Not that long ago – only five weeks ago, in fact – the Melbourne Rebels had opened a seven-point lead over their next-closest challenger for the Australian conference, the NSW Waratahs.
Rugby is, among many other things, fun. But it is always more fun when you are a part of a team.
It is even more fun when that team is part of a tribe.
And when you are part of a tribe it is also very fulfilling. It becomes a part of our life.
This is my little contribution to the fabric of the story. What’s yours?
What is a tribe (at least in the rugby context)?
It is the people that adopt you, It is, in turn, the people that you adopt. The people that you want to be around because they are kindred spirits. Usually, it is your club.
Your tribe, your people, your colleagues, the people that you attend games with, the people you train with, often on cold, rainy nights, and play with.
The people that you have the pleasure of playing alongside on weekends. The people that have your back.
The people that you coach, or manage, or cook for, or just sweep out the dressing sheds for after a win or a loss. Their wives, families, kids and their mates.
The people to whom you can say “I have your back” – that is priceless.
The ones that you commiserate with after a lost game and the same ones that you go nuts with after a winning result.
The favourite pub or Chinese restaurant that you retire to late on Saturday night after the game.
It can be the older guys, looking back on their playing careers, who give back to the club, or just the ones who turn up on game day.
Somehow, you just get to know those people a little better, game by game, as the season progresses and while you may not have much in common with them to start off with, the bond develops, you all meld into the team, and as the season wears on the team melds into the tribe.
Suddenly, at some point, which could be anywhere in the season, it all begins to gel.
You may have had more wins than losses – suddenly one of the team – not necessarily one of the leaders says, “Guys we are a band of brothers and we are heading in the right direction – if we win this thing, we remember it for the rest of our lives, but if we come second it just goes away and we are nothing.”
You were right, Jake, and when we did win it was a feeling that I have never experienced before or since. A memory of a cold, Tuesday night at training, just before the GF that lives with me forever. Just an ordinary bunch of blokes who stepped out of their respective comfort zones to be special for a moment in time and had a real belief that they could do it.
Young men becoming men.
The fact that, at the start of next season, you have to turn up start all over again, is irrelevant at the moment. The only thing that counts in rugby is “next week”. Next year can take care of itself.
We were only a minor grade team at our club, but the strength of the tribe was such that we were just as exalted as if we had been first grade, and even though all five club grades made it to the grand final that year, only seconds and fifths won theirs.
I was the coach of the mighty 5th grade of (Sydney) Norths Rugby 1998 and it lives in my memory. Those guys, my team, have stuck together and we don’t forget each other, even though we now live in many parts of the world, but still keep in touch. I’m proud to say that many of those guys have gone on to have impressive careers.
This was 1998 when the club coach was the mighty Denis Brown, who had been brought in from Waikato, NZ and who made new and innovative strides and many changes to the way that a Sydney club approached the Shute Shield. Denis brought a whole new professional mindset to the club.
The club manager was the great Tony Hearne (“Hearney” to his mates – “Captain Grumpy” to his best mates, who got the special invitation to go fishing with him on Sundays).
He had more influence on the success of the club than many will give him credit for, and his beautiful wife Sal was a fantastic person who had a very calming influence on all who met her. Hearney, though nominally the CEO of the licensed club, also had two sons playing there and got himself involved in every aspect of the running of the rugby program, sometimes to the chagrin of others.
The club president was Davo, a bloke who didn’t mind a drink on a hot day (RIP).
The club caterer was George.
Hearney had the insight to make him my 5th grader team manager, despite the fact that he knew bugger all about rugby.
So what would happen is that 5th grade would drop a few hints that George might be putting on a few free burgers back at the club after training and, bingo lots of hungry players from 1s to 5s would be back at the club after training and the bonding from 1 to 5 (and colts).
Everybody was a mate, no matter what grade they played in. Some of those post training evenings were great and you got to learn a lot about blokes from other grades that you would not necessarily talk to very much during the season.
George turned out to be a brilliant team manager and had everyone’s interests at heart.
My captain was Macca and a bloody good leader he was. The rest, too many to name, remain strong mates to this day.
In 1998, halfway through that winning season, I had to move away from Sydney to Canberra for my work. I dreaded having to make the break, let alone tell Denis, as every grade was up there and we looked like making the finals. But he said, “Mate you just have to stay involved…I’m sure you will work it out.”
That was good enough for me. We worked out a system where two of my senior players, plus one of the dads, a former club stalwart, ran the training sessions. We had a phone hookup on Thursday after training to pick the team for the weekend, and on Friday, I got my skids on, screamed out of Canberra at warp speed and could make it to the clubhouse by about 7 pm on Friday night, ready for a meeting with my cohorts and a few comforting ales.
I would spend all day Saturday at the game(s), a great night out with my peeps on Saturday night, maybe a bit of a post-mortem on Sunday (or fishing with Hearney) and back to Canberra on Sunday night.
It was a long season – that was the year (1998) that the mighty Norths got all five grades into the GF (they don’t have 5ths anymore, which is a real shame).
It was also the year that my commute from Canberra to Sydney went from July to October (thank God they finally built the highway around Lake George – shortened the trip by an hour).
Happy to say that the mighty 5ths and the 2nds won their Grand Finals that year). We even had a rain-delayed game against Randwick that we played on a Tuesday night – I shot up to Sydney for the game, then raced over to see my son (living with my ex) and gave him a driving lesson for about an hour, then back to Canberra – I seem to remember falling into bed at about 2 am.
It was a long time between drinks for the 1sts, who finally got the job done in 2016 after their previous win in 1975. They were narrowly beaten that year by Gordon.
At the end of that season after that drive every weekend from July to October I decided that I would not do it again for a while. I averaged one day a year in Sydney after that until I finally moved with my family to Brisbane.
Apparently, Sydney has changed a bit since then – I wouldn’t know, but I did fly down for a day last year and rented a car – a lot of very impatient people seem to have sprung up since I last drove there on a regular basis in the 90s.
But, I digress and herein lies the whole point of this article.
The following year, I was asked to coach a lower grade side at one of the Canberra clubs. It was really not a lot of fun for many reasons, the club did not have the same spirit that I was used to, we didn’t make the semis and I was never happier to see a season end. What a contrast.
Once you have been involved with a club such as I was with Norths (Sydney) – the Shoremen, it’s all over, red rover.
I moved to Canberra where I lived for nearly 16 years and coached at the Defence Academy and at one of the Canberra Clubs. I attended lots of games there. I coached the Australian Services Women’s team at the Nationals in 1997 and took ADFA to the Australian University Games.
But I could never really get into it.
I moved my family to Brisbane in 2014 and had the opportunity to get involved with a few clubs. My son played juniors at one of the main clubs. We live quite close and I go down there occasionally to watch a grade game, but it is just not the imperative that it was when I was involved with the Shoremen.
Why is that?
I suppose TV has a lot to do with it. Today I was able to sit at my computer and watch two NZ games from the Mitre 10 Cup. Two games from the NRC (bad luck, Vikings) and the Sydney Shute Field grand final (really hard to watch a game played on that beautiful ground without my team in it!).
Plus, I’m getting older.
But still, what a magnificent thing tribalism is.
It is an amazing bond between people.
I just plain miss the Red and Black but now when I see how things have gone with the Shute Shield over the last few years, and the fact that they play so many important games at North Sydney Oval, I miss it more.
Those great afternoons on the balcony of the Mollie Dive Stand were precious.
But why should one rugby club leave such indelible memories while others just leave you cold?
Let’s face it, if your team succeeds or if your team sucks, does that really change your life?
If all the people that stand around the water cooler on Monday morning don’t get rugby, does that make the world a better or worse place?
After Norths won the 2016 GF they came up to Brisbane to play Brothers in the Club Challenge in Feb 17, which they won.
All the gang flew up from Sydney. I lobbed into Brothers and all the boys were there. Tombsy, Arnie, Vince, Sock, Russ, Pritch and all the gang and it was as if I had never been away, even though I had not been around the club for so long.
It was a memorable day.
Given all of that, you would expect me to say that I love the Waratahs. No, no, no.
I lobbed into Canberra for the first time in 1997 and then went back permanently in 1998 and stayed until 2014 when my family and I moved to Brisbane.
I hated what was happening with the original Super Rugby and the fact that NSW and Qld thought that they had a God-given right to run rugby. Even though I loved my club, I was not onboard with the NSW setup.
I saw how well the Kookaburras went in the Sydney comp and some of their upcoming stars like George Gregan, Joseph Roff and Murray Harley and co, back in 1996.
I was thrilled that they morphed into the Brumbies.
So, I’m sitting down to breakfast early in 1997 not long after I had moved down to Canberra and I open the Canberra Times. The back page and the two inside pages were devoted to rugby. The Canberra Raiders were three pages in.
How long’s this been going on? You bloody beauty! Is rugby getting equal space? Are you kidding?
I soon learned that there is such a thing as a one team town. Canberrans happily supported both the Brumbies and the Raiders with the same generosity of spirit. But rugby was really up there. It slowly started to dawn on me that Sydney and Brisbane are not as entitled to be the keepers of the flame as they would have us think.
Then I went to my first Brumbies game. Somebody at work got me a ticket to the main grandstand. I drove out to Bruce Stadium, easy peasy, drove out into the paddock behind the stadium. Right up against the fence, paid my gold coin donation and walked straight into this great stadium.
Again, how long’s this been going on? How easy is it to get to a game compared to what it used to be like in Sydney?
If we were at Norths after a game on a Saturday night, you wouldn’t bother going to the Waratahs – too hard to get over the bridge, park and walk etc – might just as well stay at the club on watch it on TV – (if it was on).
So, Canberra, I’m hooked, and that how it has been since virtually day one. Then the fantastic Brumbies started winning stuff. Talk about tribalism.
So, now I have joined my second and final tribe – the Brumbies family – once you’re in you don’t want to leave.
You can’t describe how good it was to go to some of those games at Bruce Stadium. Usually a cold Friday or Saturday night, the trick was not to sit in your seat too early otherwise the frost would settle on your lap or shoulders.
The trick was to keep moving. Most of the time I was out there with other blokes so we worked out that you just stayed on the concourse near the bars, and most of the time we never sat in our assigned seats – didn’t even know where they were.
After the game, upstairs to the members’ bar, or back to the Brumbies club, or later on, the All Bar Nun in Turner and mingle with the players. Some great times. I don’t know what they do these days since they moved to the UC campus and don’t really care.
In those days my club mates from Norths, Ben Darwin, Troy Jaques and Craig Wells, were contracted to the Brumbies – followed by Graeme Bond and Adam Ashley-Cooper, so it was good to be able to mingle between both.
There was one tribe and we were very united. The Canberra people adopted the Brumbies in a huge way. Every couple of years some dingo tries to suggest that the franchise should move to Melbourne or Perth, yadda yadda yadda – we saw them all off.
There can only be on one place for the Brumbies and that is Canberra.
Now I live in Brisbane.
I get to the odd Reds game at Suncorp, but these days, its easier to watch on Fox. I go right past Suncorp on the way home from the office and most games, I just keep going.
I haven’t seen (and probably won’t see) the need to join a tribe, probably because I’m getting older.
Thanks for reading the ramblings and reminiscences of an old(er) Rugby tragic. I don’t suppose this will attract many Roarers to comment because it is not about individual players, coaches or officials, but many of us have experienced tribalism and I would love to hear your thoughts.