Last week I introduced the POPE rating, a player value model which measures the average impact of every NRL player per 80 minutes of game time.
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.