Bush footy reignited my love for the game

Simon Smale Roar Guru

By Simon Smale, Simon Smale is a Roar Guru


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    Remember the good old days of The Pest and Fitzy? Country will take on City for the last time. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

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    Over the course of winter, I, like thousands of others around Australia, have sat on the sidelines watching 26 men run headlong into each other for the pursuit of glory.

    Unlike those watching the NRL however, I have been enjoying my rugby league in far more humble surrounds than Lang Park or ANZ Stadium this season.

    Norm Blanche Oval in Middlemount is not one of rugby league’s great venues, and the Purcell’s Engineering Central Highlands Rugby League is not one of the great leagues in the typical sense. However, from the perspective of a sporting romantic, this modest ground on the edge of this central Queensland mining town – and the players plying their trade here – symbolises what rugby league represents in the bush.

    Play calls echo across the sprawling mining camp from the floodlit pitches. The inclusion of a mob of kangaroos, silhouetted behind the chainlink fence that rings the two pitch ground, only adds to the uniquely country atmosphere.

    And when Saturday night comes, the locals add to the atmosphere, congregating at the bar and on the selection of frugal, rickety wooden stands. This is stripped back, basic grass-roots sport at its very best.

    Perhaps its more a symptom of the limited entertainment options in a small mining town, but the community really gets behind their Panthers, with healthy crowds flocking to the club for both the game and the post-match music.

    In Round 2 on Anzac Day, it seemed that half the town were watching as Middlemount bullied Springsure around the park to win the Allen Johnson Memorial Shield.

    Middlemount dominated the Mountain Men, crushing their visitors 48-0. Everyone performed exceptionally, but Brendan Hoskin lead from the front, epitomising the Panthers bruising, slightly agricultural style of play with dominant hit ups and rampaging runs.

    This match, played in honour of a former player of both sides who tragically died in a road accident, optimises the community spirit that forged the game and first fostered its popularity in this country.

    Even on the coldest of Queensland winter nights, with tendrils of freezing fog drifting over the ground, the crowd still came.

    However, despite being root of everything that makes rugby league great, the game is dealing with some significant problems in the bush.

    These players do it tough. The distances are vast for a local competition, and rewards are minimal over the course of a tough season balancing life, training, matches and work.

    Getting players together can be a struggle with the transient nature of community historically bolstered by FIFO workers, and abandonments are a hazard for teams across the country. Middlemount suffered the indignity of having no opposition to play in their Round 13 game against an injury plagued Blackwater Crushers side just last fortnight.

    In these troubled economic times for the region, owing to the well publicised slowdown in the coal mining industry leading to plummeting numbers of workers, one would expect the more frivolous aspects of daily life to suffer proportionately.

    However, to the surprise of administrators, there was in fact an increase in participation this season.

    Frank Langley from the Central Highlands Rugby League, reported an increase in numbers this season to ABC Local Grandstand, which saw the reintroduction of the Dysart Bulls to this year’s first grade competition and the emergence of a five team women’s competition – which Langley hopes will expand to six teams next year.

    Perhaps the industry slowdown has served to bring those that are left closer together.

    Whatever the reason, the footy that I have seen has been excellent – and the top four have been hugely competitive all year.

    A 30-28 thriller against the fourth place Emerald Cowboys in Round 5, where the lead changed a whopping seven times was as exciting a game of footy you’re ever likely to see.

    It was only a late sin-binning that meant that the Round 10 clash against the Claremont Bears wasn’t just as close – the visitors running away with a 42-28 win after being locked at 28-28 going into the last 10 minutes.

    And although the Panthers were blown away in the final round of the season against the Bluff Rabbitohs 24-44, they showed remarkable resilience to fight back and make the scoreline respectable, capping off an impressive home-and-away season ahead of the first round of the finals next week.

    When I was writing this article, I did so with the intention of issuing a rallying cry for the power-brokers to use the new TV deal dollars to help support the game in the remote parts of the country, firstly by re-introducing the Amco Cup. It could be done in a different format from that of the 80s perhaps, but it is something that would ignite the passion of the bush for the game against those that they see on Channel Nine on a Friday night.

    Then my mind wondered that perhaps each NRL team should be obliged to take a game to the country once a year. Reward those supporters in league’s heartland instead of taking games elsewhere to ‘grow the brand’ – even if just a development team during the bye week. It would be something that rewards the supporters for keeping the game alive in the far reaches of this country.

    But I’m under no illusions that because this would cost money, as oppose to bring it in, it’s a fantasy and a dream.

    And as such, I’ve simply enjoyed the game for what it is. A group of blokes playing for the love of it. Without all the trimmings of the NRL yes, but also without the constant TV referrals and general niggle that is marring the game at the highest level.

    And it is undeniably all the better for it.

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    The Crowd Says (17)

    • Roar Guru

      August 18th 2015 @ 6:35am
      Riley Pettigrew said | August 18th 2015 @ 6:35am | ! Report

      Great article Simon!

      Next week is going to be interesting with Middlemount headed out to Clermont for the semi-finals. Clermont have defeated the Panthers twice this season, 52-42 (Round 3) and 42-28 (Round 10), giving Middlemount everything to play for.

      Also, Bluff vs Emerald Cowboys at Macca’s Oval. The Rabbitohs have defeated Emerald twice, 38-16 (Round 1) and 54-20 (Round 11), their only loss coming at the hands of the Tigers – 26-25 (Round 5).

      I too would love to see a nationwide competition that sees grassroots teams from around Australia going head-to-head.

      Imagine a Region 6 blockbuster between the Terrigal-Wamberal Sharks and the Kurri Kurri Bulldogs or a Bidgee blockbuster between Cootamundra Bulldogs and the Gungahlin Bulls. How good would a battle between the NSW City and Queensland Country be – South Eastern Seagulls vs Roma Cities. It would certainly be great for the game.

      • August 18th 2015 @ 10:09am
        Linz said | August 18th 2015 @ 10:09am | ! Report

        Middlemount are headed to Emerald for semi’s. Friday night game.

      • Roar Guru

        August 18th 2015 @ 8:31pm
        Simon Smale said | August 18th 2015 @ 8:31pm | ! Report

        Thanks Riley,

        Ye a nationwide competition that ties in all levels would be fantastic entertainment. Even if the NRL teams and supporters in the cities don’t really get behind it, it would be amazing for the bush teams and the communities out here. Any State of Origin games between two country teams would be incredible occasions.

        Bluff looked seriously good on Saturday night – a very powerful team and incredibly clinical in their execution. It seemed like every chance they had, they look against Middlemount. Whereas the Bears I thought were fortunate to win against the Panthers up here. Middlemount had the upper hand in the second half and looked certain to break the deadlock but the yellow card killed the momentum and the Bears never looked back.

        Either way the finals will make for excellent viewing!

    • August 18th 2015 @ 8:11am
      Hanrahan said | August 18th 2015 @ 8:11am | ! Report

      Yes, a great article.

    • August 18th 2015 @ 8:24am
      Hardwick said | August 18th 2015 @ 8:24am | ! Report

      Love my bush footy. I have a fond memories of heading down to the Graveyard to watch the Bellingen Magpies face Sawtell, Nambucca Heads, Macksville, Coffs and the like.

      The closest I get in the big smoke is a trek down to Henson Park to watch the Jets ply their trade.

      Agreed, some form of knockout comp could work well. How good would it be to hear about a cup run from the small
      towns dotted around NSW and Qld. Perhaps play the first few rounds in conjunction with regular season games to reduce travel costs etc.

      • Roar Guru

        August 18th 2015 @ 8:35pm
        Simon Smale said | August 18th 2015 @ 8:35pm | ! Report

        Agreed Hardwick – costs would be the major limiting factor on any cup competition – and is the problem with any national competition at any level below the top tier in this country owing to the distance factor… keeping it local until the money can filter down from the top table in the later rounds would be one way to deal with that. You never know, it could unearth some genuine talent out in the bush.

    • Roar Guru

      August 18th 2015 @ 8:27am
      Mister Football said | August 18th 2015 @ 8:27am | ! Report

      A good read Simon.

      I’m sure there are many of us on this board who have had some sort of association with a bush league (in any sport), and we all understand how important the clubs are in any rural/regional community.

      I’m a big fan of the Coodabeen Champions (a radio show which is celebrating 35 years of being on air this year), and each week they go out and talk to club presidents and the like from the bush leagues, and it’s just fantastic to hear all of their stories, and yes, at times it’s a struggle for some of them to remain viable.

      • Roar Guru

        August 18th 2015 @ 8:37pm
        Simon Smale said | August 18th 2015 @ 8:37pm | ! Report

        That sounds like a great show MF – and radio being such an essential part of life in the country it’s so fitting there is a show dedicated to celebrating regional sport like that – I’ll have to check it out.

    • August 18th 2015 @ 8:28am
      Jason Hosken said | August 18th 2015 @ 8:28am | ! Report

      Good stuff. Is Matt Sing a Dysart junior? Vague memories of hearing that during his Penrith days.

      Nothing beats the combined odours of liniment, pies and sizzling steaks at country footy venues.

      • Roar Guru

        August 18th 2015 @ 8:39pm
        Simon Smale said | August 18th 2015 @ 8:39pm | ! Report

        I’m not sure actually – but it wouldn’t surprise me that there are NRL players from this region – the standard of footy has been excellent out here – so playing in the A-Grade comp would be a fantastic grounding for any young player. It would certainly toughen them up…

    • August 18th 2015 @ 10:03am
      Arnold Krewanty said | August 18th 2015 @ 10:03am | ! Report

      CRL, and to an extent, NSW Cup & QRL are excellent to watch!

      Going to local footy reminds me of what RL is when it is not tampered with.

      Local comps is cheap to attend, on at decent hours of the day; food and grog is priced well; players play their guts out, cop an odd high shot, have a biff, and the game keeps playing – yes, even with dodgy referee calls fans and players alike still brush themselves off at the final whistle and everyone goes home happy they watched a game of RL.

      • Roar Guru

        August 18th 2015 @ 8:45pm
        Simon Smale said | August 18th 2015 @ 8:45pm | ! Report

        Absolutely Arnold – and pure rugby league is exactly right. None of the rubbish push and shove we see in the NRL – I didn’t see a single try decision “go upstairs” (surprisingly enough for a game where the nearest TV camera was about 600km away…)

        It’s cheap, there’s hardly any que at the bar or the toilets, kids playing mini games on the touchline and being told off for getting too close to the pitch… It’s just everything that the NRL is not. And so much better for it.

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