This Saturday will be a landmark day for Australian Football in Queensland when the Gabba becomes the first venue outside of Victoria to host an AFL Grand Final. It will come 45 years after a long forgotten but significant moment for Queensland football. The day two players who learned their craft on the same suburban Brisbane ground lined up against each other in the VFL.
Fitzroy hosted Melbourne at the Junction Oval on August 16, 1975 and it would proved to be a big day for Queensland footy when the Lions Robert Shepherd lined up on the Demons Ray Smith. It mightn’t have meant much to the 13,181 people packed in at the ground but for the Sherwood Football Club, where both men had played their junior footy, it was a particularly special moment.
With a national competition and two Sunshine State teams playing in it, it isn’t as unusual for Queensland kids to find their way to the elite competition. In 1975 though, things were entirely different. The pathway from Chelmer Oval, the home of the Sherwood Footy Club, to the big time was far from a well trodden path. So much so, that both Smith and Shepherd took entirely different journeys from Sherwood to the VFL.
The older of the two men, Ray Smith was a tri-sport talent whose code-hopping career would be emulated by Israel Folau and Karmichael Hunt years later. Despite playing senior footy at 15, his dreams of playing in the VFL were thwarted by regulations that prevented players from QLD, NSW and the ACT joining bigger leagues to protect the standard of those competitions.
Selected to play for Queensland at under 19 level in Rugby Union, he also successfully tried his hand at Rugby League. In 1970 he played in Valley’s premiership side, lost the BRL player of the year award on countback and was talked about as a potential Test player. More importantly for our story though, in doing so he also opened a side door to the VFL.
To the shock of the Rugby League world, at the end of the 1970 season, Smith announced he had signed to play with Essendon in the VFL in 1971. The Bombers able to get their man because the rules that prevented them from signing QAFL players did not apply as Smith was now a Rugby League player.
Eight years younger than Smith, Robert Shepherd would not confront the same roadblocks on his way to the VFL. He would make a name for himself at the 1972 Under 16 National Championships and would be awarded with the JL Williams Medal as player of the tournament. Subsequent winners of the award include Wayne Harmes, Adam Schneider and Joel Selwood.
A fast start to senior football in the QAFL two years later would see him grab the attention of Fitzroy’s scouts. Winner of his club’s best and fairest award he would run second in the Grogan Medal, Queensland’s equivalent of the Brownlow Medal. The Lions quickly swooped on the 18-year-old and signed him for the 1975 season.
After 77 games with the Bombers, Smith was traded to Melbourne midway through the 1975 season to set up his appointment with his fellow Sherwood alumni in Round 20. The Football Record suggested that Shepherd got the the better of Smith early with two quick goals but was shut down in the second half. Despite a spirited Melbourne fightback in the last quarter, the younger man ended up having the last laugh though with the Lions running out 11-point winners.
The following season, Smith would become the first Queensland player to play 100 VFL games. An achievement recognised years later by the Brisbane Lions via the Ray Smith 100 Games Honour Board. The curtain would drawn on his time in the VFL at the end of the 1976 season after 104 games. It would be 25-years before another Queenslander reached this milestone.
Unfortunately for Shepherd his career illness would be cut short his VFL career in 1977 after 43 games. He would return to Queensland where he would claim a premiership medal in the QAFL and another second place finish in the Grogan Medal. He, along with Smith, is also an inductee in AFL Queensland’s Hall of Fame.
They are also recognised by the proud football club they represented as juniors. As part of the club’s 50 year celebrations in 2006, 31 years after they crossed paths at the Junction Oval, both Smith and Shepherd were named in Sherwood Football Club’s 50 greatest players.