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Launching a rocket: Rodney Eade and Australian Rules football

For many years Rodney Eade has been an important figure in Australian Rules football - as a player
with Hawthorn, as a coach with the Sydney Swans and now the Western Bulldogs, and simply as one of
the game's most interesting thinkers. Meet him on this week's Sports Factor.

Transcript

This transcript was typed from a recording of the program. The ABC cannot guarantee its complete
accuracy because of the possibility of mishearing and occasional difficulty in identifying
speakers.

Mick O'Regan: Hello and welcome to The Sports Factor.

This week we're watching the rocket's red glare. Well, not quite, but we are talking to the man
they call 'Rocket', the coach of the Western Bulldogs AFL team, Rodney Eade.

A player with Hawthorn in that club's remarkable 10 year purple patch from the mid-seventies, Eade
has gone on to be regarded as one of the most innovative coaches in the code.

And later in the show, we'll consider the controversy surrounding the disabled South African
runner, Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee who runs on state-of-the-art carbon fibre blades.

He's keen to race against able-bodied runners, but he's not allowed to. In fact the International
Athletic Federation argues he's got an unfair advantage. So work that one out.

But first, to the footy. The Western Bulldogs, the team once known as Footscray, are well
positioned in this year's AFL competition.

Despite a couple of recent losses, they're sitting pretty in second place. Their coach is Rodney
'Rocket' Eade, and he's the subject of a new biography by Kevin Hillier called 'Rocket Science'.

The pair joined me to discuss the book, and I began by asking Rodney Eade about the pressure of
joining Hawthorn as a teenager, having been recommended by one of the club's all-time greats, Peter
Hudson, whose number 26 became Rodney's.

Rodney Eade: I think the fact that I played a different position, I was a different player, I
didn't see it as pressure, I'm a person who's able to put things in its box where it belongs and
now they don't get crossed lines, or muddied with what people might think about that, or what's the
expectation of this, and I think if I'd been a full-forward it may have been a bit of pressure, I
think I would have been compared to Peter. But I think playing on a wing and playing half-back
flank, that's a different type of player, I was a different build, so I think I was lucky that way.
And then I even felt more humbled I think when Peter made a return in '77 to Hawthorn and he didn't
get his number 26 back, he was quite happy for me to keep wearing it, so I'm certainly indebted to
Peter over my time, and still keep in contact with him; as you know, he's a fantastic person.

Mick O'Regan: But that's an extraordinary compliment isn't it, that he came back and basically took
another number?

Rodney Eade: Yes, I didn't realise at the time, because nobody spoke to me, it's interesting that
this day and age of constant over-communication and feedback and such a great club that everything
was kept really in-house and nobody spoke, and there wasn't much feedback from coaches, and the
club at that stage, I'm not worried but I'm thinking to myself Well I'll lose 26, Huddo will take
26 back and what do I do? And it didn't really worry me to a great degree, but then we had our
jumper presentation in March and that was the first time I realised I was still keeping number 26.
So most clubs nowadays would keep you in the loop and talk to you about that, but yes, I felt very
humbled but I'm certainly appreciative of Peter, and Peter never spoke about it either. He might
have had a word or two, but he didn't, so I think they'd spoken to him about the number and he said
'No, I think Rocket's going to be here for a while so let him have it.'

Mick O'Regan: Kevin Hillier, to bring you into this conversation, as a journalist and a broadcaster
looking at the development of football over the years, where do you place Rodney now? Obviously
he's come out of that great period at Hawthorne but is it more his coaching or his playing that
attracted you as a writer?

Kevin Hillier: Probably his coaching, because that's when I got to know him, I didn't really meet
Rodney until he came to the Bulldogs, even though I'd obviously followed his career, having
followed football through all the years of his career, but didn't actually meet him until he came
to the Bulldogs, so I guess it was more from that angle. But I was very much aware of what he'd
achieved as a player. I mean you don't play in four premiership sides and not be noticed by people
so as much as it was the coming of the Bulldogs and coaching the Bulldogs that got me in
association with Rodney, but no, I was fully aware of what he'd achieved as a player. I probably
wasn't as aware of what he'd achieved as a coach, in terms of with his days at the Bears, and with
the North Melbourne footy club in being assistant coaches of those two clubs, and obviously I was
aware of what he did in Sydney, but wasn't aware of what he'd done before he actually took on a
senior coaching job.

Mick O'Regan: Because Rodney, if you look at your career in terms of playing and coaching, you've
really traversed the sort of Eastern Seaboard and Tasmania. Obviously you've come out of Tasmania,
you've obviously got this huge career with Hawthorn in Melbourne, but then you've gone to the
frontier in a sense, and I know Queensland listeners will say that Australian Football has been
played for a long time and followed greatly north of the Tweed, but when the Brisbane Bears were
set up, that in a way was frontier territory and then to Sydney which is again frontier territory;
has that given you a particular take on the game do you think, to have played at the heartland but
also at the fringe?

Rodney Eade: There's no doubt about that. I think it's helped my view on football as a playing
product, but also the, I suppose, demographics and the people playing it and understanding as you
say, a frontier, understanding maybe what's required more than if I'd stayed in Melbourne. And I
was in the second year of the Bears from their inception, and spent four years there on the Gold
Coast, and met a whole variety of different people with different philosophies and different
thoughts, and that's on and off the playing field, and I think it was fantastic for me to do that,
that having been at Hawthorn for so long, in a very successful era, that you think Hawthorn's the
epicentre of football and anything we do is right, and then going to the Bears and obviously we
struggled for quite a few years, but many different players and their thoughts on football and
understanding many players with insecurities, more insecurities and struggling, know more players
who struggle a bit I suppose.

So I think that helped shape me a bit more as far as for coaching and understanding players, what
they go through, and then being in Sydney too, you talk about another frontier, I know they'd been
there for a while, it's not like Melbourne or Adelaide or Perth, that you struggle to get air time,
and lines in the paper, and just understanding what a club goes through and their thought processes
and their marketing. And I think with the setting up of the Gold Coast team and the West Sydney
side in the future that you sort of, you know you're on the outside, you have an understanding of
what the game has to go through.

Mick O'Regan: Now of course this year, your role at the Western Bulldogs has in a way contracted
back from some of the responsibilities you formerly had with, if you like, that marketing of the
football brand. But I was living in Sydney during the period in which you were coaching the Sydney
Swans, and it seemed to me that you and that team had an enormous job of branding the code in
Sydney, and of course nothing succeeds like success in the Harbour City. To take the Swans from
12th one year to their first Grand Final since 1945, what was that like in terms of your sense of
the presence of the game in Sydney?

Rodney Eade: Yes, that's a good point. I think I've understood the selling of the brand a lot more
as I've got more experience as coaching. And I think I found that easier at the Bulldogs, even
though it's a football City, but when I first started at Sydney, I just wanted to coach, and now
looking back, I don't know if 'luck' is the right phrase, but it was fortunate they were having
some success so that it was able to sell the brand. But I think you're right, in selling the code,
and I think everybody in Sydney thinks AFL is Sydney, Sydney Swans, they don't know anything about
James Hird or Nathan Buckley, they just knew about Sydney and that was their team. And I think the
success of '96 really elevated the Swans and AFL footy into the psyche of Sydney people. So they
tended then to have a sense of ownership about the club and the team.

Mick O'Regan: One of the things I remember, just on that, was people who then started to follow the
Sydney Swans as they were successful, it was almost a sort of grudging admission they had to make
that they hadn't been there for the lean years. Because you would go to the games when suddenly the
stadium was full, but people would tell you a story about following the Swans when the ground was
so empty, people had barbecues down by the fence, because there was no-one standing around them.

The way in which the conversation in Melbourne, I remember reading some stuff Rodney about
assistant coaches who'd worked with you, enhancing their careers by moving on in the same way that
you were encouraged I think to go to North at one stage, to work with Dennis Pagan because someone,
I think Kevin wrote in the book, you can learn a lot more about the AFL craft if you go to the
heartland, if you're in Melbourne. Has that changed, or do young coaches do you think, still need
to coach a Melbourne or a South Australian or even a Western Australian team to really immerse
themselves in the historical culture of the code?

Rodney Eade: That's a good question. Yes and No. I think you'll learn at being assistant coach of
any club, you'll learn about the mechanics I think. But I think being involved with a Melbourne
club puts you more in the frame to be noticed, if that's the right phrase. Clubs and media are more
aware of you as an assistant coach than if you go to Brisbane or Sydney or even sometimes Perth,
the media can forget about you and say 'Who's the assistant coach at that club?' and they don't
really know. Where in Melbourne you tend to be in the media a bit more, so I think it's not a real
negative going to any of those clubs, but it can be a real positive by being involved with a
Melbourne team.

Mick O'Regan: Do you think coaches will move more? Do you think the days of the Kevin Sheedies and
even much further back to Bobby Rose or Jock McHale or the coaches who spend 20 years at a club,
that that simply won't ever happen again?

Rodney Eade: I don't think you ever say never, but it's more, yes I think you're right, I think
it's going to be more difficult to have someone spend 20 years at a particular club and it needs a
particular type of individual and success needs to be obviously paramount for that to occur, but I
think the way a club operates is different, I think even though it's been a very strong game
mediawise for a long time, that's increased enormously, more corporate backing, that there's more
pressure on for results than ever before. And I think no matter who you are, there's always going
to be enormous pressure to keep a coach if there's more than two years of perceived lack of
success. So I think for all those factors, it's going to be more difficult for a coach to survive
20 years.

Mick O'Regan: Kevin, as we record this interview, it's in the immediate aftermath of the issue
that's at the core of Rugby League nationally, which is a player leaving to play a different rugby
code in Europe, Sonny Bill Williams of course. Now the prospect of that, that seems to be causing
some sort of seismic shock through all the codes, with the possible exception of soccer, is it
maybe the whole idea of salary caps and limits on players' capacity to earn money in an open
market, is suddenly at the core of professional sport; what do you think the possible impact of
that issue is on the AFL?

Kevin Hillier: It's not going to affect the AFL as much because there's nowhere for these blokes to
go. I mean there is no Super League for them to go to, there's no French Rugby Union competition
they can go to, or go over and play in England. The best money that any AFL player is going to make
in his life is here. The only area that has even touched our game at the moment is with NFL
punting. We've seen a couple of blokes go over and have a crack at that, and we'll probably see
more go over in the future. But they won't go over until their careers are ended, because the good
thing about being an NFL punter is you can be Sav Rocca, and at the age of - what would Sav be now,
Rocket? He'd have to be 37, 38?

Rodney Eade: Yes, he'd be at least 36, yes.

Kevin Hillier: He's gone over there and started a new career as a punter after he's had a very
successful career as a footballer here in the AFL. I don't think it'll have much effect on the AFL
at all, to be perfectly honest.

Mick O'Regan: Rodney, just to start winding up our conversation, the strategies that you see as
really successful within the current AFL style of play, there's been a criticism of flooding, of
over-defensive strategies, the fact that the long towering kick to a tall forward seems to be less
a central part of the game now; is that the change? Because when I look at your career and I see
players like Matthews and Platten and some of these extraordinary running players, I think Well,
those strategies have just always been there.

Rodney Eade: Yes, the game has changed. I think there was an interesting article today in The
Melbourne Herald-Sun about comparing Geelong and Hawthorn in the 1989 Grand Final which was
supposed to be one of the best Grand Finals ever to last Friday night's Hawthorn-Geelong and the
stats involved, and it shows there is more of a possession game, that possessions were up by nearly
100 each per team, and there was enormous amount of use of the ball, not as many contested marks. I
think there's a few there, I think the game has changed that way. I think probably three or four
years ago it was more of a defensive game and more of a lock-down, slow-down game. I think it's
changed now to more continuous, if that's the right phrase, probably faster, but certainly more
continuous, I think there's more scores.

And the other area of our game there's sports science involvement or effect on players where their
conditioning is not only recovery, but the way we prepare athletes, that we are making them fitter,
fast, stronger, run harder, run longer, so the game's sort of heading that way. So I think along
the way too, that the strategies of teams and the styles that teams use, will actually change. And
you'll see now that teams will change their style, can change it weekly, or maybe change every
three or four weeks, depending who they're playing, so there's a lot more science in the football
as well, as far as coach's applications to the way the players will play.

Mick O'Regan: So you might have a strategy for the Western Bulldogs, depending on who your
opposition is. I mean I know part of this is obvious, but that for a particular team you will
basically, 'OK this week we're playing Geelong', or 'This week we're playing Sydney, we'll revert
to this particular game plan', that you actually devise templates for different teams?

Rodney Eade: Yes, that's right. From the past, you'd change your tactics as far as match-ups or who
will play on who, depending on an opposition. Nowadays they might change the way they move the ball
forward, so it might go longer, it might go shorter, we might just hit a leading target
consistently, we may not play on, or we may play on quickly. The last two or three years the
defensive strategies of teams have changed; it used to be just man on man, then it was flooding,
which was more of a group thing, but teams will change their defensive structures as far as the
whole 18 whether they have a press like a basketball press, where they go man on man, where they
want to put pressure on the teams whether it's in their own forward line, whether it's the back
half, so there's a whole range of things you need to change players, and you see it's interesting
that there's probably four or five teams that do it extremely different to each other, and there's
a real stark contrast.

Mick O'Regan: In 1954 I think was the last time that then Footscray won the VFL premiership.

Kevin Hillier: Yes, neither of us were alive.

Rodney Eade: That's right Michael, '54; 54 years ago.

Mick O'Regan: Indeed. So that's right, 54 years ago. So as a final question to both of you, but
Rodney first and then Kevin, to win at the Western Bulldogs - and I was intrigued by Caroline
Wilson's article that I read in The Age where you said that even though people, Rodney, see you as
a Hawks person, that more and more you like to think of yourself and think you might be remembered
as a Bulldog person; what would it mean do you think to take the AFL flag down into Footscray and
Yarraville and those places in Melbourne?

Rodney Eade: I reckon it would be an enormous boost and lift, but it would be even more than that,
it's just the passion. For people who have followed the Bulldogs for so long, but also the suburbs,
I think also the Western area of Melbourne. And coaching a premiership side, and this is being on
the individual basis here, which I'm not about, but coaching the Swans or the Bulldogs to a
premiership after their drought for so long, it means so much more to a lot more people, and it had
more effect I think, even on the coach. So I think it would be fantastic for our not only players
but staff, but past players, supporters, now we've got a very mixed age now, but now there's a lot
of old people who have supported the Bulldogs for a long time and I've got no doubt that they'd go
to their grave very happy people if they'd win. And I think it would really help the area, the
whole Western suburbs, it would really give it a real lift and a real buzz.

Kevin Hillier: Well the flag would never get to Footscray and Yarraville, because it would actually
be at my place at Hopper's Crossing for at least a year. Look, it would mean an enormous amount to
the Western suburbs. Fifty-four years is a hell of a long time, there's an enormous amount of
supporters who follow the club now who have never seen a premiership because the last Grand Final
even was 1961 when they played against Hawthorn to let Hawthorn win their first flag, but it would
be an enormous boost morally to the Western suburbs, and just I think deserved for a lot of people
who've put in an enormous amount of time to that club over many, many years.

Mick O'Regan: Well look, I'd like to thank you both for your time this week on The Sports Factor.
Rodney Eade and Kevin Hillier, thank you very much.

Both: Thanks, Michael.

Mick O'Regan: Western Bulldogs coach Rodney Eade and author Kevin Hillier. The book is called
'Rocket Science' and is published by Pan Macmillan.