Career : 1938 - 1945
Debut : Round 14, 1938 vs Essendon, aged 21 years, 98 days
Carlton Player No. 544
Games : 111
Goals : 95
Last Game : Grand Final, 1945 vs South Melbourne, aged 28 years, 160 days
Guernsey No. 24
Height : 187 cm (6 ft. 1 in.)
Weight : 89 kg (14 stone, 0 lbs.)
Premiership Player 1945
Best and Fairest 1945
One of the heroes of Carlton’s sensational 1945 Grand Final victory over South Melbourne, Ron Savage was a brutally single-minded match-winner on the football field, and an enigma off it. Often blunt and abrasive to those with whom he disagreed, he was also a lover of poetry and nature; a man who marched to a slightly different drum throughout his eight seasons at Princes Park.
Although he was suspended for 8 weeks after the ‘45 Grand Final, Savage still won Carlton’s Best and Fairest trophy. Shortly afterwards, he shocked the club by announcing that he had signed a contract to captain-coach Hobart in the Tasmanian Football League, and wanted an immediate clearance. The Carlton committee flatly refused the 28 year-old’s request, sparking an ugly public dispute that fractured the relationship between player and club.
Ronald Ellis Savage was born in Carlton, and recruited from Mitcham in 1938. Powerfully built and highly-skilled, he was seen as a star in the making during his early games with Carlton Reserves, earning his promotion to the Blues’ senior side in round 14, 1938. In guernsey number 24, he ran out on to Princes Park to partner his captain-coach Brighton Diggins in the ruck against Essendon, and made a six-point victory just a little sweeter when he took two big pack marks up forward, and calmly converted both into goals.
Despite missing out on a place in Carlton’s finals squad that claimed the 1938 Premiership, Savage benefitted from Diggins’ presence and guidance over the next three seasons. In 1941, Australia was drawn into the maelstrom of World War II, and the VFL struggled to cope with the exodus of players volunteering for military service. Under a new coach in Percy Bentley, Savage experienced finals football for the first time that September when Carlton made it through to the Preliminary Final, only to be beaten by Essendon.
By 1944, Savage was a recognised star of the competition; a tough-as-teak ruckman who never took a backward step. He was also capable of filling a key forward position, as he showed by kicking five goals at full-forward against Hawthorn in round 2, 1944, and seven against Essendon a fortnight later. But that year also began amid controversy for Carlton’s blonde enforcer, after the Blues’ round 1 loss to South Melbourne at the Junction Oval, St Kilda.
During that match, Savage crashed through South Melbourne’s 1940 Brownlow Medallist Herbie Matthews with a ferocious tackle that broke a bone in Matthews’ leg and sidelined him for much of the year. The field umpire saw nothing untoward in the incident, but sections of the crowd believed that Ron had deliberately injured their star centreman, and were baying for blood on the final bell. In near-riotous scenes, a mob surrounded the Carlton dressing rooms for an hour after the game, and Savage needed a police escort to get him to the nearby railway station in safety.
From that day on Savage was a marked man every time the Blues and the Bloods faced off, and goes some way toward explaining the build-up of emotions that exploded at Princes Park on Grand Final day the following year. The fact that Carlton was still in flag contention by then was remarkable in itself, because the Blues lost their first three games of 1945 by an average of 52 points, and only climbed into the top four in the last round.
With their confidence boosted by an impressively-easy Semi Final win over North Melbourne, the Navy Blues then faced Collingwood in a gruelling, violent Preliminary Final. The Magpies held sway throughout and led by 35 points early in the last quarter, before the Blueboys – inspired by their hard men; Bob Chitty, Rod McLean, Jack Bennett and Ron Savage, came storming back into the game to snatch a glorious victory by 10 points. Afterwards, Percy Bentley preached a “backs to the wall” sermon in the lead-up to the Grand Final against hot favourites South Melbourne. Expecting South to challenge the battered Blues physically again, he urged his men to do “whatever it takes” to claim the ultimate prize.
Bentley believed that the key player for South Melbourne was their star ruckman Jack Graham, a clever 191 cm giant who had been voted Footballer of the Year and was still occasionally using the place kick when taking long shots at goal. As part of his game plan, Bentley asked Savage to shadow Graham, to harass him, block him and prevent the big Swan from getting first hands to the ball. After Carlton’s triumph, Bentley praised Savage, saying that he had carried out his task to the letter, and allowed Rod McLean the space and time to use his palming skills with telling effect.
Early in the second quarter, the match erupted when players from both sides attacked each other with fists, elbows and boots in the first of a series of brawls that continued throughout the game. Led by their legendary captain Bob Chitty, who kicked a crucial, team-lifting goal late in the match – just minutes after having his eyebrow split wide open - Carlton went on to win the ‘Bloodbath’ Grand Final by 28 points. Savage was one of ten players reported afterwards by the field umpire, and he was duly suspended for eight matches for striking South Melbourne defender Don Grossman.
In light of the events that followed however, that suspension was incidental. Early in 1946, as Australia and the world began the long road to recovery after the war, Savage stunned Carlton by requesting an immediate clearance to Hobart, where he had been appointed captain-coach. Angered by not being consulted beforehand, and loath to lose such a valuable player who was still at his peak, the Carlton committee refused the request.
That decision soon led to a stalemate, and a protracted dispute between the parties that was played out in the sporting pages of newspapers in both states. In July 1946, a lurid headline in the Hobart Mercury quoted Savage as accusing his former club of “fascist methods” in not releasing him. But the VFL itself endorsed Carlton’s actions, and he was not finally cleared by the Blues until 1947.
Savage spent the next sic years in the Island State, as captain-coach of Hobart in 1947, Franklin (1948), Hobart again in 1949-50 and Longford (1951-52). He met and married his wife Georgia (a noted writer) during those years, and in 1953 they returned to the mainland when Ron was appointed coach of Red Cliffs in the Sunraysia Football League. In a remarkable coincidence, Savage was reunited with his “Bloodbath” opponent Jack Graham at Red Cliffs, and together they led the Tigers to a famous victory over Mildura in the ’53 Grand Final.
Ron Savage passed away at Moorabbin on January 15, 1974, aged just 56.
Milestones50 Games: Round 10, 1942 Vs Melbourne
100 Games: Round 11, 1945 Vs South Melbourne
LinksArticles: The Mercury Article
Blueseum: A statistical summary of Savage's playing career | Career Breakdown | Savage's Blueseum Image Gallery