A man in the crowd: Victorian Premier Denis Napthine looks on during the Geelong-Fremantle thriller. Photo: Supplied
Denis Napthine moans and groans at the footy like an old ship at sea. He moves about in his seat. At the same time, he’s on for a chat. One of his first footy memories is the 1963 grand final. The Cats, his team, made it. ”Terry Callan missed the game through injury,” he says. “He wore number 7.” The Victorian Premier was 12 at the time.
After last Saturday night’s game, in the Geelong past players’ room, Napthine discussed Geelong’s 1963 premiership side in detail with one of its great players, John Devine. Devine went to Tasmanian club North Hobart in his prime. Napthine is one of those who believes that if Devine had been with them in 1967, the Cats would not have lost that year’s grand final to Richmond. Napthine watched that classic encounter on a black-and-white TV at Chanel College in Geelong where he was a boarder.
He made it to three grand finals in the ‘80s - the Cats lost the lot. For that reason, he didn’t attend the 2007, 2009 and 2011 grand finals which the Cats won. “Dad’s hopeless, he’s that passionate,” says Napthine’s 22-year-old son Tom. “He does a wonderful job of controlling his passion at games.” Tom Napthine works for MacKillop Services running camps for disadvantaged kids.
At half-time, two blokes from Winchelsea drop into empty seats behind us. Napthine grew up on a farm outside Winchelsea, about an hour west of Geelong. His father had 525 hectares, 4000 sheep, 40 cattle and 10 kids.
Napthine played senior footy for “Winch”. He’s the No. 1 ticket-holder now. Napthine and the blokes behind him discuss Winch’s chances in the footy this year. Napthine knows who they’ve played that day, where they sit on the ladder and how they have to beat Inverleigh this weekend to make the finals.
He loved playing the game but says he was “a very ordinary footballer”. Nonetheless, he had some memorable moments. When he was playing for Werribee Centrals they had a grudge match against Braybrook. Feeling was running high and the match ended with an all-in brawl that left Napthine on one side of a milling throng of 1000 and his new bride in a car on the other. Order was only restored when the police arrived and fired shots in the air.
What position did he play? “Half-back flank, pocket back, ruck if we were short”. Such football awards as he won bore dutiful inscriptions like “Most Improved”. One year, he was presented with an award for “Best Utility” and when he sat back down, the young woman he had taken said, “But you haven’t got a utility.”
His footy career ended when he was 27 and he dislocated his left shoulder for the third time. He dislocated it the first time when he was playing for Winch. The club’s trainer, Bushy Davis, was a cartage contractor. He said to Napthine, “This is the best game you’ve played for us. I’ll put it back in for you.” The young vet inquired as to Bushy’s expertise in the area. “I’ve done fingers before,” he replied.
His favourite Geelong player of all time is the Cats’ great Aboriginal star of the 1960s, Polly Farmer. “He revolutionised the game. Before Polly Farmer, you were taught to use handball to get out of trouble. He made it an attacking weapon.” In the past players’ room, he has an earnest discussion with Murray Witcombe, who played under Polly when he returned to coach the Cats in 1973. Witcombe said Farmer had many of the ideas of the modern game such as running the ball through the lines. “We just didn’t have a team who could do it.”
Napthine’s favourite player in the present Geelong team is Harry Taylor. He calls Harry the thinking man’s footballer. “He’s a beautiful reader of the game. He always looks to have so much time. He strikes me as someone who’s really quite smart – he made himself into a good footballer.” Napthine’s met Joel Selwood several times. What’s he like, I ask. “He’s as genuine as he appears.”
By the last quarter, it’s no longer appropriate to be asking questions. Napthine’s riding the game like people who own racehorses ride them from the grandstands in big races. The crowd is parochial with a capital P. Hayden Ballantyne is the villain in the pantomime. Every time he appears the crowd boos. Ryan Crowley and Stevie J spend the evening in one another’s arms like a couple in Dancing With the Stars.
Geelong is more flamboyant, more expansive, more ambitious. The Dockers play a simpler, less error-prone game. The match climaxes with David Mundy narrowly missing for Freo after the siren. The Dockers are booed from the ground.
Simonds Stadium is a festival of footy happiness and Napthine, like all the other Geelong fans, looks like the cat who’s got the cream. I ask the Premier what the result tells him. “It tells me that if we get into a close final with Hawthorn or the Swans, we can tough it out.”