Ron Clegg – Australian Rules Brownlow Medal Winner
Looking at the official tables of the AFL, 1949 lists two Brownlow Medal recipients, Colin Austen and Ron Clegg.
In 1949, however, only Ron Clegg was awarded the medal, so for forty years, he would have thought himself the winner, up until 1989 that is, when Colin Austen, having spent forty years thinking he was not the winner, was awarded a retrospective Brownlow Medal in that year.
Ron Clegg died at the age of 62 in 1990, so he had not long to ponder the vicissitudes of fate, and Austen passed away in 1995 at the age of 74, so he had only five or six years to bask in his new-found notoriety.
Both men received 23 Brownlow votes in 1949. They share some similarities as well as some differences. The major similarity is that both played on clubs that seldom finished high on the ladder throughout their entire careers. Both men played on the half-back line.
The chief difference is that Clegg was a proficient scorer, such that he is listed as the 34th leading scorer of the South Melbourne football club where he spent his entire 15-season career. Austen, on the other hand, kicked only one goal in seven seasons with Hawthorn and three with Richmond.
Ron Clegg first played football in the Melbourne Boys League. He made his debut in a round three win against Richmond on 5 May 1945 at Punt Rd, the venue that served as Richmond’s home ground from 1908 until the conclusion of the 1964 season.
He did not manage to score, but he did kick two goals against Hawthorn in a round nine victory. He managed another four goals to wind up with six for his first season, including one that helped his side secure a semifinal win against Collingwood on 15 September that put the South Melbourne side into the 1945 Grand Final against Carlton.
That win came just under a fortnight subsequent to the end of WW II. It was played at Princes Park, since the MCG was still allocated to wartime uses, as was the Grand Final, meaning that both South Melbourne and Carlton were playing on home ground.
That Grand Final came to be known as The Bloodbath. Nearly 63,000 spectators jammed into a facility designed for about half as many on 29 Septemeber, and it could sensibly be assumed that spirits were running high, as well as being consumed liberally as well by a crowd of followers giddy from the cessation of hostilities and a collective feeling of relief.
Clegg’s South Melbourne side had finished on top of the ladder with 16 wins against four losses in the home-and-away portion of the season, whilst Carlton had put up a 13 – 7 record to finish in fourth position, one game better than Footscray.
The game was held on a ground soaked by rain, which soon became a sea of mud. The level of violence on the field and in the stands would have given the casual observer the notion that it was a soccer game being witnessed. Clegg was one of a handful of South Melbourne players who did not get caught doing anything amiss, in fact, he was the innocent victim of a charge at the hands of Carlton’s Ken Hands, but Hands was absolved of the charge, hands down.
Carlton would prevail by 28 in a game that was within two points at the half, beginning a period of finals futility for South Melbourne that lasted until 1995, when they next raised the flag in 2005 after relocating to Sydney and becoming the Swans in 1982.
To young Clegg, that 1945 season must have seemed heady indeed. Here he was, not yet 18 years of age, playing in the big leagues for the premiership, having contributed to 11 of his team’s victories, including kicking a goal in the playoffs. He could not have for one moment imagined that he would play 14 more seasons without another trip to the finals. South Melbourne finished seventh on the 12-team ladder in 1946. Clegg kicked 21 goals and earned his first eight Brownlow votes.
His team slipped to eighth in 1947. His goal production was a respectable 19 and his play was sufficient to attract six votes. Clegg hit his peak as a scorer in 1948, with 30. He earned 16 votes, good for fourth, but his team finished ahead of only Hawthorn and St. Kilda. Clegg’s contributions resulted in his being named best and fairest for his side for the first time.
Nineteen forty-nine was no better, South Melbourne again finishing 10th on the ladder. They won only six games. Clegg repeated as team best and fairest. His 23 Brownlow votes found him tied with Colin Austen, both men being three clear of St. Kilda’s Harold Bray. Interestingly, Austen played in one fewer games than Clegg, so it is up to the footy experts to decipher that conundrum.
Clegg played in only nine games in 1950. His side slipped down one more position, to 11th, winning only five games, ahead of only Hawthorn, which bore the dubious distinction of losing all 18 of its games that year.
He returned to form in 1951, playing in 17 of his side’s 18 games, but a climb on the ladder to eighth was little about which to cheer. Clegg did muster 20 Brownlow votes, trailing Geelong’s Bernie Smith by three and four ahead of eventual two-time Brownlow winner Bill Hutchison of Essendon. He won his third best and fairest for South Melbourne.
Nineteen fifty-two would be the final time Clegg would get a whiff of the finals. South Melbourne finished fifth behind Carlton, victims of a season where they drew once to Carlton’s two, but lost seven games to Carlton’s six, leaving them excruciatingly close, but nonetheless cigar less.
Ron Clegg hung on to play until 1960, although he did not play in 1955. He was named captain in 1953 and 1954 and again from 1957 until 1960, when he retired after serving as coach in 1958 and 1959. His 1960 season, which he concluded when nearly 33 years of age, was respectable in all regards.
He appeared 13 times, kicked 10 goals and earned six Brownlow votes. For his career, he played in 231 games, kicked a total of 156 goals and amassed 121 Brownlow Medal votes. The only blemish on his impeccable career, one over which it is certain he would gladly have sacrificed his individual accolades, was the 100 – 3 – 128 record of his team over his 15 seasons. Few footy players would dispute that flags trump medals every time, Clegg least of all.
During his playing days, he served as Victorian representative on 15 occasions, and yet another individual honour would be his selection to the South Melbourne/Sydney Swans Team of the Century.