True love, war and football

IN SEPTEMBER 1910, with Carlton well placed to win its fourth VFL premiership in five years, club officials told the Blues' popular captain-coach, Fred "Pompey" Elliott, to go to a certain restaurant. If he hid behind a particular Chinese screen, they said, he would hear things. Elliott went, and he did indeed hear things. He discovered that some of his players had apparently involved themselves in corruption.

There was a sensational sequel the following Saturday. Three players were withdrawn from the Carlton team shortly before a semi-final because of allegations that they had been bribed to play dead.

Controversy and acrimony erupted in the greatest scandal the VFL had known. Elliott found it impossible to keep his players united and focused. The Blues still managed to reach the grand final, and the premiership decider against Collingwood became an opportunity for them to release bottled-up frustrations and show they were genuinely trying to win.

The upshot was a savage battle (won by Collingwood) that launched a century of fierce rivalry. The umpire, Jack Elder, had officiated at 295 VFL matches, but this was the worst fighting he ever saw on a football field. Relations between the two clubs had been relatively harmonious, but not any more. Ensuing clashes were always spirited and usually close. When George Challis, a brilliant recruit from Launceston, joined Carlton in 1912, his new team played Collingwood in his fourth match and lost by a point.

There was another ferocious thriller in 1913, when Carlton finished a goal short. In 1914, the growing rivalry produced a draw in round one and a brutal return match - two of Challis' teammates played on with severe early injuries, one persisting despite three broken bones in his (kicked) hand - when Carlton prevailed by seven points.

The tradition continued in 1915. Collingwood lost only two matches before the finals, and Carlton inflicted both defeats, the first by two points on Queen's Birthday, and the second by an even smaller margin.

The Queen's Birthday clash was a classic. Jack Worrall, the Essendon coach who doubled as an authoritative football pundit, raved about the "exceptionally high quality" on show: "It was as even and as brilliant a contest as could possibly be seen.''

The match was long remembered for a mesmerising performance from the Woods' famous spearhead, Dick Lee, who kicked nine of his team's 10 goals and hit the post twice. Challis was also acclaimed for a sublime display against his usual Collingwood opponent, talented wingman Jim Jackson.

The return clash, when Carlton snatched a one-point victory with a late goal, was another thrilling spectacle. According to the Football Record, it gave the large crowd "two hours of glorious forgetfulness of war and its horrors".

Indeed, Gallipoli was casting a growing shadow. As supporters made their way to the game, the battle of Lone Pine was raging, and Australian light horsemen had just charged at the Nek with calamitous consequences.

Carlton and Collingwood were clearly the two best teams in 1915. The grand final between them was anticipated with relish. It was to be the clubs' first clash in any final since the violent premiership decider that had launched the bitter rivalry in 1910.

Players from both sides had enlisted for that other faraway conflict. Challis had volunteered in 1914, but had been rejected on medical grounds because one of his toes curled up over its neighbour. The idea that such a fast and skilful footballer could be deemed unfit generated widespread amazement: a "regiment of Challises would be a great asset for the Australian army", the Record remarked.

Thousands of casualties at Gallipoli prompted the medical authorities to reconsider. When Challis volunteered on July 16, 1915, he was accepted. His usual Collingwood opponent, Jim Jackson, also enlisted - remarkably, on the same day as Challis. Another to enlist that month was Carlton's acting captain, Alf Baud, who was talented, versatile, tactically sharp and an emerging champion.

Two of Jackson's teammates had enlisted together two days before him. Paddy Rowan and Mal "Doc" Seddon were the closest of friends on and off the field. Rowan, an intriguing character, was playing for the Magpies under a pseudonym: as Seddon and others knew, he was really Percy Rowe. He volunteered for the army under his real name, and he and Seddon were posted to the AIF training camp at Seymour.

This was not Rowe's only significant enlistment - he was getting married to Louisa ''Louie'' Newby. Louie had been close to Seddon ever since their childhood together in the same Collingwood street. In fact, Doc had introduced her to Percy, his dashing teammate from the country.

The attraction was mutual, and Louie became pregnant. The marriage was hastily arranged. Seddon was best man for his best mate. Rowe and Seddon had obtained leave from their camp for the ceremony, and for Collingwood's semi-final afterwards. This was not necessarily straightforward. A fortnight earlier there had been consternation in the Magpies' rooms before the game when Rowe and Seddon failed to arrive. Leave at Seymour had been cancelled due to a meningitis outbreak.

With this in mind, Worrall remarked in his column that if any difficulty happened to arise on grand final day about getting military leave for such key players, Collingwood could not win. These words might have given someone food for thought.

Jackson was, in fact, out injured anyway, but Rowe and Seddon were fit and keen to excel in the grand final. However, they became embroiled in another pre-match controversy when they were again denied leave. Furthermore, they were directed to take part in a 12-mile march on the morning of the game.

A club official drove hurriedly to the camp. He managed to resolve the imbroglio over leave, and rushed his star players back to Melbourne. They reached the MCG in time, but the arduous march had left Rowe and Seddon tired and aggrieved.

Collingwood people suspected skulduggery, and still do. Eddie McGuire and other present-day Magpie fans familiar with the episode remain resentful.

Baud won the toss and gave Carlton the early advantage of a helpful wind. The Blues began well, but kicked inaccurately. At quarter-time they had quadrupled their opponents' scoring shots but were less than two goals ahead. A goal from Dick Lee had resulted from a chain of possession that included a pass from Seddon to Rowe.

The Magpies redoubled their efforts in the second term but could not reduce the margin. They kept in touch, though - when Seddon goaled just before half-time, the difference was 16 points. But when spectators paused to review and predict during the long interval, few could discern grounds for optimism for the Magpies.

However, a transformation ensued, as dramatic as it was unexpected. The Blues found themselves defending desperately to withstand a Collingwood surge. The Magpies kept pressing fervently; their opponents kept resisting tenaciously. It was an intense contest of the highest quality, and the large crowd was captivated.

Worrall described it as "an exceptionally brilliant and thrilling encounter"; enthralled onlookers were following the "glorious, spectacular struggle" with "wild excitement". Melbourne Punch saw it as a "brilliant display of football" that was "often faster than it seemed possible to play".

The Magpies had taken control, but did not get full scoreboard value from their pressure and possession. Still, when Lee goaled midway through the last quarter, a tremendous roar confirmed that the Pies now had the lead as well as the momentum. Carlton countered with a foray towards the club's leading goalkicker that year, Herb Burleigh. He flew for the ball and failed to hold it, but the umpire paid a mark - "a shocking decision", Worrall asserted. It was the critical moment. Burleigh goaled and the Magpies' morale plummeted.

Rowe and Seddon were spent. They were "not quite themselves", The Age thought. The Leader felt they "appear to have slowed up since they enlisted".

Carlton goaled again, and resistance crumbled. The Blues, relieved and jubilant, piled on more goals in quick succession, including another two from Burleigh. The final margin of 33 points in no way reflected the ubiquitous tension felt shortly before the finish.

A medal for best player in the grand final was not then in vogue, but Challis would have been a contender. His artistry and dexterity were acclaimed, and his superb disposal was, as usual, conspicuous. He was on his way to war within a month, and ended up a sergeant in the 58th Battalion.

The AIF training camp at Tel-el-Kebir in Egypt became a venue for VFL reunions. Challis caught up with Baud there, as well as the Collingwood trio he had opposed in momentous matches - Jackson, Rowe and Seddon.

Rowe was a combatant in the AIF's most celebrated boxing bout at Tel-el-Kebir; he was in hospital for weeks afterwards with "concussion".

Challis was killed at Fromelles, France, in July 1916. Rowe was fatally wounded near Gueudecourt later that year. Baud almost died when a shell found him in September 1917; it fractured his skull, permanently damaged his vision and, having led Carlton to a premiership at 22, he never played again.

Burleigh was severely wounded at the battle of Polygon Wood, Belgium; he tried to play on after the war, but retired after just three games.

Seddon survived, and resumed in the VFL successfully. In 1919 he secured the premiership that had eluded him four years earlier, and represented Victoria as well. He married Louie, his childhood friend and Rowe's widow. Louie's son, sired but never seen by Rowe, ended up playing for the Magpies like his father and stepfather.

Carlton did not meet Collingwood in a grand final again until 1938. Before the match, Seddon, now the Magpies' chairman of selectors, reminisced about the events of 1915 and observed that the arduous route march - still notorious at Collingwood decades later - had been ordered by "an adjutant", who was presumably a Carlton supporter.

The officer concerned has never been identified. Rowe and Seddon were then in the 29th Battalion. Its adjutant in September 1915 was John McArthur, a 41-year-old professional soldier who was to accumulate an outstanding record at the Western Front.

Born in Scotland, McArthur had grown up near Toowoomba and had served in a Queensland contingent in the South African War; having joined the permanent army after his return, he was located in Queensland for the following decade. So far, hardly a basis for envisaging him as an ardent Carlton partisan who would be eager to stymie the Magpies.

However, he had been transferred to Melbourne in 1911. Might he have developed an allegiance to the Blues during the next four years? Whether McArthur ordered the march - and whether he had a Carlton affiliation - remains unclear. It's an intriguing aspect of the 1915 grand final, one of the most legendary ever.

Ross McMullin's biography of George Challis - and the story of the 1915 grand final - is in his book, Farewell, Dear People: Biographies of Australia's Lost Generation.

The story True love, war and football first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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