The Riverine Herald has teamed up with The Caledonian Hotel to tell the stories of the twin towns’ most prominent sporting people in a new series, Behind the Play.
The stories will be told in print and in video as we aim to delve into the sporting world of Echuca-Moama.
ECHUCA’S Rob Morris is the man with all the answers.
If you have ever been, or ever are, stumped by a question about the district’s school sports events, Rob’s your man.
This human almanac wasn’t just working behind the scenes making everything tick, Rob quickly became the man here too.
“When I came to Echuca as a teacher in 1978, there was a sports association under the governance of the Victorian Primary School Sports Association and the local schools were taking it in turns to run sports,” Rob said.
“Everything was being directed by different principals, which made it difficult for some of the smaller schools.
“I started to go along to meetings in 1980 and St Mary’s had just been invited to join the association and it was our job to run the athletics carnival.
“In about 1982, there was an opportunity for one school to take over the entire process instead of sharing it around.
“We decided to elect a chairperson, and that it would be on a rotational basis. But I managed to get stuck in it; which I didn’t mind.”
But not in his wildest dreams could Rob have imagined he was really stuck there – until the day he retired.
During that time, the St Mary’s Primary School teacher was the face of school sport and the man responsible for its many ongoing changes, crowned five years ago when Campaspe’s schools broke away from the Bendigo district.
“That decision has given us a more self-centred approach,” he explained.
“I was asked to take on the lead role and I thought it would be okay, it was a shock just how much work was involved.
“The big part is communication between schools and School Sport Victoria – there is also a lot of organising with everything, from umpires to venues, on your plate.”
When Rob first arrived in Echuca only the most basic sports were available to students (including athletics) but now there are endless opportunities for local kids.
“We’ve now included all the sports School Sports Victoria offers,” Rob said.
“Having this variety gives the students opportunities they’ve never had. The latest inclusions are table tennis and bowls, which the kids love.”
And those additions are in turn creating more pathways which never existed in the past.
“There was no pathway to get kids from Echuca to a district level, let alone regional or state teams when I started,” Rob said.
“I think the schools program gives kids a great starting base.
“Just to have that chance to progress through the different levels is very exciting.
“We’ve included more girls’ events in the past 10 years and one of the biggest successes has been footy.
“The girls love the opportunity to come and play. They love being able to tackle, but overall, they love the concept of the game.
“I think for Echuca we’ve introduced a lot of girls into the sport and that has been hugely beneficial in the local community whether it be for junior or senior competition.”
Despite having experienced a large amount of success during his time in the role, Rob also had to face several different challenges.
But the biggest will always stand out.
“Costs and venues often gave me the most trouble,” he said.
“At School Sport Victoria meetings, you quickly find out that costs are the biggest challenge for all districts. We would all share ideas on how we could possibly overcome them.
“And there is always the challenge of making sure schools are always happy to support the concept.
“I was very fortunate to have strong support across Echuca and I’ll always be grateful for that.”
Rob’s achievements in creating links between bush teams and the big leagues are his legacy to the community with many former students going onto forge successful careers in the VFL, then the AFL and more recently AFLW.
“Xavier Campbell (now the Essendon chief executive) was one of the first people to make the state under 12 football team,” Rob explained.
“Then we had Andrew Walker, who was the captain of the St Mary’s school team.
“He always used to show me what his homework was from the Victorian Country team. Sometimes it was hard to believe what he was being given.
“Recently we’ve had guys including Clayton Oliver, Jack Viney and Ollie Wines.
“When you see them running around on an AFL field, you think back to the days when they were running around and playing on a Friday afternoon.
“All those guys have been great role models for the area.”
While he might be better known for his work in the school sport system, Rob has also been actively involved in community clubs at junior and senior level.
“I did my knee in 1986 so that was a lead in to coach the reserves – which I’ve done for 17 years on and off,” he said.
“And I’ve also played cricket for Womboota, where I was president in the early days. Plus, you can add in a couple of years coaching Echuca United’s reserves.
“It made life hectic at home. My wife always told me I had things in the wrong order.
“When you want to be in multiple places at the same time, any maths teacher worth their salt would tell you it just doesn’t add up.”
Despite admitting he often struggles to balance his time, Rob’s passion for the local community, in particular junior sport, has never wavered.
Along the way, he has been willing to do just about any role required.
“In 2004, I was the director of coaching for the junior side of Echuca,” he said.
“Then I started the coaching the under 16 team in the Shepparton District League in 2005, which I ended up doing for 11 years.
“During that time, we were lucky enough to win five premierships and be runners-up on four occasions.
“A number of those boys are now representing the senior team in the GVL or playing in leagues around the country.
“And I was fortunate enough to coach the interleague team for 10 years from 2006 to 2016, which was a great experience to teach some of the best young players in the region.
“In the last couple of years, I have supported the Bendigo Pioneers with their training base at Moama and have worked as an Auskick Champion for the Murray Goulburn District, supporting and reporting on local Auskick Centres.
“I’ve been very fortunate with the experiences I’ve had.”
As Rob begins to wind down on his hands-on role in school sport, he has a simple message for the person who steps into his shoes.
“You just need passion,” he said.
“We’re driven by providing opportunities for kids in the local area and we’ve set up is what I think is an amazing structure over a long period of time.
“I hope that is able to continue.”
Big shoes to fill?
But just as he has cared so much for everyone going forward, for those coming behind him he has also left a well-trodden path for the next generation to follow.
Other Behind the Play stories