300

For a Tiger who earned his stripe the hard way

 “If someone could give you the choice of how you’d like your son to be">

300

For a Tiger who earned his stripe the hard way

 “If someone could give you the choice of how you’d like your son to be, it would be like Bourkey.  

If you had your choice, I don’t know of any man apart from JC himself – and I don’t know if he could play football – who you’d like your son to be” – Tony Jewell

By Greg Baum

Pretty words are the tools of poets and politicians, but down-to-earth people like Tony Jewell are not often given to using them.

So when Jewell is moved to speak as he did last year, despite the imperfections of grammar, you know he means it.

Such is the esteem in which Francis William Bourke is held throughout the football world.

The son of a Nathalia dairy farmer, Bourke’s name has been synonymous with success at Richmond.

He has captained the Tigers, won their best and fairest award and played in all five of their post-war premierships.

On Saturday, Bourke, 34, will become only the 11th man in VFL history to play 300 games, a fitting climax to a fine career.

Yet the man’s appeal is not in his achievements but in the way he has not allowed them to tarnish his characteristic honesty.

A bit older and a bit wiser perhaps, but Bourke today is basically unchanged from the fresh-faced country recruit who came down to try his luck at Richmond in 1967.

Richmond … there was the one constant amid a maze of memories as he tried to cram a life-time of football into a two-hour conversation.

“Nothing I have done would I have done any differently,” he said.  “I just thank my lucky stars that I barracked for Richmond and came there when Richmond was on the rise … just pure luck.

“And then through good guidance, good influence and a bit of hard work, I’ve tried to make it a winner.”

The “good guidance and good influence” came from former Tiger coach Tommy Hafey and Tiger vice-president Graeme Richmond.

Mr Richmond employed Bourke for six years at the Vaucluse and is a partner in his latest venture, the Epping Hotel.

Hafey coached Bourke for 10 years and four flags.  But he tested and confused Bourke’s devotion to the Tigers when he switched to Collingwood in 1977.

Bourke’s boyish features darkened and a tinge of sadness crept into his voice as he recalled the first time he played against a Tom Hafey-coached team.

“It was well … just strange,” he said.  “I think I’ve got used to it now.  I think everyone was torn between their love and loyalty to Tom and their love and loyalty to Richmond initially.

“I very rarely see Tommy in the footy season now, but we make a point of spending a day together every Christmas or New Year.  We often go down to his home at Sorrento and spend a day just lying on the beach”.

But there were influences before Hafey.  Bourke remembered with a grin showing envious mates on the school bus an autographed photograph of former Richmond ruckman Roy Wright.

His father, Frank, was a full forward for the Tigers in 1943-47 until injury intervened.

And Bourke speaks with reverence of that noted football nursery, Assumption College, where he spent two teenage years.

“Assumption, I feel, may have made the difference between me being a League player and a good country player,” he said.

“Football was sort of the nationalistic pride thing there, if you know what I mean”.

“It was important to the school and the brothers’ emphasis on the tackling and chasing and team side of it probably left an indelible mark on me.

“If you played in the firsts at Kilmore in those days, and I suppose it still is, you were somebody around the school”.

A best and fairest award as an 18-year-old back at Nathalia in 1965 renewed Richmond’s interest.

“I wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination a highly-sought-after recruit,” Bourke said.  “Often in those times if anyone came down from the country he was chased by a lot of clubs and there was a fanfare.

“But that didn’t really apply to me, probably because I think my mother was the only one who thought I’d play!”

After four Reserves games, and two on the bench, Bourke won senior selection as a forward pocket – changing on the ball with Kevin Bartlett.

He was to play only one other Reserves game for Richmond, when returning from a broken leg in 1971.

“I think I just happened to be in the right spot at the right moment,” Bourke said of his smooth transition to the top.

He remembers his first game clearly, “I was picked as 19th man against Hawthorn.  I remember going to sleep on the Thursday night and dreaming that I’d slept in on the Saturday morning … and got to the ground late.”

His first full game was against Geelong at the MCG, a ground he has come to know and love.  “It’s a great ground, that,” he said.

“It was a novel experience coming from the country where everyone parks their cars around the fence and then all of a sudden being confronted by grandstands, and looking around and seeing heads everywhere.

“Even today I reckon it gives teams a natural lift to play against us at the MCG.”

After 16 games and a premiership in his first year, Bourke decided League football was for him (“given my limited scholastic prowess,” he grinned”).

The 130 ha dairy farm was left to dad and three younger brothers, and, although he commuted to Richmond from Nathalia for the first three years, Bourke has long since abandoned plans to return to the land.

As the years passed, the honours accumulated:  a Victorian guernsey in his second year and later Victorian captaincy three times, further flags in ’69, ’73, ’74 and ’80, Richmond’s best and fairest award in ’70 and the Tigers’ captaincy in ’76 and ’77.

As his pace deserted him he left the wide open spaces of the wing for the limited area of the half back line and later the confines of full-back.

But he succeeded everywhere, through the concentration that he considers to be his major asset.

There were obstacles:  at 14 he was told to cease all active participation in sport because of a heart abnormality.

A year later, the doctors decided it was not dangerous and he resumed, to his own delight and his parents relief.

There was a broken leg in ’71 which put him out for 10 weeks, and a knee injury late in ’73 which cost him four weeks.

There was a time in his four years at the Royal Oak in Richmond when he thought coping with the twin demands of business and football was beyond him.

Bourke credits the unshakeable faith and devotion of his wife Kerry for resolving that one.

“She loves the footy herself, and that’s been a terrific help for me, because there’s never been any reproachment when I get home about not seeing the kids or not seeing her,” he said.

Then there was a form of crisis in ’77 when he was one game away from retirement.

“I decided that if I didn’t play well against Collingwood I was going to retire,” he said.

“But, although we got beaten, I felt I played alright, and battled on from there to finally end up having a reasonable season.”

There were highs:  “I don’t think I’ve ever spent a hour in my life like I spent after the grand final last year,” he said.

He said four previous flags were the focus of fond memories, but ’74 he was part of a team that was accustomed to success.

“In 1980, which was six years later, we’d gone through a period of lows, followed by resurrection.

“When you think about running sprints out here in the middle of summer, and all the training that had taken place over six years, and the disappointments and failure of expectation, to actually get there again was really a terrific thrill and made a lasting impression.”

And there were low spots:  “The ’72 grand final (when Richmond lost to Carlton) was by far the greatest disappointment,” he said.

“We went back to Richmond after, and Graeme’s pub was on fire; it was just sort of the finality of it all.

“It just reminded you of the stakes you play football for when it comes to that time of year”.

It is typical of the man’s humility that he doesn’t measure his career in terms of his material successes, but only by the extent to which he has kept faith with himself.

“The only way you can judge yourself is whether you felt you’ve given it your best shot,” he explained.

Bourke said he had never lost his zest for football.  “No one likes busting a gut with howling winds and torrential rain, but as far as being a footballer, and the associated training, the environment, the guys, I really love that.  I’ve never grown tired of it,” he said

“Probably it’s become more precious to me as I realise that slowly, over the past few years, that part of my life is coming to a close.”

And the burning question:  How soon?  Bourke brushed back that familiar lock of thick black hair on his forehead, and paused before saying:  “My form has not been as good as I would have like this year.

“It’s no good saying one thing and meaning another, but I haven’t played on entirely to get the 300; it’s been a consideration.”

It is difficult to believe that a man so devoted to football has more than a passing interest in other sports.

But Bourke surprises again.  He is a keen cricketer and cricket fan.

A batsman for Mont Albert (where Alan “Froggy” Thomson opens the bowling) in the ESCA, Bourke laments that football preseason always precluded him from cricket finals.

And it’s the philosophy of a noted cricket mentor, Rudi Webster, now a psychologist with the Tigers, that Bourke says his best explains his approach to 15 years of football.

“You take the ones and twos and let the fours look after themselves,” is the saying.

“All that means is that you play each game as it comes, and the years take care of themselves,” Bourke explained.

Then he summed it all up, the flags, the failures, the friends, the foes, the good times and bad, the agony and the ecstasy, with a simplicity that is the man’s style,

“I just love playing football … for Richmond.”

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