I was raised in the northern midlands of Tasmania, a sparsely populated area renowned for growing sheep, cattle, poppies and potatoes.
But the most prolific product from this bucolic district of Tassie has to be sporting heroes.
With fewer than 15,000 people, less than a quarter of Launceston’s population, the rural district really has punched above its weight in sports stars excelling on the national stage.
Northern Midlands is the area in the mid-north between my home town of Longford and the historic village of Ross, including the communities of Perth, Evandale, Campbell Town and rural hamlets.
I heard throughout my childhood about the epic feats of old-timers from our area who’d done remarkable things. So I ‘ve decided to draw up a list of local achievers, and it’s a fairly impressive line-up. Therefore, I’ve profiled around 30 sports heroes who have either lived or competed in Tassie’s Northern Midlands.
My series on Our Sporting Heroes is being published this winter in the Northern Midlands Courier, a fortnightly newspaper which is the heartbeat of the district. It is edited by a great contributor to the community, Alison Andrews.
To be honest, I don’t have a good record at ‘best of’ lists for local sports.
Twenty years ago, when AFL clubs were announcing their teams of the 20th century with much fanfare, the then editor of the Longford newspaper rang me with a cheeky idea to hitch a ride on the ‘team of the century bandwagon’ by selecting Longford football club’s best-ever team.
Longford’s team of the 20th century was published in the paper but – unfortunately – I made a lamentable mistake in the team selection. I forgot one of the club’s finest ever players, Charlie Dennis, a three-time winner of the association best and fairest award. The omission spurred a mixture of ridicule and mirth – I copped a shellacking and I vowed that never again would I compose a list of ‘bests’. To this day, I haven’t broken that vow.
But bugger it, I’m thinking this is the year for doing something stupid, for living dangerously. It’s a ridiculous year anyway. Nothing can make 2020 any crazier than it already is.
Besides, this winter we might all need to escape into the past, to reminiscence about epic sporting achievements and lose ourselves in a bit of nostalgia.
I’m sure that my choices will be disputed, and I’ve probably left out several people who deserve to be acknowledged. I’m working mainly from hearsay.
The people I’ve selected include Olympians, football stars, cyclists, cricketers, horse trainers, jockeys, athletes, racing car drivers and basketball players, along with four racehorses. The earliest of the footballers is George Challis, a boy from the tiny hamlet of Cleveland, who was awarded a scholarship to Launceston Church Grammar School and represented Tasmania in the 1911 national football carnival. Challis was a star in Carlton’s 1915 premiership team but, tragically, he lost his life in the trenches of France during the first world war. Challis was only 25 years-old when he died.
Below is a list of about 30 good sports – past and present – who’ve come from the Northern Midlands area of Tassie. For a population of less than 15,000, I think it’s quite a roll call.
Northern Midlands Greatest Sporting Hero will be announced in the Northern Midlands Courier newspaper and on this website in July. Who do you think deserves to be Our Greatest Sporting Hero?
OUR GREATEST SPORTING HERO
Sports heroes of Tasmania’s northern midlands – in alphabetical order
BAILEY, George, cricketer
George learnt his craft with bat and ball at Longford school before he went on to captain Australia in T20 cricket. Among his many achievements, George played all five Tests in Australia’s Ashes campaign of 2013-14. Highly respected throughout the cricket world, he is now a national selector.
BAKER, Georgia, cyclist
The Perth cyclist chased her dreams from early childhood, training day after day on local roads and against the clock on the Longford cycle track. Last year in Russia she was a member of Australia’s world champion teams’ pursuit team. A heart-breaking fall ruined her Olympic hopes in Rio de Janeiro four years ago, but she’s determined to make amends in Tokyo next year.
BAKER, Max, jockey
Max was a talented footballer – when he captained the Longford school team, Barry Lawrence was vice-captain. Instead of pursuing footy, Max became a jockey and developed into Tasmania’s greatest-ever. In his 25-year career he rode 1124 winners, including a third placing on Captain Peri in the 1974 Melbourne Cup. The humble champion was honoured as the first person inducted into the Racing Tasmania hall of fame.
BEAUTIDE, harness racer
The Rattrays of Longford are a proud sporting dynasty. Wayne became Tasmania’s leading harness racing trainer six times, and son Barrie trained the family’s horse Beautide to win the renowned ‘Miracle Mile’ in 2014 and the Interdominion pacing championships in both 2014 and 2015. The Miracle Mile and the Interdominion are the biggest events on the harness racing calendar.
BLACKER, George & John, horse trainers
Longford’s Hall of Fame horse trainer George Blacker is one of Tasmania’s most prolific feature race winners, claiming two Hobart Cups and four Launceston Cups. Longford jockey Stephen Maskiell rode three of George’s Launceston Cup winners. George’s son John has been Tasmania’s premier trainer three times and on New Year’s Day 2020 he was the local hero yet again, winning his third Longford Cup winner.
BOWLES, Peter & Paul, athletes
The Bowles brothers were rewarded for years of dedication and hard work when they won the two biggest footraces in Tasmania – Peter beat NSW champ Reg Austin in the Burnie Gift of 1969 and Paul, who lives at Cressy, was a courageous winner of the 400m Devonport Gift. They were trained at Longford by their astute father Ross, who also coached Bishopsbourne’s diminutive Keith Badcock to victory in the 1970 Burnie Gift.
Brallos was a fabulous racehorse who captivated the public’s imagination and is a legend of the Tasmanian racing hall of fame. The ‘Cups king’ of the 1970s was owned by magnate Tom Luxton at Epping Forest. Brallos won both the Hobart and Launceston Cups in 1976 and again in 1977.
BROOKS, Trevor, cyclist
There’s no more storied bike race in Australia than the time-honoured Melbourne to Warrnambool. Back in 1937 Bishopsbourne farmer ‘Pomp’ Brooks travelled by boat to Melbourne to try his luck against the nation’s best endurance riders, including the famous ‘Oppy’. ‘Pomp’ battled against brutal head winds in blizzard-like conditions to claim an epic victory.
CASHION, Terry, footballer
Terry played for Longford from 1948 until ’51 and is the most decorated player in the club’s history. In Brisbane in 1950 he became the only Tasmanian ever to win the Tassie Medal for the best player at an Australian football carnival, outscoring Richmond’s ‘Mopsy’ Fraser and Essendon’s dual Brownlow medallist Bill Hutchison. Terry was chosen as rover for Tasmania’s official team of the 20th century.
CHALLIS, George, footballer
Born at Cleveland, George crammed a lot into a life that was cruelly cut short by the first world war. He won a medal for Tasmania’s best player at the 1911 national football carnival in Adelaide and was lured to Carlton, where he was a feted member of the Blues’ 1915 premiership team. He was known as ‘Cheerful Challis’ and ‘Genial George’. He developed a wide range of interests and became an enthusiast of the Esperanto society. Tragically, George was killed in action in the lead-up to the battle of Fromelles on the Western Front in 2016. He was just 25. His memorial headstone is in the Cleveland cemetery.
CLARKE, Will, cyclist
Will grew up in a prominent Campbell Town farming family, but he resisted the lure of the land to tackle one of the world’s most gruelling sports – road cycling. His first big victory was in the prestigious Goulburn to Sydney classic. ‘Wilbur’ has stamped himself as a popular and enduring competitor. In Europe has represented several world tour teams and was rewarded for his determination by being a finisher in last year’s Giro d’Italia.
COOK, Gene, racing driver
Longford’s hometown hero of the 1960s. ‘Cookie’, the local mechanic, was a larrikin who loved to push the boundaries. During the long weekend at Longford he always put on a show, clipping the trees as he rounded pub corner, always giving the natives a thrill. He was inducted into the Tasmanian motorsport hall of fame and into the Speedway Australia hall of fame.
CRICK, Greg, racing driver
Greg was one of many locals inspired by Gene Cook and the March long weekend at Longford. From his classroom in Perth primary school he could hear the open wheelers at Friday afternoon practice, so he took off on his bike to be part of the excitement. Greg became a mechanic so he could race cars and he remained in the sport for forty-plus years, recording three top 10 finishes in the Bathurst 1000, and winning two Australian championships, in sports sedan and GT class. He was inducted into the Tasmanian motorsport hall of fame. Cricky and navigator Greg Preece won the inaugural Targa Tasmania in 1992 and again in 1993.
CROSSWELL, Brent, footballer
From Campbell Town via Scotch College, ‘tiger’ had a magical ride. Brent loved the big stage and he dominated the MCG in no less than nine grand finals. He and coach Ron Barassi teamed up for four flags – with Carlton in 1968 and ’70 and North Melbourne in ‘75 and ‘77. The mercurial Crosswell was the inspiration for the character Geoff Hayward in David Williamson’s The Club. Crosswell later wrote brilliant football columns for The Age newspaper, breaking new ground with his candour, insight and humour.
DAVIES, Fred, footballer
Fred Davies had the most significant impact on Longford of any person in the town’s history.
A giant in more ways than one, he led Longford to three NTFA premierships in four seasons, including the State title in 1957. Mulga Fred’ had been vice-captain of Carlton’s 1947 premiership team before he crossed Bass Strait to unite the local community. Sadly, he died of cancer in 1961, leaving a vacuum that could never be filled.
DAVIES, Ian, basketballer
After his father passed away, Ian attended Longford school up to grade five, when his mother Joan took he and sister Helen to live with Joan’s sister in Illinois USA. Ian became a college basketballer, making all-American at the same university as Olympic decathlon gold medallist Bruce Jenner (now Caitlyn Jenner). In 1990 Ian returned to Tassie to lead start-up franchise Launceston City Casino, which shocked everyone by winning the first-ever national basketball league championship. Ian was Australia’s leading shooter at the Moscow Olympics and topped the scoring for all nations in basketball at the 1984 LA Olympics. The USA team in that Olympics included Michael Jordan. Ian was inducted into the Basketball Australia Hall of Fame. Like his father, Ian died way too early, at the age of 57.
DAVIS, Craig, footballer
Tasmanian football legend Bob Withers plucked Craig out of Ross at age 16 and put him straight into Launceston’s senior team. The following year Davis crossed to Carlton, playing alongside his cousin, Brent Crosswell. Craig had played just four VFL games before he was named full-forward for the 1973 grand final. He topped the goalkicking at both Carlton and Collingwood and went on to play 163 games for a total of four clubs. His son Nick played 168 AFL games and kicked the match-winning goal in the 2005 second semi-final that enabled the Swans to break a 72-year premiership drought.
ELLIS, Paul, footballer
Paul grew up in Avoca and played 253 games in a magnificent 18 year-career with the Blues, highlighted by two premierships. In 1976 the tireless ball-getter won the NTFA’s highest individual honour, the Hec Smith medal. ‘Country’ is an official living legend of Launceston football club and is a renowned fly fisherman.
FITZALLEN, John, footballer
Legend has it that ‘Fitzie’s home was on the southern side of the Blackman river in Tunbridge, which is the north-south border for football loyalties. ‘Fitzie’ wanted to play for Longford, so to circumvent attempts by southern clubs to recruit him, he camped on the northern bank of the river. The brilliant midfielder was a star of Longford’s premiership era, representing Tasmania with distinction. He could have been a star in the VFL, if he had so desired. As one former team-mate told me, “Fitzie could dance on a threepence”.
GOSS, Matthew, cyclist
Matt loved training through the countryside of the Northern Midlands. He was a gold medallist in track teams’ pursuit at the 2006 world championships and a brilliant road sprinter, beating ‘Spartacus’ Fabian Cancelara in the 2011 Milan-San Remo classic, and in the same year finishing second to mercurial Englishman Mark Cavendish in the world road championship at Copenhagen.
GOSS, Mick, athlete
Sports enthusiast Tom Talbot recalls watching Mick build his incredible stamina by racing the clock as he ran dozens of laps around the paddocks on his Bishopsbourne farm – after he’d already done a full day’s work. Mick progressed from the dirt to winning the Burnie mile in 1935, ’40 and ’45. He set new track records at the famous Stawell (Vic.) Easter carnival and in 1941 broke the world professional two-mile record. Guru Tom ranks Goss the equal of any sportsperson ever produced in the Northern Midlands. Even into his 80s, Mick was still running around the paddocks, racing the clock.
GRIMA, Hollie, basketballer
Monty Grima was a high-leaping footballer for Launceston – and his offspring have climbed to even dizzier heights. The Evandale siblings have all been sporting stars. Hollie represented Australia in basketball, while brothers Nathan and Todd made their mark at footy. In 2006-7 Hollie was named Most Valuable Player in the national women’s basketball league. She represented Australia several times, winning silver at the 2008 Olympics and gold at the world championships in Brazil in 2006.
LAWRENCE, Barry, footballer
Barry was 15 when he first imposed his commanding presence on Tasmanian football. He gave Longford six pulsating seasons before he was lured to St Kilda. The long kicking between Lawrence and Paul Vinar at Longford was awesome, not to mention Barry’s intimidating physical presence. At various times in his career Lawrence was captain of St Kilda, Victoria and Tasmania, and he was Saints coach Alan Jeans’ favourite enforcer. Leigh Matthews rates Lawrence as his hardest opponent, the only defender who could match him for brute strength.
LEEDHAM, John, footballer
‘The great John L’ is the best Tasmanian footballer never to play in the VFL/AFL. The larger-than-life personality from Campbell Town always played with his socks down, but he represented Tasmania with distinction at three national carnivals. In 1953 he was the only Tasmanian to be named in the inaugural all-Australian team. At the 1958 Melbourne carnival, Leedham was captain-coach of the Tasmanian side which scored famous victories over South Australia and Western Australia.
PIPING LANE, racehorse
Piping Lane had an inauspicious beginning – he came into the world on a farm at Epping Forest and his mother, Londonderry Air, died of snakebite. Still, he was a good country horse and he rounded up the field to win the Longford and Hobarts Cups in 1972. Ray Trinder, a keen amateur jockey who rode at the Longford races and was still hunting in his 60s, bought Piping Lane for $6000. Ray’s longshot was a stroke of genius – at odds of forty to one and better, Piping Lane won the 1972 Melbourne Cup, becoming the only horse in history to win the coveted Longford-Melbourne Cups double.
PORTE, Richie, cyclist
Technically, Richie isn’t in Northern Midlands municipality. But hey, his hometown of Hadspen is just a short ride from the boundary and he has spent two decades training on Northern Midlands roads. He still holds the record for climbing Poatina mountain. Richie started in local sport as a swimmer and triathlete and made an early breakthrough into cycling by winning the Tour of Tassie. As a super domestique, he was instrumental in the Tour de France victories of Brad Wiggins and Chris Froome, and his adventures in Tours since have kept us awake long into the night, cheering him on. Go Richie!
ROACH, Michael, footballer
A Cluan boy, but Northern Midlands can claim Michael because he played all his Tasmanian senior football for Longford, in 1975 and 1976. After he kicked five goals in his debut at Longford, talent scouts from five Victorian clubs landed at Launceston airport on the Monday, hoping to secure the 16 year-old’s signature. They found him at work, painting the Bracknell hall. ‘Roachie’ started his VFL career on the wing, and he went from being covered in paint to covered in glory. He starred in Richmond’s 1980 premiership, winning the inaugural Coleman medal in 1981, and taking unforgettable high marks. Unassuming and humble, ‘Roachie’ is a tiger at heart, and he still helps Longford when he can. His best mate from schooldays, Westbury’s Robbie Heathcote, has become Queensland’s most successful horse trainer.
STOKES, Ray, footballer
Born into one of Longford’s best-known families, Ray Stokes was a brilliant midfielder who played 93 games for Richmond. Ray began his senior career with Burnie and crossed to Richmond with brother Jervis in the aftermath of world war two. Jack Dyer rated him the best centremen he saw. Ray returned from the VFL to coach Burnie to the 1954 NWFU premiership, and he represented Tassie in the 1953 and ’56 carnivals, as well as playing first class cricket for Tasmania.
THE CLEANER, racehorse
The Cleaner and his knockabout trainer Mick Burles took us all on a magical ride, putting Longford on the national stage and giving us one of sport’s most endearing tales. Mick bought The Cleaner for just $10,000, but he didn’t have the money to pay for the horse, so he involved four golfing mates in the ownership. In 2014 The Cleaner became the first Tasmania-trained horse to contest the Cox Plate – and he did it again in 2015. How could we ever forget the ceremony when The Cleaner departed Longford, with schoolchildren lining the streets to cheer ‘the Lion of Longford’. A story that will be told for generations to come.
YOUL, John & Simon, motor racing and tennis
It sounds unthinkable that a local farmer could race against the world’s fastest drivers, but that’s what John Youl did in open wheelers in the 1950s and ‘60s. The Symmons Plains grazier finished second to New Zealand international Bruce McLaren in the 1962 Australian grand prix. John and his family developed Symmons Plains raceway. His son Simon became an elite tennis player, reaching a career high ranking of world number 80 in singles and number 63 at doubles. He won two top-level singles titles and reached the fourth round of the Australian Open in 1990, losing to Ivan Lendl.
Northern Midlands’ Greatest Sporting Hero will be announced in the Courier newspaper in July and will be posted on this website.
Who do you think deserves to be Our Greatest Sporting Hero?