Rewind ten years ago and there I was – a one-eyed Victorian watching (or should I say pretending to watch) a game of rugby in a shabby share house in London with my Kiwi/QLD housemates. We were worldly neighbours – yet so unconnected by our opposing sporting interests – supposedly bonding through some world class rugby. However, as an obvious Victorian Aussie Rules outcast, it was evident that I was the foreigner in the room.
Let it be known that I grew up in a house of Aussie Rules fanatics. I kicked the football to my brothers relentlessly most days from a young age. My dad has been the local Football Club President. My mum is an avid football supporter and volunteer. My brothers have both played football for many years together (one coaching a Seniors side), and when I am at home for a weekend in football season the TV guide consists of football, football and more football. Even I played a season of Aussie Rules myself at one point.
However, as days wore on (personally it still resembled a bunch of guys piling on top of each other though), I grew to enjoy the rivalry among my fellow dwellers in those national and international Rugby league and union matches and eventually developed an appreciation of the sport. Instead of kick to kicks at the park, we enjoyed mixed games of touch rugby (modified version), and to be honest, I enjoyed the social banter that came with this worldly sport.
But my real appreciation of the sport (well actually rugby union, but to this ignorant Victorian it’s all rugby) came when we moved to the Middle East and I was talked – or more like forced – into filling in for the local women’s rugby sevens side one day they were short. I haphazardly scored a try (once I worked out the ball was to be placed on the ground) and before any inkling of doubt crept in, I was somehow a permanent fixture in this gruelling team for the remainder of the season.
Even though I was a completely clueless Victorian who resembled a ragdoll in a washing machine, not to mention never doing anything strategically useful for the remainder of the season, I enjoyed the challenge. And like with all sport, I will always cherish the friendships and bonds that I forged throughout that year, regardless of my complete lack of rugby talent. Aussie Rules will always be ingrained in me, but I never did come home the same person.
But never did I think I’d see the day, years later, when I would be sitting at the first Rugby League game in the history of Swan Hill- the Aussie Rules capital of the Mallee – with a rugby obsessed Kiwi husband and three potential All Blacks players (hmmm, I’m not sure about that) on a Saturday afternoon. Wow, how times have changed. I feel like the world has followed me home.
Rugby League has been in the development stages in Swan Hill for over a year now, only just entering the Sunraysia Rugby League officially this season. They spent last year playing several unofficial scratch matches against teams on their byes, but the Murray Bulls played their first official game here in Swan Hill last Saturday 13th May. The final score was not in their favour unfortunately, but the Bulls were fearless against a more experienced Mildura Warriors team, and after a year in the making, their proud grins said it all – Rugby League is here to stay.
Joining the Sunraysia League has been a rigorous process of affiliation approval, naming, colour selection, meetings, recruitment, uniform design and simply proving their viability in a town void of any Rugby League history. Being a minority sport in a country town has made it a hard slog for the Murray Bulls side and everything has been a learning curve, but President Stacey Hamilton focuses on the future. ‘The support is definitely getting better.’
What originally started as a bunch of mates casually playing a bit of rugby together during their spare time in Mildura, eventually matured into the robust Sunraysia Rugby League, now consisting of five teams. As more cultural groups came to reside in Mildura for work with a Rugby League background, it was only fitting that a league was created for them.
Similarly, as Swan Hill diversifies and we see a vast range of cultures from around the world embracing our regional town as their home, it is vital that we provide a variety of healthy pursuits for the broader population, something that Swan Hill has been excelling at in recent years (read Swan Hill celebrates Culture). Interestingly, Stacey explains, ‘our team is really the only mixed culture group in the league’ with a range of cultural representations from our broad region; something to be certainly proud of.
When the Bull’s current coach, Swan Hill Primary School teacher Andrew Cameron, was contacted for the coaching role late last year he ‘jumped on it.’ With a wealth of experience playing and coaching in Darwin and a strong community presence, he was an obvious choice for the newly-established team. Andrew’s commitment to the team is unwavering and when he (a retired player in his 50’s) pulled on the boots last Saturday to help field a side, that devotion was unquestionable.
Both Andrew and Stacey claim that the hardest part has been getting people to training at the same time. Stacey says ‘many of the players do seasonal work and 24 hour shift work,’ so it is a challenge to get them altogether. However, at the subsequent training Wednesday night after their first game, numbers expanded and there was an energetic vibe about the place. ‘Having an official game here has made the difference. It’s real. It’s here. The boys needed this game for it to be real.’ Stacey also commended the opposing teams for their support last Saturday. ‘They really created a great vibe around the place. We are grateful for them sticking around.’
Coming from an Aussie Rules background herself, President Stacey Hamilton has put her heart and soul into bringing the Swan Hill community a Rugby League club. There was a nervous, yet exciting wait leading into the first game, with the official uniforms arriving at Stacey’s house only the day before. ‘I think I scared the delivery driver. I was outside waiting for him in the early hours of Friday morning. The parcels were like Christmas. I nearly hugged him.’
As always is the case in the development stages of a new club, the Murray Bulls still have a tedious path ahead and retention is a major focus for the club’s future. They have many players on their books, but due to minimum age restrictions and irregular working hours, new players and supporters are always welcome. They also require more sponsorship to remain viable and offer a sponsor package for those interested. ‘Every little bit helps,’ explains Stacey.
We have some great sports on offer in Swan Hill, but Rugby League only adds to Swan Hill’s growth and diversity. The social, emotional and physical benefits of sport and being physically active, not to mention inclusiveness in the community, are far too great to sacrifice. Stacey says, ‘I want the sport to be around when my four-year-old is older.’ I couldn’t agree more.
So as I sat there at Swan Hill’s first Rugby League game last Saturday reminiscing of my time overseas, it brought back only warm memories. While Rugby Union or League were never my original games of choice, I still rave more about that year I awkwardly danced around that rugby field with no clue, than any other sport I have played. New experiences broaden us as people, so I’m pleased to see that these opportunities continue to exist for the broader Swan Hill community. We might be a small regional town in the Mallee, but we are certainly putting ourselves on the world map.
Training is on a Wednesday night 6.30pm at Swan Hill Showgrounds. Anyone is welcome.