Why Ron Barassi was a lifetime ahead of the game

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It’s not hard to imagine that Ron Barassi would have loved the emergence of players with African heritage in AFL football, but puzzled over why there are still so few Asians and Indians. He would have enjoyed the establishment of a women’s competition, but been disappointed that the push to take the game to new frontiers overseas had stalled.

He might have hoped to live long enough to see another Carlton-Collingwood grand final, not beyond the realms of possibility this year.

Ron Barassi at the MCG in 2009.Credit: John Donegan

It’s all conjecture now. Barassi died on Saturday and in recent years has not been in a place to contemplate and philosophise on footy in all its myriad aspects. He’d delivered himself of enough of himself for a lifetime already.

It’s sad to think about who and what we have lost, but it would do Barassi an injustice to dwell too long on the past. He did not live there, though it would have been a more comfortable place for him than for most people. As Rosemary Long, his long-time manager said on Sunday, Barassi “always lived in the present”.

And the future. If there was a motif running through Barassi’s footy and his life, it was that he was always ahead of the game.

Ron Barassi after the legendary 1970 Grand Final.

As a player, he was the progenitor of a new position. A synthesis of the two main following roles, it was called ruck-rover and, in it, Barassi was the fulcrum of a Melbourne team that won six premierships in 10 years. It lives on today in the shape of the big-bodied midfielder that wins the Brownlow Medal almost every year.

As a coach, he was an innovator. The most famous expression of this was his “handball, handball” edict at half-time in the 1970 grand final that catalysed Carlton’s comeback victory over Collingwood in what is still the most fabled finale of all. He said a coach had to have ideas when everyone else had run out of them. The game changed forever that day.

At North Melbourne, he exploited an early and short-lived form of free agency to win that club its first two premierships and bring to it a glamour that it has not had before or since. When he was coaxed into a last coaching fling at Sydney, he gave the national competition a much-needed fillip. Dr Allen Aylett had fathered the national competition, but Barassi authenticated it.

This brings us nearer to what set Barassi apart from his few peers in the code’s stratosphere. His horizons were bigger and wider than the mere playing and coaching of the game, unsurpassed as he was at both.

He loved it, but unsentimentally, a bit like Leigh Matthews today. He was never careless of the essence of what he once called one of the world’s great inventions, but he was not precious about preservation for its own sake. Even while looking at the whiteboard, he could see the bigger picture. His exploits gave his ideas gravitas.

So it was that he led expeditions to the US and to Ireland, opening a door that led to Jim Stynes’ improbable journey to a Brownlow Medal, a door remains open and well-trafficked today. He foresaw the national competition – hence his willingness to lend himself to Sydney’s cause.

Ron Barassi with Melbourne president Kate Roffey in 2022.Credit: Eddie Jim

Long before the formation of the AFL Commission, he called for a ruling body that rose above the hobbles of club self-interest. Variously, he envisaged ground rationalisation, the 50-metre square, more and different umpires and, yes, even a professional competition for women. Matthews said that because Barassi always had in mind what was best for the game, rather than any one club, he was its great ambassador.

As Rosemary Long, his long-time manager said on Sunday, Barassi “always lived in the present”.

As a coach, he was exacting in a way that might not always wash now and the modern predilection for applying today’s standards to yesterday’s happenings might reprove in him. That would be to overlook the affection in which almost all who came within his orbit ultimately held him.

Unsentimental about the game should not be mistaken for cold, or remote from its people or the world at large. To the contrary, almost everyone who met Barassi, and they numbered in their thousands, came away with a warm feeling.

Ron Barassi at home in St Kilda in September 2021.Credit: Simon Schluter

The stories are legion. Long noted how he would invariably take questions to heart, always pausing before answering, making strangers feel important. He had what she called a “disarming charisma”.

Even in his later years, he had a presence and vitality about him. He was always interested in new ideas; unsurprisingly, one of his many post-footy projects was to search out funding for inventors.

He did not ossify in his world view as some do. He paid attention to public affairs and supported the failed referendum on a republic late last century. I’m not going to put words into his mouth about what he would have made of the Voice, but I know he would have had a standpoint.

There’s one game no-one outruns. Ron Barassi gave it a bigger shake than most. It’s why authorities must think carefully about how to memorialise him. He has a statue at the MCG, so his peerless past is set in stone. Whatever honour is devised now to celebrate his legacy, it must be forward-looking, to what matters next. He always was.

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