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Strong Hands, Big Hart

“I still remember in 1967 when we won the Premiership and our Captain Fred Smith went to collect his pay on the final pay night after the season and was given a cheque for $795. He said to our President Ray Dunhill ‘you have the decimal in the wrong place’ but of course he didn’t….they were just different times.”

Earlier this year as debate raged about whether Dustin Martin would re-sign with the Tigers, had the opportunity to speak to a former No.4 for the Tigers about what life as a footballer was like during the 60s down at Punt Road.

Both Hart and Martin played their careers at the same weight and height, but as you will see from this story their careers and lives are as vastly different as their positions on the field.

Hart had been the premier young player in Tasmania, when he was approached by Harry Jenkins, the Tasmanian based recruiting scout for Richmond, who was acting on the recommendation of Graeme Richmond.

Jenkins had flown down to watch Hart in action and although he didn’t see him play, he indicated the club was prepared to sign him.

It was a big move for Hart, and his mother raised concerns with Jenkins that if Royce were to move he would need suitable clothing to wear to work. Richmond countered by offering the youngster a suit and six shirts, and then posted papers to the Hart household, which were readily signed.

At a time when untried players were asking VFL clubs for large signing on fees, Richmond knew it had a bargain.

Hart moved to Melbourne, arriving with 20 pounds in his pocket, and became one of the greatest centre-half forwards to have ever played the game as recognised by his Induction as a Legend of the Game in 2013.

His playing weight and height was the same as Dustin Martin (187cm / 86kg) although having been a record-holding junior high jumper Hart had an incredible ability to float across the front of packs and was a sensational mark.

His belief on why this skill has disappeared is an intriguing one, claiming the changing nature of school yards has actually impacted on young players ability to gain the skill of the pack mark at a young age.

“When we were at school there was only one or two footballs between all the kids so it would be kicked from end to end and if you couldn’t take a contested mark,  you wouldn’t get a kick,” said Hart.

“When we were at school there was only one or two footballs between all the kids so it would be kicked from end to end and if you couldn’t take a contested mark,  you wouldn’t get a kick,” said Hart.

“Back then the smaller kids would team up with a tall kid to crumb off them in case they dropped it and they would work off each other.

“These days every child has a football and kicks with their friends so this skill is not really required.”

Hart also claims the contested mark has lost its prominence as the speed and diversity of ball movement means often the ball is kicked to a player on his own.

“In the modern game a player under six foot could have the most number of marks in a year, and it is unfortunate that the skill of contested marking is going out of the game because it doesn’t get practised as much.”

Hart’s career was filled with success, playing in five grand finals and four premierships over his ten years. However there were certainly moments where it could have taken a very different path, with Hart revealing to the Herald Sun how close he came to being sent to Vietnam in 1969, with only the last-minute intervention of a high-ranking federal politician stopping him from going to war.

Having turned 21, Hart had been drafted into the army and been posted in South Australia where he trained with SANFL club Glenelg, but continued to fly into Melbourne each weekend to play for Richmond.

During this time one of his commanding officers in Sydney informed him that he had been chosen to go to Vietnam, saying there was nothing he could do to change it.

Hart immediately called Richmond secretary Alan Schwab and the club made a call to the politician – whom Hart still refuses to name 43 years on – who was able to overturn the posting.

“I was very close to going.” Hart said. “On the last day at North Head Artillery Base they made an announcement of where you were going to be posted next. I was told I was being posted to Townsville to do about eight weeks (of training) and then onto Vietnam.

“The commanding officer said: ‘You will be in Vietnam in a couple of months and you can’t get out of it.’ I rang up Richmond about 11 o’clock. By five to three (o’clock), they had had made enough contacts to change it. I can’t tell you who it was that the club contacted, but I can tell you it was a very high-up politician.

“He put his nose in and said ‘(Hart) is not going to Vietnam; he’s going to Woodside (in South Australia) instead’.

Hart continued to fly to Melbourne each week after transferring to South Australia.

In the lead-up to the 1969 Grand Final against Carlton, Hart was told he was being sent on a bivouac into the bush.

“I rang Richmond and told them I wasn’t going to be able to play in the Grand Final,” Hart said. “They told me to pay someone else to take my place.

“On the Thursday, a group of young recruits came in. I looked at this snotty-nosed little kid and asked him if he would be prepared to stand in my place if I gave him $100.

“The muster (on Friday) was so early in the morning that it was still dark. They would call out ‘Gunner Hart?’ and he had to say ‘Sir’ and that’s what he did.

“I got on the plane, flew back to Melbourne and ended up playing in the Grand Final, which we won.”

The tale gets even more bizarre when the following week Hart returned to South Australia to play in the SANFL Grand Final for Glenelg. As a member of the National Service, Hart was able to play in the state he was stationed and / or his home state, and while he was knocked out early in the game against Sturt, he would go on to be one of the best afield and reportedly collect $2000 for the game.

On his return to South Australia, Hart had been threatened with being sent to the army prison on Holsworthy, in NSW, but as is his manner he handled the situation in his own unique way.

“I made another phone call and got transferred back to Melbourne later that afternoon,” he said.

It’s a vastly different picture to that the current number 4, Dustin Martin, finds himself in. The prospect of changing clubs was non-existent according to Hart who laughed ‘the only way you changed clubs was if you got the sack.”

When Hart played, all players held down full time jobs and sponsorship was very new. He recalls Adidas were the only company to offer sponsorship and only two or three in each club would be on contract. When Royce first began he had to buy his own boots.

He is also cynical about the modern obsession with statistics, as his era was a time where rarely was there film of the game and on the occasion it was telecast the team would go down to Channel 7 on a Monday or Tuesday and watch it together. He still remembers Tommy Hafey refusing to let them view the stats because he believed they were irrelevant – and Hart appears to share this sentiment to a certain degree.

Having become a Legend of the Game, Hart now lives a quiet life in Tasmania where he rarely ventures over to Melbourne, however keeps a close eye on his beloved Tigers in the hope they can again bring the premiership cup home to Tigerland.