The story of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer is a well-known Christmas fable. What’s not as well known is the true story of Richmond’s Rudolph – George – who was one of the stars of the Tigers’ early years in the league football competition. Tony Greenberg reflects on the man idolised by none other than Jack Dyer.
When you mention the best players in the history of the Richmond Football Club many names spring instantly to mind – Jack Dyer, Jack Titus, Vic Thorp, Percy Bentley, Bill Morris, Roy Wright, Des Rowe, Kevin Bartlett, Francis Bourke, Royce Hart, Kevin Sheedy . . . to name just a few.
‘Captain Blood’, Jack Dyer, is widely recognised as the greatest of the greats at Tigerland, which is no surprise given his awe-inspiring on-field exploits over such a long period of time.
What is surprising, however, is Dyer’s choice as the finest player he ever saw wear the famous Yellow and Black guernsey.
Dyer, in fact, claimed in his book ‘The Jack Dyer Story’ (published in 1996) that this bloke was the greatest player to ever play the game!
The player he was referring to was George Rudolph.
According to Paul Hogan’s insightful book, ‘The Tigers of Old’ (a complete history of every player to represent the Richmond Football Club between 1908 and 1996) Rudolph was “a highly talented, but temperamental big man, who played centre half-forward or centre half-back as the need arose. He also played in the ruck at various times during his career and had a superb physique and big feet to match. A magnificent high mark, he was also very skilful and played the game very hard . . . A fiery player, he came under the notice of umpires on several occasions, receiving a total of 61 weeks in suspensions during his whole football career (not just at Richmond).”
As a 17-year-old who’d just arrived at Tigerland to start what was to be a mighty league career, Dyer revered George Rudolph.
“The magnificent George Rudolph was the life of the Club and there was always an air of excitement about him,” Dyer wrote in his book.
“He had an aura you could almost see, certainly you could feel it. He was gone before I made my debut, but I soaked up every moment I had in his company . . .
“Deep down, I suspect he (Rudolph) was the greatest player to ever play the game, but a man would be considered a nutcase if, after all these years, he put Rudolph above Whitten, Ablett, Coleman, Matthews and Bunton.
“It would be different if I had maintained Rudolph was the greatest throughout the years and I feel a bit of a Judas that I allowed weight of popular opinion to sway me away from my real belief. I have always secretly harboured a gut feeling that George Rudolph was the greatest player the game has produced.
“Certainly he was an infinitely better player than many of the gods we have acclaimed over the hundred years of League. Some of them wouldn’t be fit to carry his bags.”
So, why did Captain Blood rate Rudolph so highly?
“Rudolph could do anything. He had the magic of Jesaulenko, Baldock and Ablett. The strength and kicking power of Lockett, the pace and grace of Koutoufides, the ball skills of ‘Diesel’ Williams and the courage of Barassi. If he had a weakness, it was that he had the eccentricity of ‘Jacko’ and the mongrel of Mal Brown, “ Dyer wrote.
“George could play any position you wanted him to play – centre half-forward, centre half-back, the ruck, wing, full-forward and, if necessary, he could rove the packs. He was almost 15 stone and 6ft 4in . . .
“He was exciting, spectacular and dominant. He could do incredible things and turn a game at the drop of a hat.
“I idolised big George. He was a fearless desperado with the crowd eating out of his hand. They flocked to see him, wondering what crazy thing he would do next, or what bewildering feat he might perform . . .
“He was football’s first eccentric – a lovable weirdo who would make Mark Jackson his straight man. If the game wasn’t at risk, he would turn it into a circus. He never allowed a game to become boring. One opponent spent five minutes setting up the ball for a place kick at goal; finally he went back to take his kick, but before he even took a stride Rudolph strolled in, picked up the ball and kicked it 100 yards the other way! The opponent looked such a fool that when he got the ball back he wasn’t prepared to go through the ritual again knowing George was just as likely to kick it away again.
“Instead, he kicked a punt and couldn’t make the distance, whereas, had he taken the place kick – which he was good at – he probably would have goaled. He never stuffed around with the place kick again . . . well, not when George Rudolph was around!”
Dyer described Rudolph as a "strange character, capable of doing extraordinary things".
"He was prone to throw himself on the ground during a match and feign having a sleep, or simply walk off in disgust if things were going wrong," Dyer said.
"He was a mountain of a man with very safe hands. I admired his superb body work in the packs, but his greatest attribute was his capacity to turn the tide of a game with inspirational play. He would clown around until it was time to shift into another gear and then -- look out!
"As a footballer, he was like an antelope. He could turn on a threepenny bit and despite his bulk, could rove and play wing if necessary.
"He was really a god, built like Hercules, good looking, with a wonderful personality and a weird sense of humor. Scores never worried him. He was best man on the ground every time he let himself slip, he was that good. The crowd would be electrified.
"There is no player (of the modern era) I can relate to Rudolph because he was a mixture of comic and genius. Perhaps Dermott Brereton comes closest.
"Rudolph did a hell of a lot of aggravating things that made the crowd hate him. But the more he was hooted, the better he played. He could win a crowd back as quickly as he lost it."
Dyer's one big regret in football was that he never got the opportunity to play alongside the man who was his Tigerland idol.
"Rudolph was one man I would have loved to have teamed with, but he was to leave Richmond that year to play with Oakleigh.
"It was a football tragedy that George played only 80 games with the Tigers . . . and a measure of his ability was that he won seven Big V guernseys in that period. He went on to be a colossus for Oakleigh in the VFA and easily the greatest player in that competition."
From the wonderful archives of the Tigers' Punt Road museum came this newspaper article on George Rudolph, which was published on Saturday, July 2, 1927 under the heading: "An Outstanding Player in League Football. GEORGE RUDOLPH Whose form this season with Richmond has been consistently good".
"Standing 6ft 11/2 in high and weighing 14 stone, George Rudolph is without doubt the finest physical specimen playing in the Richmond uniform . . .
"In the past, George has been one of the mystery players of our team. One week he would give a marvellous display, and then the week after, when everyone was expecting a repetition, he would only be sighted four or five times during the whole day. And so the season would pass, a brilliant game would be followed with a couple of ordinary ones. Fortunately for Richmond, those days of uncertainty seem to have passed, for no one can deny the consistency of Richmond this year.
"High marking is, of course, one of his strong points, for in addition to the advantage of his size, he has a well-judged spring and a pair of safe hands, which rarely fail to bring the ball down once he has got a grip upon it. Compared with other big men, Rudolph has his share of pace and is not found wanting when a sprint is necessary to make an opening.
"Now we come to the part of his football that baffles both on-lookers and players alike. Very often during a game you will see Rudolph with the ball, hemmed by opponents on all sides and apparently in a hopeless position, but a quick turn, a feint with the leather in hand, and out he comes. You then rub your eyes wondering how he managed it, and before you have the problem solved he has done the same thing again.
"As stated in previous comments on Rudolph's play, I have never seen a man of his physique attempt, let alone accomplish, anything of the kind . . .
"Twenty five years ago George was born at Geelong, but did not play football there, either at school or in any junior competition. His career opened with the Burwood club in the Reporter District Association. He then transferred to Camberwell playing in the Melbourne District Competition.
"The next move was to Hawthorn in the 1921 season, before they became a League club. One year was the length of his stay at Hawthorn, for the following season found him at Richmond, but he did not show anything like his form of today, and after playing three games, he was, to use his own expression, "dumped".
"Rudolph did not appear with any other team that season and was granted a clearance to St James, up Benalla way, at the beginning of 1923. Fred Rigaldi, and old Richmond and Carlton player, was coach of the team there, and mainly owing to the play of Rudolph and Rigaldi they had a successful season, being just beaten in the grand final.
"In 1924, he decided to have another try with the Tigers. He was chosen in the first match of the year against South Melbourne, made good straight away, and played in the whole of the 19 matches that year. He has been a regular player since, and judged on his youth and exceptionally good form of this year, is likely to go on for many years to come."
Unfortunately, it was not to be. But even in just 80 games of league football, George Rudolph was to leave an indelible mark on those fortunate enough to have seen have strut his stuff – particularly one John Raymond Dyer.