An Oral History of the Geelong v Hawthorn Rivalry Part One - The Bruns Incident

The recent history between the Hawthorn and Geelong Football Clubs has enough content to fill a book. The 2008 Grand Final set off a chain reaction that would continue to have repercussions for years. The ‘Kennett Curse’ was born, and with it a series of matches that captivated the football world.

But the history runs deeper than that. So much deeper.

In Round 12, 1985, the Hawks and Cats met in a spiteful clash at Princes Park. While the Hawks ran out 29-point winners, the game itself was the overall loser on the day. It was a day that spilled from action on the field, to action off it and into the courts. Behind the play, Leigh Matthews viciously struck Neville Bruns in the face as the game wound down. In Matthews’ final year, it remains the biggest blight on his career, and black eye for the game in general. For Bruns, it resulted in a jaw wired shut, five missed games, and a career somewhat overshadowed by one incident.

“Leigh Matthews was my hero coming through as a kid. I was always ‘If I can be half the player he is, I’ll be doing ok.’” – Neville Bruns. Geelong 1978-1992.
“As my body was failing, as my reflexes and balance were quickly deserting me, so was my calmness under pressure. It is a personal flaw of mine that when I feel out of control, my decision-making usually suffers.” – Leigh Matthews. Hawthorn – 1969-1985.
“Mick Turner was out, I was captain that day. Leigh shook my hand, we won the toss. I had no contact with him for the whole game.” – Bruns.
“There just seemed to be a build-up to that incident, tension building all the time. Mark Jackson was whipping the crowd up into a frenzy. I had the job of following Leigh Matthews - wherever Leigh went, I went, except I wasn’t allowed past the centreline. I was a back man; Tommy didn’t like (you doing) that.” – Stephen Hocking. Geelong 1984-1994.
“As an experienced captain, my leadership role needed to be as a calming influence in a dangerous and volatile situation. At least that was the plan when I headed upfield from my position in the Hawthorn forward line to keep an eye on the events unfolding at the opposite end in the Geelong goal square.” – Matthews.
“There was no doubt it was a spiteful game. I’d been reported for hitting Michael Tuck. I had a crack at Dermott, too, on the boundary. Gave him an elbow, because I owed him a couple.” – Bruns.
“It was an ugly game, and when the game turned ugly, I turned the ugliest.” – Matthews.
“It all happened in the spur of the moment, but it doesn’t go away.” – Matthews.
“As soon as I struck the blow, my first thought was ‘Shit, what did I do that for?’ My second was that Geelong payback would be coming.” – Matthews.
“In an unforgivable moment of madness, I hit Cats rover, Neville Bruns with a round-arm coat hanger as we crossed paths not far from the centre circle.” – Matthews.
“The compound fracture had come through my jaw. I actually thought I’d been shot, because I had this big hole in my gum. I felt for the bullet. Yeah, he copped me a beauty. Couldn’t have got me any sweeter.” – Bruns.

Matthews had to be helped from the ground after the incident as well, with current AFL Head of Football Operations, Stephen Hocking, making sure that Matthews’ actions did not go unpunished on the ground.

“It was a split-second thing. I was raised in a way where you looked after your mates; you’re either that way or you’re not. You get a split-second to react, and you either do or you don’t. Once the act had been completed, I just moved straight on. My immediate concern turned to Neville; I rolled him over to see if he was OK.” – Hocking.
“I remember afterwards going into the rooms and I was in tears. I thought, ‘my God, what have I done?’ Tommy (Hafey), Bernard Toohey and Mick Turner pulled me aside and said, ‘look, it was wonderful. It’s been needed at Geelong for a long, long time’”– Hocking.
“He felt that he had not only let himself down, but the club and the game in general.” – Alan Jeans. Hawthorn coach. 1981-87, 89-90.

Matthews offered a written resignation to Hawthorn the night of the incident.

“I told him point blank I wouldn’t accept his resignation as captain or as a player of Hawthorn Football Club.” – Jeans.

Matthews’ behind the play hit on Bruns in 1985 saw him deregistered by the AFL for four weeks. It raised many questions about the role of police in sports at the time, as Matthews was charged with assault, and fined $1000. This was later reduced on appeal to a good behaviour bond.

Amazingly, on the night of the hearing, they entered the same lift at VFL House. With Bruns entering with his solicitors from the carpark, Matthews stepped into the lift on the ground floor.

“Neville just wanted to go him, but couldn’t, so he was muttering words through a wired-up mouth. I was on the back wall and Leigh came and stood next to me. He leant over and whispered in my ear, ‘You’re just along for the ride tonight’. A deep relief came over me because I knew he wasn’t going to dob me in. I thought the absolute world of him; he knew he’d done the wrong thing.” – Hocking.
“It was 23 years ago (when quoted) but I can visualise the five seconds because this particular opponent had been sniping a few of our blokes early in the game.” – Matthews.
“He’s implied in his book that I was a sniper. The one thing I never was, was a sniper.” – Bruns
“Leigh has never sat down and talked with me about it. And I am disappointed with him that he couldn’t be man enough to do that.” – Bruns.

Both Bruns and Matthews received boos from opposing fans for the remainder of their careers. Whilst Matthews had premiership glory to counteract his indiscretion, Bruns would fall short.

“It got to me a bit in the years after, 86-87, but I was determined not to go out that way. I was bloody determined to play some great football to finish off my career! And I did. Blighty was happy for me to play another year, but after the 1989 Grand Final, I was 34, the body was struggling. It was a good note to finish on, having given it my all.” – Bruns.
“It’s a moment I’d love to take back. In all seriousness, if I’d suffered a broken jaw instead of Neville Bruns, it’s a swap I would have gladly made. Broken bones heal, but to this day the guilt of my embarrassing and hurtful actions on that fateful afternoon during my 17th and final season with the Hawks have troubled me ever since, and still do to this day.” – Matthews.

 

Many of the quotes reprinted for this article came from newspaper reports and interviews, however several were taken from biographies of the people involved. Special credit must be given to Matt Zurbo, whose absolutely incredible book, Champions All, provided both resourcing and inspiration. Thanks Matt.

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