Richmond ‘Immortal’ Francis Bourke is the Club’s latest ‘Coming Home Hero’.
The five-time Tigers’ premiership champion will be honored during the pre-game build-up at this Friday night’s big clash with Essendon at the MCG.
Bourke, who played 300 games from 1967-1981, kicked 71 goals, and is recognised as one of the greatest players in Richmond’s proud history, will walk to the Punt Road end of the ground, where he’ll receive fitting acknowledgment from the Tiger Army.
He will then proceed to kick a ceremonial goal, before signing the ball and handing it to a Richmond fan in the crowd.
Highlights of Bourke’s outstanding career with the Tigers also will be shown on the ground’s big screens.
Bourke followed in the footsteps of his father, Frank, to Richmond. Frank, a strongly-built full-forward, had a promising league career with the Tigers in the 1940s cut short due to a serious knee injury.
He subsequently ran a dairy farm and raised a family at Nathalia, a Victorian country town situated about 40km from Shepparton.
Young Francis’ football aspirations suffered a severe setback when, at the age of 14, he was diagnosed with a heart murmur, and it was recommended by doctors that he give up competitive sport.
But the fierce determination that was to define Bourke’s wonderful league football career kicked in, and he continued playing the game he loved.
Bourke honed his skills at that famous football nursery, Assumption College, Kilmore, before being recruited by Nathalia at the age of 16.
He had an immediate impact at senior level with Nathalia, as a key forward, winning the club’s leading goalkicker award in his first season, and later taking out its best and fairest.
These impressive performances, as a teenager playing against adults, attracted the attention of Richmond’s astute secretary and chief talent scout at the time, Graeme Richmond.
Bourke was invited to Tigerland to play the occasional reserve-grade game on match permit, and it wasn’t until 1967 that he was officially recruited by the Club.
Although a full-forward at country football level, Bourke made his senior debut for Richmond in Round 5 of the 1967 season against Hawthorn at the MCG, in the unfamiliar role of second rover to Kevin Bartlett.
Bourke was very much in Bartlett’s shadow on this day, with KB booting six goals in a brilliant display, as the Tigers scored a 75-point win.
After a few games as Bartlett’s roving understudy, however, Bourke was switched to a wing by coach Tommy Hafey, in a move which proved to be a masterstroke.
By season’s end, Bourke had established himself as an integral part of Richmond’s line-up in his wingman role.
He was a key member of the Tigers’ drought-breaking ’67 premiership side, forming a centreline with Bill Barrot and Dick Clay that was to achieve legendary status at Punt Road, and be widely regarded as the best in the competition.
Bourke went on to become one of league football’s premier wingmen, utilising his incredible courage, toughness, fanatical desire to succeed, strong marking and long kicking, to the team’s full advantage.
He won Victorian State selection in just his second season of league football (1968) and finished third in Richmond’s Best and Fairest award that year.
A second premiership triumph followed with the Tigers in 1969, and the next year (1970) Bourke won the Club’s Best and Fairest.
Richmond’s shock loss to Carlton in the 1972 Grand Final triggered a major positional move for Bourke.
After conceding 28 goals to the Blues on that disastrous first Saturday afternoon in October ’72, the Tigers’ brains-trust decided that the team’s defence needed bolstering.
Who better to turn to, than the man who epitomised football’s revered old-fashioned values of guts and determination – Francis Bourke.
At the age of 26, and entering his seventh season of league football, Bourke reinvented himself as a half-back.
All the attributes that had enabled him to develop into a star wingman of the competition blended together, to help turn him into a fearless backman, who knew exactly when to defend, and when to launch a counter-attack for the Tigers.
Richmond gained sweet revenge against Carlton in the 1973 Grand Final, with Bourke, despite battling a severe knee injury, playing a key role at half-back on Alex Jesaulenko. He managed to keep the Blues’ brilliant match-winner goalless, after he’d kicked seven goals in the 1972 premiership-decider.
Bourke maintained his excellent level of consistency throughout the 1974 season, as the Tigers made it back-to-back flags, with a decisive victory over North Melbourne in the Grand Final. He again was one of Richmond’s best, on the most important day on the league football calendar, nullifying his opponent, as well as being a springboard for Tiger attacks out of the backline.
The Tigers had a decent crack at the premiership hat-trick in 1975, but bowed out in the preliminary final at the hands of North Melbourne.
In 1976, Bourke was appointed Richmond’s captain, replacing Royce Hart. He responded with another fine individual season, even though the team fell away and missed the finals, finishing third in the Brownlow Medal.
During the following season, Bourke was forced to spend some time at centre half-back, due to the Tigers’ shortage of key defenders. He, of course, made a decent fist of this positional switch, too, making it tough going for all the centre half-forwards he came up against, and leading Richmond back into the finals.
At the end of the 1977 season, Bourke stepped down from the captaincy in a move which, ultimately, helped prolong his career, and enabled him to play in a fifth premiership with the Tigers.
That glorious success came on the last Saturday in September, 1980, when Richmond trounced arch-rival Collingwood by a then record Grand Final margin of 81 points.
Bourke, despite being 33, and in the twilight of his illustrious league career, produced another first-class performance in defence for the Tigers, putting the clamps on his opponent, and picking up 16 disposals himself.
In 1981, Bourke became just the third Richmond player to reach the coveted 300-game milestone, when he lined up against North Melbourne at the MCG in Round 14.
The Tigers celebrated with a 43-point win, but at the age of 34 years, 87 days, it was to be Bourke’s final game of league football.
He would go on to replace Tony Jewell as Richmond’s coach at the end of that ’81 season, and guide his beloved Tigers into the 1982 Grand Final, where they were beaten by old foe Carlton.
Bourke’s coaching reign at Richmond ended 12 months later, after the Tigers failed to make the finals in 1983.
He would later return to Tigerland in the early 1990s as chairman of selectors, but he stood down from that role when his son, David, was recruited by the Club as a father-son selection in the 1994 National Draft.
Over the ensuing two decades, the man known affectionately as ‘St Francis’ would have numerous honors bestowed upon him, including Australian Football Hall of Fame induction, AFL Team of the Century selection, Richmond Team of the Century selection, Richmond Hall of Fame induction, and Richmond ‘Immortal’ status.
And, whenever on-field bravery at the game’s highest level is discussed, the image of Francis Bourke putting his body on the line, and shedding blood for his beloved Tigers, immediately springs to the minds of those fortunate enough to have watched him on the field of battle.
Francis Bourke profile
Playing weight: 82.5kg
Recruited to Richmond from: Nathalia
Guernsey number at Richmond: No. 30
Senior games at Richmond (1967-1981): 300
Honors: Five-time premiership player (1967, 1969, 1973, 1974 & 1980); Best and Fairest winner in 1970; Club captain 1976-1977; Victorian State representative 13 times; Richmond senior coach 1982-1983; RFC Life Member; inaugural Australian Football Hall of Fame inductee; member of the AFL Team of the Century; member of Richmond’s Team of the Century; inaugural RFC Hall of Fame member; RFC ‘Immortal’.