Re-told by an eye-witness, this is the seventh of a series of great football dramas. It describes how, in the 1928 final against Richmond, Collingwood, with audacious match-winning strategy, set giant Percy Rowe to spoil Donald Don, dreaded champion full-back; and how, under Rowe’s clever protection, Gordon Coventry kicked nine goals – a record.
Table of contents
Sporting Globe (Melbourne, Vic. : 1922 - 1954)
8 June 1935: 8 (Edition1).
(Images added to original article)
Forwards invariably shun the opposing full-back as through he had the measles. It is a cardinal rule in football tactics. Consequently, when a leading League team, as part of its studied plan in a vital match, deliberately gets a valuable ruck man specifically to foil the enemy full-back all the afternoon – and do nothing else – it is daring and revolutionary strategy.
That is exactly what those master strategists, Collingwood, did against Richmond in the remarkable 1928 League final. Chiefly because of that unprecedented move, Collingwood won the match, and with it the premiership, without a grand final.
The Magpies feared one Richmond man more than any other. That man was Donald Don. The Tiger captain, and then the champion full-back of Victorian football. Don, having been both rover and forward, knew all the tricks of the goal-getting business and, what was more to the point, Gordon Coventry, Collingwood’s star sharpshooter, never had been very successful against him.
So Collingwood set giant Percy Rowe, now Fitzroy’s coach, to stick close to Don – compactly built, but smaller – and spoil him every time he tried to thwart Gordon Coventry. For that express purpose Rowe was stationed unostentatiously close at hand in a back pocket.
Despite Donald Don’s desperate but vain counter-measures, Collingwood’s audacious ruse – which grossly violated a sacred fundamental of text-book tactics – proved to be match-winning strategy. Under Rowe’s protection, Coventry bagged the then record total, for League finals, of nine goals.
The match was played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, before 50,026 people, on Saturday, September 29, 1928. Conditions were fine, though a shower before play moistened the turf nicely.
Richmond won by 13.18 to 9.9.
Right at their zenith, the triumphant Magpies, leading at the end of the home and home series, had, under the old system, the “double chance.” The order was:-
In the first semi-final, before the then record crowd of 66,381, Richmond trounced Carlton – 17.15 to 9.10.
To the surprise of the 41,423 onlookers, Melbourne, with a thrilling late recovery, managed to tie with Collingwood in the second semi-final – 9.8 each. Collingwood, however, narrowly won the replay the following Saturday – 10.8 to 9.8.
Their confidence somewhat shaken by the Melbourne scares, coupled with Richmond’s orgy at Carlton’s expense, the Magpies realised that, unless something drastic was done, the sly old Tiger might yet snatch the premiership bone from under their eyes. Thereupon the cleverest football brains at Collingwood conceived the plot against Donald Don – the man who they considered stood between them and the pennant. Don had silenced Coventry before, and might easily do it again.
A day before the match, the famous goal-keeper actually heard a whisper that some mysterious “joke” was to be sprung on him. But he had been hearing all sorts of rumours throughout his football career, and one more did not disturb him. He had learned to dismiss rumours serenely. He promptly forgot all about this one – until big Percy Rowe began his weird antics on the field.
From the first bounce, Collingwood were always just a little too good in play and tactics. They surprised even their own supporters with their pace. Richmond had been expected to hold sway in the air. The Magpies blocked them there, Syd Coventry spoiling numerous marks. Don had been expected to keep Gordon Coventry quiet. Instead, Don himself was baulked by Rowe, and Coventry had a field day.
The game had been in progress only a minute or two when, in a flash, Don realised why Rowe was there. The ball whizzed towards Gordon Coventry. Don dashed out to beat Coventry for it. But an obstacle suddenly got in his way. It was Rowe, who, as nimbly as a dancer, had stepped in front of Don. That sort of thing went on all through. Rowe was Don’s shadow. Every time the full-back attempted a defensive move, Rowe, sure enough, would obstruct him in some way.
Don was fuming. To him, the exasperating part was that Rowe’s obstruction was so cunningly done as to be “within the law” nearly all the time. True, there was an occasional free-kick – indeed, Don got more than any other player in the match – but this was totally inadequate compensation for the almost complete dislocation of a vital defence line. Don, champion that he was, was simply powerless to beat Coventry and Rowe combined. It was humanly impossible. For one thing, Rowe was too big for him in the sprawling; and Coventry, then in his glorious prime, was too resourceful and clever, when aided by Rowe’s checking, without which, Don, being faster and a superb mark, would have had an excellent chance of subduing the goal-kicker.
Early in the game, Don exhorted Jack Bisset to curb Rowe’s pranks. Jack tried hard – and failed. Then Don put big George Rudolph on his tormentor. Here was the very man to stop Rowe’s nonsense, if anybody could. But George, too, failed. Rowe, without a doubt, was in fiendishly fine form. In desperation, Don entrusted the heart-breaking task of taming the giant to Ralph Empey, a shorter, but very stockily-built player. It was just as futile as trying to stop a steam-roller. Rowe, too big, too determined and too astute, refused to be shaken off. After that, Don let him have his fling. There was nothing else to do. And there Rowe continued to lurk in that back pocket, every ready to pounce.
And all the time the game was running slowly but surely against Richmond. Their defence was broken. It was Collingwood’s day. Gordon Coventry got goal after goal, despite Don’s gallant resistance. The Richmond full-back managed to stop him several times. Actually, Coventry got only four or five goals directly against Don. Two others came from free kicks. Twice, when Don had to dash out because his pocket man was beaten the ball was tapped over his head to Coventry for a goal. On the whole, Don did a good job heroically. Certainly, never before or since, has a full-back operated under such almost insuperable difficulties in a big League match.
As stressing the sportsmanship of both players, there was no ill-feeling or spite right throughout the amazing Rowe-Don duel. They were friends before it; they remained friends after it. A couple of years afterwards they had a great laugh together over it when chatting about one of the most remarkable League finals of all time.
That was Percy Rowe’s last game with Collingwood. The next season the big follower began coaching Northcote (Association), and quickly moulded them into a premiership side of League-like strength.
Donald Don, on his retirement, became a footballer writer for The Sporting Globe. Behind his sound, racy descriptions of matches are a wealth of experience and a keen football brain.