Michael Wanganeen holds a unique place in Aboriginal football history.
While many talk up the 1994 match between the AFL All-Stars and Collingwood in Darwin as the first of this series of clashes, a group of Aboriginal legends from the 1980s can lay claim to being the first Indigenous All-Stars, with Wanganeen, uncle to Brownlow Medallist Gavin, the mentor and coach.
With the modern Indigenous All-Stars set to take on the West Coast Eagles in Perth tonight, it’s the perfect time to remember that first match, which happened at Sarah Oval, Mildura, on Sunday October 1, 1983. A collection of the best Aboriginal talent of this era took a combined team from VFL club Richmond and the Sunraysia Football Association.
Wanganeen’s star-studded side included the famous Krakouer brothers, Phil and Jim, along with 1982 Norm Smith medallist Maurice Rioli and the talented Phil Egan among a number of footballers from VFL ranks. Also in the team were four members of the extended Graham family, Phil, Cecil, Colin and Michael (the latter fresh from a SANFL Grand Final appearance for Sturt the day before).
“Credit must go to Fred Warrior who instigated negotiations with Maurice Rioli and the Richmond Football Club to get this venture happening,” Wanganeen said.
“I was included as a selector because of my connection with the SANFL players and along with my results at the national Aboriginal football carnivals I was asked to coach.”
Central District wizard Wilbur Wilson made an appearance as did St Kilda hard man Robbie Muir, along with Wally Lovett who had stints with both the Tigers and Collingwood.
Other players who were playing in South Australia at the time included the oldest of the McAdam brothers, Greg, as well as the West Torrens duo of Kevin Hill and Peter Carter, and Norther Territorian Mark Motlop, who was playing for Glenelg.
This Aboriginal super team was captained by South Fremantle champion, dual Sandover medallist and WAFL legend, Stephen Michael.
“I’d deal with each player on a one-on-one basis, and then bring them together as a team,” Wanganeen explained.
“The star players were supportive of me and all undertook leadership roles within the team unit. I had my generals in each area – marshalling the troops around them.
“Maurice (Rioli) looked after the midfield, Wilbur (Wilson) the defence and Colin Graham the attack.”
Their opponents included the leading players from Richmond, which has a long-time connection to the Sunraysia district, and a collection of players from Sunraysia. All-Australian big man from 1981, Mark Lee, was Michael’s direct opponent in the ruck, while premiership key-position player Jim Jess also played, as did one of the toughest small men to don a Tigers jumper, Dale ‘Flea’ Weightman.
In a commanding display, the All-Stars side beat the combined Richmond-Sunraysia team by a mammoth 138 point margin, 37.11 (233) to 14.11 (95).
Despite this one-sided result, however, a crowd of more than 3000 didn’t walk away disappointed.
With sensational speed and vision, the All-Stars moved the ball at break-neck speed all around the ground. They displayed great skills, including bullet-like handballs which went up to 40 metres long and relentlessly kicked the ball to perfect position.
They simply dominated everywhere.
The headlines in the local press the following day read: ‘Spell-binding performance by the All-Star team’, and ‘Black magic struck Mildura on Sunday’ and ‘Football Magic: The only way to describe the performance of the Aboriginal All-Stars’.
After stamping their authority on the game with a nine-goal-to-two first term, the All-Stars blew the game apart with a huge 13-goal second quarter.
“The way this team played, you thought they had played together all year, not just come together for this one match,” Wanganeen recalled.
The ‘home’ side showed some endeavour in the second half, but they were never really in the contest.
Rex Handy, a Coomealla lad, who kicked 107 goal in the Millewa Football League during 1983, showed plenty of promise with an eight-goal haul for the All-Stars.
Richmond premiership player Jim Jess was comprehensively beaten by Central District’s Wilbur Wilson, and the class of the Krakouer brothers and Rioli stood out.
West Australian giant Stephen Michael had a great clash with the 200cm, 95kg Mark Lee, while Colin Graham snaffled five goals in the key forward post.
Trevor Hill, Greg McAdam and Wally Lovett got in on the act with four goals each.
Even Sturt champion and runner-up to the 1973 Magarey Medal, Michael Graham had an impact when he got a run in the second half, despite having played in Sturt’s losing side against West Adelaide in the SANFL grand final the previous day.
“We looked to set the standard for the future generations to aspire to,” Wanganeen explained. “There is a special bond between the group and even now it is a honour to have been a part of a special event like that.
“Whenever members of the team and management meet, the match is always a talking point.”
At the conclusion of the match, a shield donated by the Victorian premier’s office was presented to the winning captain, Stephen Michael, by Dr Ken Coghill, representing the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.
Organisers of the 1983 All-Stars said they would have liked the concept to become a regular end-of-season feature all over Australia. And plans for an Aboriginal side to challenge the next SANFL premier never eventuated.
How they lined up:
Backs: Cecil Graham, Ron Jackman, Peter Carter.
Half-Backs: Phil Graham, Wilbur Wilson, Phil Egan.
Centres: Kevin Hill, Maurice Rioli, Mark Motlop.
Half-Forwards: Robert Keeble, Colin Graham, Greg McAdam.
Forwards: Rex Handy, Robert Muir, Wally Lovett.
Ruck: Stephen Michael.
Followers: Phil Krakouer, Jim Krakouer.
Interchange: Michael Graham, Garry Berry, John Mitchell, Trevor Handy, Macca Egan, Ian Barry, Barry Kirby.
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