In the high-octane commercial world that has engulfed modern rugby, we can often forget a few important things.
While enjoyed by millions of people around the world, at its very heart, rugby is a game played not just in major arenas but also in regions where there is no huge fan-base, no silky smooth rugby fields, and no million dollar contracts.
On Wednesday night August 19 at 8pm on Fox 3, a documentary will be aired called Once Upon a Sport – Country to Country. It will be narrated by Wallaby legend John Eales.
It follows a three-week trip to Ireland last October by lads from country and outback Queensland under a ‘Stockmans Rugby’ banner and organised by a young champion bloke called Shaun Mackin and his brothers Peter and Paul from Townsville. And yes, of course there was a woman involved to help pull it all together – the very capable and equally passionate Therese Acton.
All the lads paid their own way at a cost of approximately $5000 each. It was my good fortune to end up coaching the side with former Wallaby No.10 and great mate Tony Melrose.
As a farm boy long gone from the Darling Downs, this was an opportunity for me to get back to my country roots and enjoy the simple pleasures of mateship, humour and endeavour with a knockabout group of young men from the bush. There is something about country blokes that you can’t help but love.
This tour was an adventure. And as we get older it is sometimes easy to forget when we were young and just how much fun adventures were.
It is a shame that country rugby will forever struggle for the simple reason that while the love of the game is no less in rural Australia, there is simply no sustainable commercial value in bush footy.
Country rugby needs these tours and it needs young men like Shaun Mackin who are prepared to work tirelessly to create opportunities for country lads that simply would not otherwise exist. After all, the best part of rugby is touring.
Tony Melrose summed it up when he said that to watch the boys develop as a group and as individuals, both on and off the field, was enormously satisfying. He went on to say that whoever put this team together should also be congratulated on their choice of individuals as men, as they were well behaved and well received.
Rugby was merely the conduit.
It is a credit to Shaun Mackin that he took it upon himself to create an adventure for players that are disenfranchised in so many ways, through the tyranny of distance and lack of population.
And what an adventure they had.
This was a rugby tour the old fashioned way. The Irish Clubs we played along the way provided us with the traditional warmth and hospitality that the Irish are renowned for off the pitch. And on the pitch it was on for young and old – as it should be.
It was nice to turn up to the local rugby ground and see the history of the club displayed proudly on the walls, and meet the warriors of the past who turned up in the blazers having morphed from player to club officials and discuss the very similar struggle for survival that amateur rugby clubs face the world over.
Talent was not the main criteria for this trip. It was about being part of the universal rugby brotherhood – and experiencing life in that context. It was about seeking out new horizons, and forming and developing relationships that will transcend the rugby field and stay in the hearts and minds of these young men forever.
And as they grow old and look back on their youth, a wry smile will pass their lips as they have a cold beer and remember the good old days when they were young and took off to the Emerald Isles and had the time of their life with their mates.
They, as we, have now formed friendships for life and it is a salient reminder that long after the final whistle has blown, the most important things in rugby are not the scores, the trophies, records or how much money you made. But simply the endeavour – the willingness to put oneself to the test on the field, and off the field to get to know each other, have a laugh, respect each other and those around us and embrace life to the full.
Shaun is busy planning the next Stockman’s rugby adventure for 2016 and it promises to be bigger and better. But it sure as hell ain’t easy.
So, if you are doing nothing on Wednesday night – turn the telly on at 8pm and enjoy the documentary.
And spare a thought for country rugby.