40 years since EWK’s unlikely flag

On the eve of the Riverina Football League’s 2022 Grand Final, Rod Gillett takes a look at one of the league’s most memorable premierships.

Forty years ago the decisions of the Victorian Country Football League’s Investigation Committee completely discombobulated the local competitions but ultimately paved the way for the VCFL to cede control of the game in the region back to the NSW AFL.

However, it took 10 years, and now, of course, it just seems the natural order of things.

For the 1982 season there were two “new” competitions, the Riverina Football League (RFL) and the Riverina District Football League (RDFL) each with 12 clubs. The former is still going albeit now with nine clubs, while the latter lasted only two years before being renamed the Farrer Football League, now consisting eight clubs.

The RFL was made up of all the South West clubs plus Wagga Tigers, East Wagga-Kooringal, and North Wagga (from the Farrer league), and Barellan from the disbanded Central Riverina League (CRL). The RDFL consisted of ex Farrer clubs, Mangoplah CUE, Collingullie-Ashmont, Temora, and The Rock-Yerong Creek, and eight former CRL clubs.

The inaugural RFL premiership was won by East Wagga-Kooringal which beat Coolamon in the grand final by just five points, 12.8.80 to 10.15.75 at the Narrandera Sportsground. The Hawks were led by former Geelong player Neville “Nifty” Lyons and the Hoppers by local star Garry “Wazza” Buchanan.

East Wagga enjoyed a rapid rise after coming out of the Central Riverina league with flags in 1972 and 1976. The club added Kooringal to its moniker in 1977 when it entered the Farrer league to take advantage of the relationship with its junior club and won the flag in 1979. In 1982 the Hawks completed a “rags-to-riches” story by winning the RFL pennant.

EWK hits the big league

Neville Lyons (above) told me in an interview over the phone from his work at a white-good store in Geelong that when he signed with EWK after a stint as assistant coach at North Albury at the end of the 1981 season they were in the Farrer league.

“The next thing I know is that we’re in the big league!” said Lyons. “They had finished fifth but when Mangoplah (runner up to Wagga Tigers in 1981) knocked back a spot in the RFL because they didn’t want to play Sunday games, EWK decided to accept the challenge.”                  

Lyons led the Hawks into third place after the home and away season after not losing a game at their home ground, Gumly Oval. The Gumly club was formed in 1946 and initially played in the Wagga league but changed its name to East Wagga when it joined the Central Riverina league in 1959.

A premiership against the odds

EWK started off the finals series with a 39-point win over Coolamon in the qualifying final. A late goal to Lyons, against his old club and minor premiers, Ariah Park-Mirrool, helped them to a two-point second semi-final win at the Ganmain Sportsground. Coolamon put the Brown Bombers out the following week to take on EWK in the inaugural RFL decider.

“Except for veteran full-back Steve Smith, back pocket Graham Lovell and robust forward Lindsay Geppert they were all under 23, players such as ruckman Richie Robinson, rover George Galvin, centreman Barry Suckling and defender Mark Hull, back from the Sydney Swans,” Lyons, then aged 23, told me.

“Nifty” rejoices in the 1982 premiership triumph, “I would defy anyone to say if there is any better grand final win in the whole Riverina, any year, because we weren’t even supposed to be in it.”

Lyons’ counterpart at Coolamon, Garry Buchanan, now based in Canberra after a career in AFL administration after he finished playing told me by phone: “While it was disappointing to lose narrowly, East Wagga were too good on the day. But the addition of the Wagga clubs revitalised the competition, it was a complete refresh. The game went to a higher level”.