There’s always some conjecture concerning the relative quality of the state leagues and players that changed leagues in the 70s and 80s when the VFL/SANFL/WAFL competitions enjoyed something of a monopoly in their respective states.
What I’d like to do in this piece is look at some of the events surrounding the changes which affected state competitions in the 70s.
The 70s are a key period in the development of professional Australian Football in this country. They are the last decade before the VFL sent South Melbourne to Sydney. They were the first decade to truly open the gates to interstate recruitment on a large scale.
As the door opened to the 70s, the VFL constituted twelve clubs, the SANFL had ten clubs, and the WAFL had eight. The VFL opened VFL Park in 1970, the SANFL followed suit with Football Park in 1974.
The Western Australia Government had been developing Subiaco Oval since the early 20th century, but development really took off in 1969. The VFL had an attendance average of just over 21,000, the SANFL and WAFL just over 10,000 each.
It was the era when state league champions would play off for the champion of Australia title. Until the Championship ended in 1976, the 70s saw Victorian sides play every year against either WA and SA sides in the final of the championship.
Oddly enough, most championship finals would be played in Adelaide – including matches between Victorian and Western Australian sides in 1973, and two Victorian sides in 1976.
Despite lacking the home ground advantage, South Australian sides only triumphed once over the Victorians, when North Adelaide defeated Carlton by a point.
After 1973, the matches weren’t even close, with Richmond (1974) and North Melbourne (1975) both triumphing by 13 goals.
A Western Australian team made it to the final once, in 1973 where it lost to Richmond. In 1977, the Championship was supplanted by State of Origin.
It was the era of genuine champions. North Melbourne’s Keith Greig won dual Brownlow Medals in the VFL.
In the SANFL Barrie Robran and Russell Ebert collect two Magarey Medals each (Ebert would pick up a third in 1980, while Robran won his first in 1968).
Phil Kelly would close the decade with dual Sandover Medals in the WAFL.
Malcom Blight was the only man to win the Best and Fairest in two separate leagues winning the Magarey Medal in 1972, and the Brownlow Medal in 1978. He was probably the last to do so before state leagues became arguably national league feeder competitions in the 1980s.
It was the era of great goalkickers. Peter Hudson (Hawthorn), Peter McKenna (Collingwood) and near the end of the era, Kevin Templeton (Footscray) dominated the VFL’s Coleman Medal.
Hudson was the first player in the VFL to kick 100 goals in a season five times. He is still the equal highest goal kicker for any season of the VFL with 150 goals.
In South Australia, the Ken Farmer Medal wasn’t awarded until 1981, but Fred Phillis (Glenelg) was the dominant forward of his era, topping the goal kicking four times from 1970 to 1979, as well as in 1969.
Phillis kicked a then record 137 goals in 1969. He remains the SANFL’s third highest goal kicker of all time.
In Western Australia, the Bernie Naylor Medal did not yet exist, but the WAFL was dominated by the likes of Austin Robinson (Subiaco), and Ray Bauskis (East Fremantle). In 1968, Robinson kicked 162 goals for the season.
It was the era of players beginning to realise their worth. This started with two Collingwood players (Len Thompson and Des Tuddenham), and several Essendon players walking out over pay conditions in the 1970 preseason.
It then fully awakened when World Series Cricket came onto the scene.
The going rate for a VFL player at the time was about $600 per annum. Thompson and Tuddenham wanted between $6,000 and $8,000 per annum – quite a leap.
By the end of the 70s, VFL player wages had move from 15% of the average adult wage, to 75 percent.
By 1983, it would be 113 percent.
It was an era where several big name SANFL and WAFL players were unable to resist the riches on offer in Victoria.
In Western Australia, it was almost an epidemic with almost every Sandover Medallist heading East.
Ian Miller (Perth) won the Sandover Medal in 1972 and then debuted for Fitzroy in 1974. Barry Cable (Perth) won three Sandover Medals, the last in 1973, before heading over to North Melbourne for 115 games before returning to East Perth in 1978.
Graham Melrose (East Fremantle) won the Sandover Medal in 1974, and was off to play 111 games for North Melbourne. Peter Spencer (East Perth) won in 1975, but didn’t leave for North Melbourne until 1982.
Brian Peake took a similar approach, winning the Sandover in 1976, transferring to Geelong in 1981. Phil Kelly won it back to back in 1978 and 1979, and ended up at North Melbourne in 1981.
The SANFL had better luck with its champions. Barry Robran (North Adelaide), won the Magarey Medal three times, but never made the move.
Russell Ebert (Port Adelaide) who won it four times – the only player to do so – went to North Melbourne for the 1979 season and returned to South Australia at the end of it.
It wasn’t all one way traffic. Several Victorians evidently came back across, including All Australian Gary Hardeman (Melbourne), who spent two years at Sturt.
It wasnt until the 1980s that the SANFL would feel the heat.
Which league was better though?
The 1977 season is instructive for two incidents. In June, the WAFL played a VFL side which contained several players of Western Australian origins.
The VFL were triumphant in that match defeating the WAFL by 63 points. In October the same year, Victoria played Western Australia under the original State of Origin rules, Western Australia flogged the hapless Victorians by 94 points.
It can be argued from this, that at the very least in 1977, while the WAFL was as good if not better as a state team, the state league suffered from all the departures.
In 1979, Victoria defeated South Australia under Origin rules by 52 points at Football Park. At the first Origin Carnival, Western Australia defeated Victoria in the final, while South Australia played off for third place.