Greyhound trainer Geoff Cowan with one of his best, King Wally, winner of 24 races.
Greyhound trainer Geoff Cowan with one of his best, King Wally, winner of 24 races.

Trainer in league of his own

By Max Godbee

Geoffrey Errol (Goose) Cowan has been outstanding in two sports in particular, rugby league, and greyhound racing as an owner, breeder and trainer.

Although he now limits the number of greyhounds he has in his kennels, he is still achieving.

Geoff was involved in five rugby league grand finals and contributed strongly in the premiership winning side on four of those five occasions.

The first was with South Grafton where he also came through the junior and Under-18 divisions and into first grade at an early age. Later he had plenty of success playing for the Mudgee Tigers.

His wins with greyhounds in his care are legion, with good results coming consistently throughout the North Coast tracks supplemented by victories in Sydney and Brisbane.

I have known Geoff Cowan for a great part of his life and had watched his father, Jack Cowan, play great football for South Grafton and the district for many years and it came as somewhat of a surprise to find Geoff was actually born at Liverpool, in Sydney.

The family had moved to that area for a while and it was through his grandmother, Hazel Gentle in Liverpool, a top trainer, that he was introduced into the love and care of these special animals.

Many years later it was his grandmother again who taught Geoff the intricacies and secrets of training, feeding and preparing these swift and loyal animals for racing.

Geoff was born at Liverpool in November 1949 the son of Jack and Joan (nee Caley) Cowan.

He was around three years old when the family moved back to South Grafton and Geoff and younger brother Wayne would have grown up watching their father delight crowds with his special brand of rugby league, be it in the backline or later as a classy forward, certainly one of the toughest, fastest, most accomplished and popular footballers to play for South Grafton or the district.

Geoff attended South Grafton Infants and Primary Schools and later on Grafton High School and at each school cricket, rugby league and athletics were his main sporting interests.

In rugby league he usually played half back and at high school was a regular representative in the weight division teams.

"I loved all three sports and in the athletic carnivals I would go in every event possible," he said.

Jack Cowan worked as a driver with the Copmanhurst Shire and each year at the annual Shire Picnics Geoff, with his undoubted speed was to the fore in the running events held for the families of workers.

He was just 16 and playing Under-18s in 1967 when he had his initiation into first grade with South Grafton with David Higgins as captain/coach.

That year Casino won the premierships in both grades and also won the reserve grade grand final for the treble.

In 1968 Geoff again figured in under 18s and first grade with John Plummer as captain/coach.

They made the first grade semis and the under 18 grand final but again Casino won both premierships.

In 1969 Geoff was a regular in first grade with John Plummer again captain/coach.

The Rebels finished fourth in first grade pointscore rounds but in the minor-semi, lost out 25-10 to Ballina who went on to win the grand final 7-3 over hot favourites, Casino.

With Plummer retired the Rebels for 1970 looked to Sydney and contracted former Newtown first grade forward Viv Hodge as captain coach. Hodge led the team to second to Lower Clarence in the pointscore and then to the grand final against the Darcy Goode-prepared Grafton Ghosts.

The night before the grand final Geoff Cowan was in the passenger seat of a car when he received a neck injury in a bad crash and was not expected to play in the big match but, against advice, he declared himself fit and took his place on the field.

The Grafton Showground was a quagmire on the Sunday and Grafton Ghosts adapted to the conditions better to beat the Rebels 12-3.

I have heard a number of theories as to how Geoff Cowan received the nickname of Goose, given to him by Viv Hodge, and I believe the following is the correct version ? the neck injury and the way it made him hold his head led to the name, derived originally from goose-neck.

The injury was still causing Geoff problems in 1971 and he missed the early football games, but was back in round five to score one of South Grafton's 12 tries to help the Rebels erase some of the disappointment of the 1970 grand final, beating Grafton Ghosts 52-23 (tries 3 points each).

That year however was disappointment for both clubs, The Rebels finishing sixth and Ghosts seventh.

With Viv Hodge again captain/coach in 1972, Cowan in full cry and backed up by the amazing Stevens brothers, Terry and Kevin, wingers Graeme (Grassy) Skinner and David Law, fullback Ray (Poss) Ide, utility player John Brown, and forwards Mark Eggins, Ray Pereira and Frank (Jumbo) White, South Grafton made it to the grand final against the defending premiers Kyogle led by ex-Balmain player Bill Tonkin.

The Rebels won the big encounter 19-6 at Casino with Terry Stevens scoring three tries to give him 41 for the season including a record 36 in the 15 competition rounds in which he played.

Although he didn't score a try in the match Geoff Cowan was one of the Rebels' leading players handing in a magical game, particularly in attack but great also in defence.

In December of 1972 Geoff married Grafton schoolteacher Kerry Montford at Grafton's Christ Church Cathedral. They have a daughter, Britt, who works as a computer technician at Sydney University.

Tragically, Kerry died of cancer in 1993.

Geoff Cowan was undecided about his playing career in 1973 but eventually told South Grafton rugby league officials that Grafton Ghosts, who had won only four games in 1972 had offered him good money to switch sides for 1973.

South Grafton told him they could not match the offer so he joined his new club but neither Ghosts nor Rebels had anything to boast about that season, with the Southern side finishing eighth and Grafton ninth on the Group One ladder.

The following year, 1974, Geoff and Kerry moved to South Australia, Kerry teaching school and Geoff who had worked for some years at the South Grafton Abattoir, gaining employment in the boning department for an Adelaide wholesale meat company.

After 12 months there the Cowans shifted to Naracoorte, also in South Australia, where a new abattoir had been built and Geoff was appointed boning room foreman.

Several other ex-South Grafton abattoir workers had been recruited including one of Geoff's best friends and Rebels team mate, Mully Morris as head lumper.

After another 12 months the Cowans were on the move again, this time to the NSW town of Mudgee where Geoff was appointed manager in the boning room of the Sugardale Meats Abattoir.

He was eagerly signed up by the Mudgee Tigers Rugby League Club to play centre and the Tigers won the premiership for the third year in a row.

The club then lost many from its premiership side for 1976 and Geoff, one of those top players to stay, was appointed captain/coach.

"It was not a good year for us and we finished at the tail of the field," Geoff said.

Then it was back to Grafton in 1978 for a final season with Ghosts under captain/coach Phil Young. The Ghosts finished fourth on the ladder and dropped out when beaten 31-14 by the Harry Reed-coached South Grafton Rebels in the minor semi-final.

That was Geoff's final season of football.

"While we were living in Mudgee my grandmother, Hazel Gentle, came to spend some time with us and she passed on a lot of her knowledge gained over many years as a good greyhound breeder and trainer. She taught me a lot," Geoff said.

"I bred greyhounds, sold some, trained a few and sent a couple home to Dad to race at Grafton.

"After I returned to Grafton in 1978 I worked at the South Grafton Abattoir until 1986.

"Working there was young bloke, Ron McClymont, who owned a brindle bitch named Zellyella which had come to him from Sydney.

"Zellyella had not won a race down south, but I trained her for 10 wins up here.

"Because she was well bred we decided to breed from her and sent her to be mated with the John Murray-owned sire Riviera Tiger in Brisbane.

"Her first litter turned out to be remarkable, all good dogs and with four standouts, King Wally, named after you know who, Eye Of Tiger, Tigerelly and Zephyr Zelle.

"King Wally won 24 races for us including the Wauchope and Tamworth Cups over 457m, a 530m race in Sydney at Wentworth Park and another six at The Gabba in Brisbane.

"Eye of Tiger was the winner of 25 starts with four of them at The Gabba, a 520m race at Wentworth Park, The Kempsey Cup, Wauchope Consolation Cup and the much sought after Wauchope 2000.

Tigerelly won Grafton Greyhound Of the Year title in 1978 and Geoff was named Trainer of the Year.

Zephy Zelle may not have been in Eye of Tiger's class but she still proved her worth winning 10 races.

Geoff also trained the Dennis Reid-owned and bred Travelling Tears, a dog from a litter by New Tears out of Golden Fox.

"Again these were a smart lot including one called Happy New Years which won 11 in a row, including five at The Gabba and one in Sydney," Geoff said.

Travelling Tears won a heat and semi-final of the Australian Cup and finished fifth in the final at Olympic Park in Melbourne, but only raced twice afterwards

Also from the litter was Boom Boom Burra which won the rich Butch Monkelly Memorial at Wauchope and was a great performer but his career was cut short after dropping a muscle.

"I have been helped over the years by John Gorman and would be stumped without him," Geoff said.

"These days I have just a few in work and best would be Street Assassin, winner of five races to date.

"I love the greyhound racing game and still have a keen interest in the sport.

"The dogs keep me going."

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