Legend of the Tassie Tiger
Former Richmond champion Royce Hart. Photo: Michael Rayner
ROYCE Hart was 19 when stardom burst upon him. Approaching time-on in the final quarter of the 1967 grand final, the result was wholly undecided. His team, Richmond, hadn't won a premiership for 25 years.
Hart tells the story in his blunt, down-to-earth way. "Just before, a ball had gone past me, over my head, and Geelong had scored."
Now the ball was coming towards him and, again, it appeared to be going over his head. "I just thought, 'I've got to mark it'. There was no theory in what I did - just instinct."
At school, he had been a high jump champion, regularly jumping heights taller than himself. He ran in from the side, as high jumpers do. His initial leap planted his feet near the throat of Geelong defender Peter Walker, allowing him to push upwards again or, as he puts it, "Without him [Walker], I wouldn't have reached the ball." Fired by their young prodigy, the Tigers narrowly won.
Royce Hart played in four premierships, captained Richmond in two of them and was centre half-forward in the AFL team of the century. He is the same height, and played at the same weight, as Dustin Martin, the Richmond midfielder who wears his famous No. 4 guernsey.
If Jack Dyer is the Richmond legend, Royce Hart is its fable. His whole career is slightly unreal. Richmond secured his services for a suit and six shirts after his mother revealed to Graeme "GR" Richmond, the power behind the throne during the Tigers' glory years, that Royce would need some good clothes if he was to leave his Tasmanian home at the age of 17 and journey to Melbourne.
Hart's fifth game was for Victoria - then a big honour. He kicked seven goals. Legend has it that in his second year he published a biography and named himself at centre half-forward in his team of greatest players. The book was in his fourth year. The team was of players he'd most like to have played with.
In 1969, when he tore apart Geelong in the first semi-final, he was in the army doing what was then called national service. His training during the early part of the season consisted of meeting another conscript-footballer, John Scarlett, father of Matthew, for a kick once a week at Manly Oval. That year, having helped the Tigers to another premiership, he accepted $2000 to play for Glenelg the following week in the SANFL grand final. He was knocked out shortly after the start.
At Richmond, they speak in hushed tones of Royce Hart's talent but shake their heads when it comes to describing Royce Hart the man. No one seems to know exactly what to make of him. Royce is Royce. He's Richmond's Tasmanian Tiger, much discussed but rarely seen. There are lots of stories about Royce, as they call him. One is that he's a resentful recluse. I met a man with a fresh, cheerful manner.
The thing that struck me about Hart is that he's from the bush. Not only that, he's from that hothouse of human eccentricity - the Tasmanian bush. The value he attributes to his upbringing is self-sufficiency. "You've got to think for yourself". The nearest big town, where Hart went to school, was Sorell (then with a population of about 500). Between classes, the kids gathered in two groups and played endless games of kick-to-kick. That's where he discovered he was good at getting the ball. He could, virtually at will, beat eight or nine kids. The skill and appetite for doing so, and the knowledge that he could, never left him.
From his early teens, he was ambitious "to get the best out of myself". He set a school high jump record that stood for 20 years and won footraces from 100 metres to 800 metres. But he was only short. He made an All-Australian schoolboy team as a rover. Playing rover "taught me how to win the ball on the ground". Then, in his 15th year, he "grew a foot". Combined with his leap, he could now outmark much taller opponents.
He arrived in Melbourne at the end of 1965, a fraction above average height but with the build of an athlete. Two years of hard work in Frank Sedgman's gym brought him to his playing weight of 92 kilograms. And there you had it - a formidably equipped footballer who went to the ball with not one aim but two: if he didn't win the ball in the air, he'd win it on the ground.
Naturally fearless and highly mobile, he was decades ahead of the game in the way it was played. He was also relentless in a Bradmanesque way and, like Bradman, he stood a fraction apart from his teammates. He was Royce. Richmond's game plan, as enunciated by coach Tom Hafey, was simple - kick it long to Royce.
In his first six years, he missed only a handful of games. Then he injured both cartilages in his left knee. Thereafter, his seasons were broken and there were famous games, such as the 1973 preliminary final against Collingwood, when he came on at half-time carrying an injury and rescued his side.
He finished playing in 1977 and had two years as coach of Footscray. He tried to teach the players his special trick - coming in from the side and marking in front of, rather than among, taller players. One of his proteges, Kelvin Templeton, won the Brownlow Medal, but most of his players simply couldn't do it. They weren't Royce.
I ask him why he hasn't had more to do with Richmond since he left. "Never got asked." The answer is cheerful enough. He still barracks for the Tigers. His favourite player? Dustin Martin. Hart would play Martin at centre half-forward with a taller player alongside him. He was struck recently to learn there were now 200 assistant coaches in the AFL. One of his criticisms of the modern game is that players don't think enough for themselves.
He describes himself as retired except for "a bit of memorabilia stuff" he does. He lives alone in his mother's Hobart unit. On one wall is a photograph Kevin Sheedy signed for Hart's mother, Flo. Misspelling her name, Sheedy wrote, "To Flow". Hart chuckles. "I keep telling Sheedy's he's just a plumber." Of his four children, one, a daughter, lives in Hobart. His mother is around the corner in a nursing home. He has been told by a doctor he'll need a new knee in another 10 years and he has sciatica in his back, which he also attributes to football. It means he now has trouble travelling to Melbourne.
I found him talkative, up for a chat. He was especially keen to show me a painting of his mark in the 1967 grand final by Tasmania's Archibald Prize-winning painter Geoff Dyer. The artist kept telling Hart the painting "had to get the motion". And it does - it's a painting of a young man's body flung through the air in a Tiger guernsey. As I'm leaving , I ask him if he'd do it all again. He smiles his bush smile and says, ''Yeah." I'm glad to hear it.