Gary Jovanovich follows Lower Clarence captain-coach Don Waters on to Frank McGuren field, at the start of the 1984 Group One r
Gary Jovanovich follows Lower Clarence captain-coach Don Waters on to Frank McGuren field, at the start of the 1984 Group One r

Leading from the front row

By MAX GODBEE

GARY (Jughead) Jovanovich was one of the toughest hard running and big tackle rugby league forwards to play in the area, turning out for a number of years with Lower Clarence, including two as captain-coach.

Gary also played a season, 1978, with Grafton Ghosts.

His football career began in Moree and over the years he represented as a front-row forward in turn for Groups Five, Two and One and was captain of Group One when they won the Anthony Shield against Group 18 in 1976, the last season the old Shield was up for competition.

As well as Group representation Gary played for Northern Division on a New Zealand tour while still in Group Five and playing for Moree.

Gary Jovanovich was born at Gosford in 1951, the son of Burt and Jean (nee Woodbury) Jovanovich. His father Burt was the son of a Yugoslavian migrant, George Jovanovich, who had great pride in his new country and was a member of the Australian army during World War One.

Burt himself was a welder by trade and the family moved from Gosford to Moree when Burt became employed by the Moree Plains Shire Council.

Burt and wife Jean became long-time hard workers for Moree Rugby League Club and both were rewarded with life membership.

Burt was secretary of the Moree club for many years and in another honour, the club named their football ground Burt Jovanovich Park.

Burt and Jean have followed their son to the Clarence area, and are now living at Harwood.

As well as son Gary they had four daughters, Dian, Susan, Maree and Drina.

Dian and Susan are married to ex-Moree footballers and life members of that club, Peter Currie and Jeff Greenaway respectively. Tragically, Maree died of leukaemia when a teenager. The youngest daughter, Drina, is now living and working at Maclean.

As a youngster Gary attended primary school at Moree Public and then three years at Moree High, where he gained the intermediate certificate

His main sports interests were rugby league and to a lesser extent, cricket.

Gary represented both schools in league as a prop forward playing in school carnivals and inter-school competitions against other schools such as Tamworth, Armidale, Glen Innes, and Farrer High.

As well Gary played junior league in the Moree competition on Saturday mornings and later for Moree Under-17s in the wider Group Five competition.

The Under-17s were coached by former St George and Australian winger Eddie Lumsden and they went through the season unbeaten to take out the premiership.

Gary then played for Moree Under-19s for two seasons, with the team capturing group premierships in successive years.

At 20 Gary, weighing in at 102kg, was selected in first grade and his Moree team coached by Pat Kelly won the premiership.

He also made his Group Five representative first-grade debut that year and eventually the Northern Division team to tour New Zealand

Gary had earned his representative positions, regarded as an outstanding front-rower in attack and defence with barging runs and heavy workload gaining him many write-ups and player of the match awards.

After leaving school Gary took employment as an apprentice panelbeater.

With the apprenticeship completed, Gary In 1975, aged 23, accepted a paid-player position as prop forward with the Smithtown Tigers in the Group Two competition with Ross Sullivan the nonplaying coach.

Gary was named team captain, leading Smithtown to the semifinals.

He was also selected in Group Two sides and then in Combined Groups Two and Three and his hard running, hard tackling play was outstanding. However, he was the surprise omission when the Combined North Coast team from Groups One, Two, Three and 18 was chosen.

After reading that a first-grade captain-coach was required for the Group One club Lower Clarence for 1976, Gary applied for the post and won the position.

He took over at a difficult time with the Magpies having won just two games the previous year, 1975, when minor-premiers South Grafton won the premiership beating South Lismore 21-12 in the grand final.

Gary's powerhouse play, damaging bursts, ball distribution and ferocious tackling inspired Lower Clarence and the 1976 Magpies lifted to equal fourth with the Lismore team Western Suburbs on 22 points.

In the resultant play-off for a semi-final berth, Wests led by NSW Country representative halfback Primo Casagrande played their best football of the year to beat Lower Clarence 15-0 on the Maclean Showground.

West, however, were then beaten by Casino in the preliminary final and the Cougars went on to win the premierships with an upset 22-7 win over minor premiers and major semi-final winners South Grafton after a surprising and controversial decision by Group One Management to play the grand final on Lismore's Oakes Oval.

Gary Jovanovich was again in charge of Lower Clarence in 1977 and although he was in magnificent form scoring 10 tries, the most by any forward in the competition, the Magpies managed just the one win along with two draws and a bye for eight points to slip to the bottom of the ladder.

The premiership was taken out by the Derek Moritz-led Grafton Ghosts beating South Grafton 16-14 in a see-sawing grand final on the Grafton showground.

For 1978 Gary was enticed to switch to Grafton Ghosts, where Phil Young was captain-coach. Gary played a mixture of first and reserve grade with Grafton finishing fourth on the firstgrade ladder before losing out 14-31 to South Grafton in the minor semi-final.

Former Ghosts player Terry Tye had taken over as Lower Clarence captain-coach for that year but once again the Magpies were well down the ladder winning just the one game to finish equal ninth with Mid Richmond.

Gary was back with Lower Clarence in 1979, where John Brown was captain-coach and despite some big wins, the Magpies managed just seventh on the Group One ladder.

Brown's Magpies, with Jovanovich again in the front row, did better a few years later, winning the 1983 minor-premiership on 31 points. They made the grand final only to lose out 12-14 to Kyogle in a fierce encounter on the Kyogle Showground.

No problem in 1984 with Brown as coach once more taking Lower Clarence to the Group One grand final, this time against Grafton, on the Ghosts new ground, the Frank McGuren Field.

In a hard-hitting, fast-flowing game, the Magpies were too good, winning 25-8 with the man we called 'The Wizard', captain Garry Chapman, scoring 21 of the Lower Clarence points from three tries, four goals and a field goal.

Lower Clarence featured in all three grand finals that day and Gary Jovanovich was playing reserve grade, where the Magpies were beaten 18-14 by Lismore Marist Brothers and Casino took out the under-18s beating the Magpies 8-4.

Gary played intermittently in 1985 before deciding to hang up his boots.

However, he was still part of the Lower Clarence football machine, on the club's committee for a number of years and club president for the 1994 season.

He had also coached teams in the Lower Clarence Junior League and particularly remembers one of his proteges, a young Nathan Brown starring in the Under-8s team. Nathan, son of John Brown, is now coach of the St George team in Sydney.

It had been in 1984 that Gary Jovanovich married Maclean nurse Michelle Pronk. Michelle is the daughter of the late Lola Pronk who was Lower Clarence Rugby League Club secretary for eight years.

Michelle, too, has been a great supporter of the club, involved in canteen work and fund-raising ventures.

She and Gary have a son Dane and daughter Ashleigh. Dane played football at school and is attending first year studies at the Southern Cross University in Lismore.

Ashleigh, whose favourite sport is netball, attends Maclean High as a Year 12 student.

Gary and Michelle are keen followers of rugby league but have been too busy at work in recent years to attend matches.

Gary works for North Coast Water, a position he has held for the past 17 years and he and Michelle are owners of the GMJ Contract Cleaning Business.

They live in Wharf Street, Maclean and any spare time is spent on revamping their 100year-old house, which in its earlier years was one of the best known maternity hospitals of the district.



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