In his last and happiest years Phil Roche was a shepherd. But in the 1960s he was a teenage Beatle fan in the industrial north of England, dressing fashionably and forever having his hair done. He had no vision of himself in Australia, much less on a Western District sheep farm with his beloved dogs.
Born on April 20, 1950 Philip John Roche was one of five sons of Cambridge-educated parents. At the age of seven he was sent to boarding school in the Lake District – cold baths in the mornings and invigorating walks in the snow and sleet.
Phil thrived on sport, which was played every day, excelling at soccer and cricket, but had little interest in the academic side of things. He still passed the entrance exam for the local grammar school, where he played rugby in the 1st XV, cricket in the 1st XI and maintained his lack of interest in academia unless he had a special bond with a teacher.
The family emigrated to Colac in 1968. Phil was 18 and had just finished school. He did not want to come to Australia – he had a girlfriend and a busy social and sporting life.
He spent his first months in Australia working on a farm near Derrinallum before going to Longerenong Agricultural College (LAC) near Horsham. His accent wasn’t the only thing about to change. It was clear to his fellow students, many of whom became lifelong friends, that “The Pom” was angry and unhappy, struggling with the incessant heat, the flies and the isolation. His heart was in England.
He was an easy target but they found him to be tough and resilient; and an accomplished athlete. He played for the LAC cricket XI as a wicketkeeper-batsman, and represented Horsham District Cricket Association at Country Week. Soccer and rugby not being an option, he tried Aussie Rules, and ended up playing on the wing in an outstanding LAC football team that won premierships in 1970 and 1971.
Phil’s was always a broad church. He followed Leeds United in the halcyon days, loved an Ashes series and appreciated Alastair Cook, also a cricketer and a sheep farmer, who once observed that “sheep and dogs don’t talk to me about cricket”.
Phil became a blind follower of the Pies and thus regularly abused umpires at the MCG. He was a rugby union devotee, but after meeting Cameron Smith he also tolerated rugby league. He maintained that if Cameron Smith were Prime Minister with Barrie Cassidy his deputy, the country would be in safe hands.
When it came to the domestic front Phil chose to be clueless, but he applied himself assiduously to his work, and prided himself on leaving each property he farmed in a better condition than when he arrived. In 1977 he and Lesley took up their own dairy farm at Tandarook near Cobden, but his passion was sheep, perhaps stemming from the time he spent on sheep farms in the Yorkshire Dales as a child.
He tried combining trade teaching at Cobden Technical School with a small sheep farm, before moving to a larger sheep property at Leslie Manor, near Camperdown. Sheep farming allowed him to play A Grade cricket into his mid-40s. The pleasure of those years winning premierships with “the Cobden boys” was matched only by the contentment he found later as a shepherd.
In 1994, on the back of the wool crisis, he turned his hand to running a newsagency in Horsham, after which he “retired” to Indented Head to follow his next dream: building a couta boat with a view to ecotourism on Port Phillip Bay. Unfortunately spinal surgery meant he could not manage the couta boat. He was heartbroken, but never being one to take a backward step or sit still, he reinvented himself as a shepherd.
The sometimes solitary nature of his work gave him time to read, listen and reflect on his many interests.
In his own considered and painstaking way, Phil researched sheepdogs thoroughly. He bought dogs from Queensland with the best breeding for his purpose. He went to sheep dog trials near Dargo and a workshop at Sale led by James McGee, an Irishman who had won two World Sheep Dog Trials with his dog Becca.
In 2014, the day that gave Phil the most pleasure on a trip back home was the one he spent with James McGee on his County Donegal farm, mustering and drenching ewes with Becca’s offspring Silver, who soon afterwards was awarded International Supreme Champion. Phil described his day as “… like your very average club cricketer having an eight-hour master class with Shane Warne. Except I doubt Warney would have served up cheese sandwiches dipped in hot tea for lunch.”
Phil’s new life revolved around his beloved dogs and his shepherd’s work at Wingiel, the former Ardno stud property near Inverleigh owned by the late Clive McEachern and his wife Kate. The sometimes solitary nature of his work gave him time to read, listen and reflect on his many interests.
He may not have enjoyed the academic side of school, but he had a way with words. His speeches at the weddings of his daughters were memorable. When congratulated, he wrote: “I have a lot of time to think these days. One of the advantages of being a shepherd, lots of watching flocks etc. even if not at night.”
He loved classical and ecclesiastical music, equally Neil Diamond and Paul Simon. He enjoyed Saturday’s Age, especially Flanagan, Baum and Silvester. John Clarke’s death upset him greatly. Shortly afterwards, when told Martin Flanagan and Michael Gordon were pulling the pin, he responded simply: “Tragic. The world’s going pear-shaped, mate.”
He read widely – biographies and autobiographies, the Age obituaries (particularly of war veterans), about World War I, and especially about his hero, General Sir John Monash. “Remarkable man,” Phil wrote. “Staggers me what some people achieve from humble beginnings.” He admired Monash’s bridge-building, including the Fyansford bridge that he passed on his way to work.
On June 16 Phil went to work at Wingiel feeling fine. Mid-morning he fell ill. He tried to drive himself back to Geelong Hospital, but only reached Monash’s bridge at Fyansford. He died that evening from meningococcal disease.
He leaves his wife Lesley, daughters Jennie, Sara and Rachel, seven and two-thirds grandchildren and no one to work his dogs. Typically he left explicit instructions: “In the event you need to decide on the future of my dogs … spread the ashes in the top lambing plain at Wingiel. They are as fond of each other as they are me, I know they would be traumatised by being split up.”
The appreciative McEachern family plans to erect a memorial in Phil’s honour at Wingiel “to a wonderful shepherd”.