The Essendon Football Club hasn’t travelled to Tasmania to play for premiership points since Round 17, 1992.
They’ll do so on Sunday to play Hawthorn in a game that was relocated from the MCG due to Melbourne’s COVID restrictions. This gives Tasmanian football fans the chance to enjoy AFL games three weeks in a row.
Essendon holds a perfect record on the Apple Isle, winning its only game there against Fitzroy by just three points in a thrilling affair at North Hobart Oval.
It was a very different era for the AFL, just entering life as a full-fledged national competition as the Brisbane Bears and West Coast Eagles came into existence.
Footy in Tasmania was flying, however. The Tasmanian representative side had just defeated the Vics a few years earlier, and Fitzroy had played three games in the state in 1991.
The Inner Sanctum spoke to Essendon’s Brad Plain and Fitzroy’s Brett Stephens about the game, as well as their experiences playing state footy in Tasmania.
A trip with ‘Moose’ down memory Plain
Plain played 56 V/AFL games with Essendon, Collingwood and North Melbourne, 46 of those with the Dons between 1988 and 1993.
He played with premiership players, All-Australians, Brownlow Medallists and Norm Smith Medallists, and is often asked who he believes is the best of the lot.
Former star Essendon and Hawthorn forward/ruck Paul Salmon kicked three goals on the day, and Plain would share the forward line with the big ‘Fish’ for most of his career.
But there’s a few names that trump the rest.
“Paul was a great player, Terry Daniher as well,” Plain told The Inner Sanctum.
“Towards the end of his career, Timmy Watson probably pushed forward as well. Probably the smaller brigade as well, Darren Bewick’s a guy that was very, very underrated.
“I probably rate him as one of the best kicks, both on the run and in set shots that I’ve seen and played with. Even for a period before he retired, Simon Madden, he was a marvellous player.
“He could be best on ground as a ruck and then they could push him forward and he’d kick seven from the pocket… Simon [is] probably the greatest tap ruckman of all time.
“The way that he could go forward and influence the game, I’ve probably only appreciated that as I’ve gotten older, how good he was.”
Plain spent plenty of time in Tasmania, playing for North Hobart and Clarence in the then-named Tasmanian Football League (TFL).
He spent many days at North Hobart Oval playing in the league, forming strong memories there as a young player.
“Yeah, it’s a beautiful ground [North Hobart Oval],” Plain said.
“[I was a premiership player] as a young kid [with North Hobart]… I would have been 17.
“Out of that side, there was probably half the side that went on to play league footy. That was 1987. Myself, Simon Minton-Connell, Darren Davies, Patrick Bailey who had been at Hawthorn.
“Another one you mightn’t have known was that David Noble played in that game.
“Out of the Glenorchy side which we played, there might have been four or five out there which went on to play as well.”
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Brett ‘Moose’ Stephens, originally a Victorian boy from the not-even 1000 people strong Lake Eildon, was playing in Tassie before he made his way to a Fitzroy club that was on its knees.
Stephens would play 133 games with the Lions before retiring at the end of the 1993 season.
He’s recently revisited North Hobart as a part of the ‘Relive the Rivalry’ foundation, which brings former Victorian and Tasmanian players together to relive the glory days and raise money for Beyond Blue.
Stephens took to Tasmania like a second home.
“I loved North Hobart… it’s just got a great atmosphere to it, the old school grandstand, the fact that you’re looking up at Mount Wellington,” he told The Inner Sanctum.
“I had so many great moments there, I played in a flag for Glenorchy there, played with North Hobart for a year and had a great year there. Played in the Tassie team that beat Vic there and played in a handful of games for Fitzroy.
“I loved that ground, it was one of my favourite grounds to play on… it’s just got such a great atmosphere, it really does.”
His path to Tasmania came after originally being rejected by the Bombers, qualifying for their recruiting zone and joining the under 19s team.
“I started off at Essendon for three years, under 19s reserves,” Stephens explained.
“I got cut from there and basically, I had some different offers. I went to South Australia for a weekend, I went to Western Australia for a weekend then I went to Tassie for a weekend and checked out the facilities. I just loved the atmosphere of Tassie.
“It was funny, in Western Australia they picked me up in a Mercedes and wined and dined me, and the same in Adelaide.
“When I went to Hobart, they picked me up in an old VW bug and we just went to the pub and had a few beers after the match. That suited me more than the other stuff! I love Hobart, I love Tasmania, it’s fantastic.”
As for the game itself against the Bombers, Stephens doesn’t remember much from nearly 30 years ago.
The memories that do stick with him are almost as strange as the ones he forgets, as he recalls.
“It’s amazing what you forget from when you’re playing,” Stephens laughed.
“The only thing I remember from that game is a goal I missed. I thought, ‘did I kick a bag [in that game]?’
“I can remember missing one, I was on my own on a half-forward flank with no one around me and I had plenty of time to kick the goal, and I hit the post. That’s all I can remember.
“The other thing I can remember from that game, a guy who played for us, Joey Cormack, I think he had a shot for goal about 20 out in the last minute and missed. You forget so much, you really do.”
Even though he might not remember it, Stephens had himself a handy game on that day, notching up 20 disposals and kicking three goals on the way to earning himself one Brownlow vote.
Fitzroy midfielder Matthew Dundas would pick up the three votes, while Essendon ruck Peter Somerville earned two.
Fitzroy’s Tasmanian heritage
Serendipitously for Fitzroy, the trips to Tasmania were almost a homecoming voyage for most of its cohort.
While the Lions had to sell home games to Tassie to get by with ever-mounting debts, the playing group didn’t mind. The side that travelled to take on Essendon in 1992 was chock full of local Tasmanian talent, as Stephens recalls.
The trip in ’92 he recounts particularly fondly, between laughs.
“We had Shawry [coach Robert Shaw], he was from Tassie.,” he said.
“We had Alastair Lynch, Michael Gale, Matty Armstrong, Scotty Clayton. I would think they probably got behind us because we had [so many Tasmanians].
“I think we really enjoyed coming to Tasmania. I remember one year in particular, I was actually working for the club in development, because we were struggling financially we were actually billeted out to families in Tasmania, in Hobart for one of the matches.
“I was organising it, and I thought there’s no way I’m going to stay with someone before a match. I spoke to Paul Roos, and I organised a hotel for him and I! We still paid for it, we paid for it out of our own pockets.”
Plain believes it was the best time to begin holding games in Tasmania, with football in the state blossoming.
Talent was running around across the whole AFL competition, and not just Fitzroy. So much so, that as mentioned previously, they could put together a strong enough side to down the mighty Vics.
“It was a very, very good era,” Plain said.
“We were stacked full of very good, competitive Tasmanians that were in AFL at the time.
“In my era, there was probably a very strong of 30-35 players that were playing in the AFL. You would have come back with a very competitive team at the time.
“There was guys like Alastair Lynch, Paul Williams, Graham Wright, Darrin Pritchard and Paul Hudson, I could keep naming them. We had a very, very good talent pool.”
With Sunday’s game between Hawthorn and Essendon sold out to spectators, discussions around the future of football in Tasmania will once again be at the forefront of the minds of footy fans.
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