In footy circles, there aren’t too many fiercer rivalries than the one shared between old foes Hawthorn and Essendon. Entrenched in history, the two clubs have entangled in some of the most memorable clashes, contributing to a bitter rivalry which has transcended decades.
Who could forget the infamous ‘Line in the Sand’ contest in 2004, or Matthew Lloyd’s crunching bump on Brad Sewell in 2009?
Yet these modern-day flashpoints were merely a culmination of countless physical, ruthless, and hard-edged affairs played out in the late 20th century. Forged in the 1980s, Hawthorn and Essendon butted heads as two powerhouses of the competition, sparking a hostility which has stood the test of time.
A period of dominance saw the Hawks and Bombers battle it out in three consecutive grand finals between 1983-85, leading to many moments which will forever be enshrined in footy folklore.
Speaking exclusively to The Inner Sanctum, three-time Hawthorn premiership player Terry Wallace believes that this rivalry during the 80s can be best described using two words.
“The first word I’d say is brutal. It was certainly a brutal pairing of the two,” Wallace told The Inner Sanctum.
“And probably the second word I’d use is sort of admiration. As much as they were our arch-enemies and both clubs really disliked each other, I think there was still a fair bit of admiration for what both clubs were able to achieve through that period and how good the two squads were.”
“Bombers people will look at it differently to what I look at it in the fact that they’ll say, ‘well we played you in three grand finals and we won two’.”
“I still believe that even though they won two out of the three grand finals, I think we were able to maintain and keep our run going a lot longer than what they were.”
Every sporting rivalry has its starting point, and a crude hit inflicted by Robert ‘Dipper’ DiPierdomenico on Essendon’s Alan Stoneham in Round 8, 1983 is widely credited for stoking the fire.
On the stroke of half-time, a flying forearm from Dipper connected forcefully with Stoneham’s head, leaving the defender sprawled on the turf of Princes Park. What followed was an all-in brawl, with Essendon players incensed by the heavy blow.
Eleven rounds later and Essendon would return serve at Windy Hill, the instigator this time being Cameron Clayton. After coming off the bench, Clayton made a beeline for Dipper, striking him square in the face and leaving the winger bloodied and bruised.
From Wallace’s perspective, the targeting of Dipper was a premeditated plan from the Bombers outfit, citing the ill-feeling which still lingered from the clubs’ early season encounter.
“It’s pretty obvious that they were waiting for him, and it was payback time,” Wallace said.
“In fairness, what Dipper did in the first game was not right and not within the rules and laws of the game, but retribution comes in many different ways, and they were going to make sure that retribution was set up on that particular day late in the season.”
However, this undeniable tension between the two sides also extended off the field, eventually reaching boiling point during the 1984 finals series.
An allegation made by Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy that Hawthorn players were sniffing an illegal substance at breaks triggered an investigation from Victorian Police.
Whilst the club was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing, Sheedy’s accusation only poured more fuel on the fire, particularly disturbing Hawthorn coach Allan Jeans.
“I think one of the big catalysts to it certainly from our side of the fence was also when we were accused of sniffing drugs at three-quarter time by Kevin Sheedy,” Wallace explained.
“We had a Senior Sergeant of the police force as a coach and the last thing he would have wanted out in the media is that there is some doubt about what we were doing in relation to that because Kevin Sheedy believed that we were running over sides late in games which was not the way other clubs were able to do it.”
“I would have thought that the Stoneham incident, the payback the next time we played them – which was well and truly a set-up payback, and the drug allegations were the three [catalysts].”
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Hawthorn’s road to the 1983 grand final saw it finish the home-and-away season in second spot, ahead of Essendon merely on percentage. A 40-point semi-final victory over ladder-leaders North Melbourne sealed the Hawks’ grand final berth, representing a step further than the year before.
Given Hawthorn and Essendon both recorded victories over one another during 1983, external opinion pointed towards the grand final being a 50-50 contest. Yet, Wallace recalls a strong belief and confidence that the club’s fifth premiership was there’s for the taking.
“We thought we were ready. I think we’d won nine out of our last 11 games,” he said.
“Our first half of the season was a little bit rocky, a little bit all over the place, up and down, but we were pretty ready in the back half of the season.”
“We’d been building for three years under Jeansy, but building towards a premiership for two years, and we thought we were ready and our timing was right.”
As a member of Hawthorn’s 1978 premiership win, Wallace was joined by a fellow seven players who had once before tasted the ultimate success on grand final day. On the flipside, Essendon arrived on the biggest stage for the first time in 15 years.
Played in front of 110,332 spectators, Wallace believes that his side’s experienced personnel helped settle the nerves of the rest of the playing group.
“I’ve always believed it’s huge. That ability of being there regularly, whether it’s a preliminary final [or] grand final…gives you a stability going into those games.”
“I think we had two things going for us at that time. We had a group of guys, which I don’t see myself necessarily being one of them because I was very young in the ’78 year…but we still had the likes of Matthews, Knights, and Moore available that had been very senior players in our group. They’d been there, done that, quite regularly.”
“Then we had another group of guys who went well it’s time for us to step up, including Russell Greene, John Kennedy Jr, myself, and Gary Ayres. That sort of group went well we can’t keep leaving it to the senior boys, we’ve got to now start to take control of this club a little bit ourselves as well.”
From the opening bounce, both sets of players looked to assert themselves on the contest, culminating in a ferocious attack on the ball – and man.
Hawthorn gained the ascendancy on the scoreboard, carrying a three-goal lead into quarter-time. Yet the biggest talking point arose from an altercation between Hawthorn’s Colin Robertson and Essendon midfielder Tim Watson.
Tasked with executing a shutdown role on Watson, Robertson is understood to have felled the champion midfielder off the ball, ruffling the feathers of Essendon people till this day.
Much conjecture still exists surrounding the exact details of the incident, with Wallace also none the wiser.
“Whatever happened in that situation, I still don’t know to this day about who whacked who and whether it was a backhander,” he said.
“I read on some social media site the other day that Tim Watson was king-hit before the game and I just laugh, I mean that sort of stuff is just rubbish.”
“All I can say is ‘quarter given-quarter taken’. There were a few of our blokes who walked off the ground, including myself, with a black eye by the end of the game, and mine happened within the first 15 minutes.”
“That’s what happens, it’s a grand final, it’s big stakes.”
As a hard-nosed inside midfielder, Wallace was no stranger to physical contact during his 254-game playing career. The 1983 grand final proved no exception, with a head-high hit leaving him ‘foggy’ for much of the first quarter.
Reflecting on the incident, Wallace recalls the ill-founded doubts which emerged regarding the legitimacy of his injury.
“The funny thing I always laugh about with that is that I think it might’ve been Lou Richards at the time who sort of said I gave it to a better kick, and everyone sort of said you faked the incident so that Leigh Matthews could have the shot for goal.”
“Anyone who wants to have a look at it, go back and have a look because the next time I got the ball I actually missed my foot!”
Beyond the crash and bash, Hawthorn ensured its football shone brightest, running away with a comprehensive 83-point win to cap off a dominant display.
The result also meant the Hawks staked claim to the biggest winning margin recorded in VFL grand final history – only to be broken by Hawthorn again in 1988.
Leigh Matthews led from the front, booting six goals as Hawthorn’s inspirational leader. Meanwhile, Colin Robertson walked away with a Norm Smith Medal draped around his neck, earning recognition for his run-with role on Tim Watson.
However, 1983 was just the first chapter of three consecutive grand finals contested between Hawthorn and Essendon, with the Bombers flipping the script in ’84 and ’85 to secure long-awaited silverware.
Nevertheless, a star-studded Hawthorn line-up continued to dominate the VFL landscape thereafter, accomplishing the extraordinary feat of competing in seven consecutive grand finals between 1983 and 1989.
Despite the likes of Jason Dunstall, Dermott Brereton and John Platten emerging through the ranks, Wallace admits he never fully conceived the magnitude of success which would follow Hawthorn post ’85.
“You look at it now and go well it was only going to get better,” he said.
“We had champions and superstars of the game coming into their prime, but at the time you don’t think of those sort of things, especially when you’ve just been beaten by 70-odd points in ’85.”
Winning the ultimate prize again in 1986 meant Wallace finished his time in the brown and gold as a three-time premiership player. For Wallace, each premiership is treasured equally.
“They’re all special moments. I don’t see any difference in them,” he said.
“To me it’s like when you sit there and say, ‘which of your children is the best?’, well you don’t!”
“Each one is special in their own way. The first one was my first season and to be a teenager and to be lucky enough to play in a grand final in your first season is enormous.”
“1983 was probably my best year of footy and to be able to win a best and fairest in a premiership year was enormous.”
Fast-forward to 2023 and Hawthorn and Essendon find themselves in a vastly different predicament; two proud Victorian clubs intent on climbing back up the ladder and returning to contention.
When the two sides meet at the MCG on Sunday afternoon in Round 1, a host of young faces will be eager to make their mark. It will also signify Brad Scott’s first game in charge of Essendon, following Ben Rutten’s controversial exit last year.
Pre-season scuffles have led some to believe that the unsociable Hawks will be making a return under Sam Mitchell.
All signs point towards a fascinating edition of this storied rivalry. Who will draw first blood?
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