With four premierships as a player and six as a coach, it is fair to say that Norm Smith was no stranger to Grand Final Day. It was fitting then, that when the VFL decided to strike a medal to recognise the best on field in the Grand Final that it chose to name it after the former Melbourne skipper and coach. Unfortunately Smith was not with us anymore when the medal named in his honour was first awarded in 1979 but he would have been immensely proud of the first man to be awarded it.
“What’s better than beating Collingwood by ten goals? Beating them by five points in a Grand Final!”Carlton President George Harris 1979
The 1979 decider was the second of three epic Grand Finals between bitter rivals Carlton and Collingwood in an 11 year period. Much like the previous premiership deciding encounter between the two sides, in 1970 when Carlton overcame a 40 point halftime deficit to claim the flag, Collingwood were quick out of the blocks on this day too. In trying conditions, it had rained constantly for 48 hours in the lead up to the game, the Tom Hafey coached Magpies led by as much as 28-points nearing time on in the second quarter.
With the match seemingly slipping from his team’s grip, Carlton Captain-Coach Alex Jesaulenko was forced into action. To the surprise of many of the 113,545 fans packed into the MCG, the Blues icon replaced himself in the middle with 19-year-old bull Wayne Harmes. Much like Ted Hopkins had nine years earlier when thrown into the action in desperation by Ron Barassi, Harmes would write his name into Grand Final folklore by turning the game on its head.
Given the opportunity to be in the middle of the action, the Oak Park junior immediately impacted the action and kicked the Blues first goal of the afternoon. Harmes’ drought breaker sparked a five goal run in 13 minutes, that remarkably, saw them take a one point lead into the long break. When they followed the interval with a five goal to two third quarter, they had one hand on the Premiership Cup taking a 21-point lead into the final quarter.
Despite the dominant three-quarter time position, victory would only come for the Blues after another critical Harmes intervention. In the face of a Magpie flurry, after 18-minutes, and with inspirational leader Jesaulenko leaving the ground injured, Carlton’s lead was reduced to just four points. In a moment that will live as long as Grand Final’s are played, Harmes turned a lost cause into a match sealing goal for Ken Sheldon. Having sprayed an attacking kick wide, rather than giving up on the loose ball as most others on the ground had, Harmes pursed it relentlessly.
With the ball trickling towards the boundary, Harmes desperately threw himself at it and tapped it back towards a loose Ken Sheldon in the goal square. Whether you agree with Collingwood supporters, who suggest that he tapped it back from the second row of the grandstand or not, it was a remarkable effort and the resulting Sheldon goal handed Carlton a winning edge.
Allan Edwards would answer, to set up a thrilling finish, but it was not enough to prevent another chapter being added to the sorry ‘Collywobble’ tale. So close but yet so far, it would be the Magpies sixth Grand Final defeat since last tasting Premiership success 21-years earlier. That number would grow to eight over the next two seasons with defeat to Richmond in 1980 and another to Carlton in 1981.
For the Blues, the success would be the first of three premierships in four seasons when they completed back to back victories in 1981 and 1982. Regarded as one of the best teams in history, it might have been so very different if not for the performance of Harmes on this day in 1979.
The importance of his efforts were recognised when it was announced post game that he was the winner of the inaugural Norm Smith Medal. The first name on what is now a long list of some of the game’s greatest big game players, it was somewhat poetic given his relationship to the man the medal was struck to honour.
While today the tradition is for a past winner to present the Medal on Grand Final day, in 1979 it was Marj Smith who did so on behalf of her husband Norm. As the grandson of Norm’s brother Len, this meant Harmes’ Grand Final to remember was to become even more memorable with a special family moment. Upon being named the award’s first winner he collected his prize, and an excited kiss, from his Great-Aunt Marj.
A storied afternoon, the 1979 Grand Final would remain the high point in a decorated career for Harmes. A three-time Carlton Premiership player, he would retire in 1988 after having played 169 games and forever writing his name into football folklore.