runner until the last home and away match of 1971 – co-incidentally Barassi’s final game as coach and Silvagni’s as player – and ironically after Carlton completed yet another come-from-behind victory over Collingwood.
But it’s the ’70 Grand Final, when Barassi’s Blues somehow found a way to turn a 44-point half-time deficit into a famous 10-point win, that Wilkinson offers his unique take on what really happened on that fateful day – Saturday, September 26 – at the mighty MCG.
The following is Wilkinson’s previously untold account of the 1970 GF, in which he:
- debunks the myth that Barassi berated his players with the team more than seven goals down at half-time;
- pinpoints Barassi’s genius in delivering the Club its most famous victory, but equally Collingwood coach Bob Rose’s inability to halt the Carlton comeback; and
- explains why the second half of the 1970 Grand Final was the easiest half he’d experienced in his time as the great Ronald Dale’s runner.
I was recruited from Morwell because of Graham Donaldson. As a 16-year-old I played in Morwell’s Premiership side in ’66 , but I didn’t play anywhere in ’67 because I was a naughty boy who was sent to boarding school. Carlton then signed me just before zoning came in - otherwise I would have ended up at Footscray.
In Melbourne I boarded in a house in Linda Street, Coburg with the Smith family – amongst them a daughter who later married the Carlton player Greg Sharp - and I joined Carlton in 1968 as a back pocket/back flanker.
This was a good decision given that the seniors won the drought-breaking Premiership that year, and I took out the reserves’ Best & Fairest Award as an 18 year-old. But half-way through ’69 Ron Barassi sacked me. He said to me “I don’t think you’re going to make it” and as I was already out injured at the time I said “No worries”. I was obviously disappointed, but I’ve always been a person to move forward and I felt that as a back pocket I probably had a short life as a League footballer anyway.
Then, strangely, in about June of 1970 after the season had already started, Barassi rang me up out of the blue. He said to me “Hey, do you want to come back and play?”. I told him “Mate, I haven’t played for about a year and I’m about three months off being fit”. He then told me to just come down regardless and have a bit of a kick.
I then got a phone call from the Secretary Gerald Burke who said to me “Rod, you’re not allowed to tell anyone, but Sergio Silvagni’s making a comeback. Now we’re going to put your name down in the reserves, but Silvagni will be playing, not you, and Ron would like you to be his runner”.
I agreed to do it, and although I couldn’t really train as I’d got a transfer with work, I fronted up to run on a Saturday. To this day I’ve no idea why Barassi wanted to be his runner, but Syd Jackson ran for him in ’68 and Gary Lawson-Smith the following year, so maybe he wanted someone who had played football and understood the game.
I could tell you a lot of stories about running for Barassi. He was a difficult, passionate and very volatile bloke, but don’t get me wrong – he was also a very nice man and I respected him in every way (even though he sacked me as a player). He was an absolutely brilliant tactician - he knew which players to fire up and which ones to leave alone – and I just tried to deliver the messages the best way that I could, although it was never much fun going out to tell the likes of John Nicholls what to do.
Barassi would use the runner constantly, so I’d be going all the time. He used to send me out to deliver a message to all 18 players, which you could do then – and it took me quite a few minutes to complete the deed as you obviously couldn’t interfere with the play. It was tough work because in those days you could run as many messages as you liked - and I ran quite a few miles, having often been asked to run messages on average 14 or 15 times a quarter, and sprinting when I delivered them.
On Grand Final day 1970 I walked down the race with the players and onto the MCG. Looking around and seeing more than 120,000 people, I just couldn’t believe it.
My old man was a member of the Melbourne Cricket Club and I used to go with him to Grand Finals from when I was five. This time around I took my place on the bench with the 19th and 20th men Hopkins and Chandler, and the Assistant Coach Graham Donaldson.
We were all from Gippsland. Hopkins was a Moe boy, Chandler was from Welshpool and I was from Morwell – and Donaldson coached Morwell prior to returning to Carlton.
Back in those days the runner communicated with a coach by way of a landline that ran from the coach’s area down to the ground - every ground had them - and the landline worked no worries. For the most part I did what I was told. But there were also occasions where Barassi wanted a bit of feedback and he’d flat-out ask, “How’s it going”?”, “How’s the vibe out there?‘’ and “Are they on their game?”. It was a pressure job, and on top of that I ran a lot.
I don’t know whether I should say this – and I’ll explain myself when I talk about how Barassi won the 1970 Grand Final – but just as importantly I believe Bob Rose lost it, the reason being that he coached from the boundary line.
Back then, the coach sat with the chairman of selectors, and ‘Barass’ sat with Jack Wrout upstairs (in the old Smokers Stand?) - but Rose sat with his man, the selector Charlie Utting, on the bench at ground level.
The game of football, once it starts, is like a chess game, but in footy you can’t see all the pieces from ground level . . . and I believe Rose was 10 to 15 minutes behind in the 1970 Grand Final, particularly when the game started swinging and moves could have been made.
If you look back at the replay of the game, when Hopkins kicked those goals in the third quarter, his opponent Colin Tully was nowhere to be seen. When you’re coaching from ground level you don’t pick up on a lot of these things, but Barassi, from where he was positioned, would have reacted straight away.
Put it this way. If Barassi had coached Collingwood, they’d never have lost it.
My other theory on that game, other than Bob Rose losing it, might shock people. But I was there.
At half-time Barassi took us into this little room - just me and the 20 players – and this was his greatest moment of genius. In normal circumstances, if we were down at half-time, Barassi would come in and go off his tree, but on this particular occasion he was calm within himself . . . and I’ve never seen him like that.
He did mention the need for a little bit more handball and believed that winning was still a chance. As for the call to bring Ted Hopkins on for Bert Thornley, he had already discussed the move with Jack Wrout upstairs in the second quarter. They thought the team would benefit from Hopkins’ zip up forward, as Bert had unfortunately suffered a bad achilles injury the year before which really slowed him down.
It wasn’t so much Barassi’s words at half-time, but his calm demeanour. I couldn’t get over it. Thinking back on it now, this was in fact the moment Barassi stopped coaching the team. He left his players alone. The players were well-drilled and they knew what they were doing. Even when the big comeback started and a couple of quick goals were kicked he just left them alone . . . and I remember looking at the phone and turning around to the coach’s box to see if he was on the other end because nothing was coming down the line.
In the last half of any other game, particularly when we were losing, I would have been out on the ground a minimum 24 or 25 times. But in the last half of the 1970 Grand Final I reckon I went out three or four times. This was Barassi’s genius.
When Alex (Jesaulenko) kicked that bouncing goal to put the result beyond doubt late in the final quarter, Jack Wrout was still up in the stand, but Barassi had already made it down to the bench. The game was still in the balance when Barass left the stand and why he did that I don’t really know.
After ‘Jezza’ kicked the goal, Barass grabbed my arm told me to just get out there and tell every player to man up, because these were the days when there wasn’t any zoning, and it didn’t even matter if you were a forward you found a man.
I never lost my composure as a runner. As with the players, I was too busy concentrating. But unlike Grand Final day I was normally physically fatigued. In this instance I experienced the easiest second half in all my time running messages for Barassi.
When the final siren sounded I was on the bench and still on the phone to Jacky Wrout upstairs. In those famous photographs of Barassi jumping in the air, which appeared on the front of The Age and The Sun on the Monday after the game, you can see me sitting there with the phone to my ear.
I finished up as Carlton runner when Barass coached his last game for the club in the final home and away game of 1971. By then he needed a break from coaching and after seven years the players needed a break from him. But in 1995 I saw him again, when Neil (Chandler) dragged my wife Kaye and I along to a 25-year reunion luncheon for Barass and the Carlton Premiership players at The Hilton. After the lunch we walked across the road to see Carlton beat Collingwood . . . and then we raised a glass for old time’s sake at Barass’s old pub, the Mountain View Hotel in Bridge Road.
Today, when I reflect on the 1970 Grand Final after 50 years, I simply say that I was privileged to have been involved in it, that I gained a unique understanding of what actually happened and that I saw Ron Barassi’s genius as the second half played out.