Beneath a leaden sky in July, the Tamworth Swans ran on to their home ground, No.1 Oval, to face the Moree Suns.
The miserable day that greeted the Swans was apt, given their winless season and the outcome of their previous match – a 305-point loss to the Gunnedah Bulldogs in which they kicked one behind. It was as if the sporting gods wept for them.
But Tamworth’s players countered the conditions and their ill season by fanning across the drenched surface, in preparation for the start of play, with the jauntiness of first graders running to tuck shop.
Unlike the away match against the Bulldogs in which they fielded 14 players, the minimum requirement to play a match, the Swans bristled with a full accompaniment of starters and a flush bench.
The Suns weren’t so lucky. But they still had too much firepower, winning 15.10 (100) to 12.10 (82).
For Tamworth, however, there was a sense of victory in defeat. Swans veteran Damien Wendt said the side produced “easily” their best performance of the year.
Diminutive and grey-haired, Wendt played his 199th Swans game that afternoon, having come out of retirement last season to help the club in their prolonged time of despair.
As the players left the field, the late afternoon sun splayed across the quaint oval with a white picket fence, Wendt said: “We tried our guts out.”
They’re five words that encapsulate the side’s response to their travail as they wrestle with what Wendt describes as the “little bit of disarray” manhandling the club.
In his 17 seasons with the Swans, he has savoured premierships; now he just wants to help the club survive in a competition that started the season with seven teams but lost the Narrabri Eagles when they folded.
“We’ve got the camaraderie, it’s there,” he said. “We’re a good bunch of blokes. We play for each other, and I think that’s a good basis for a good team … As long as I’ve still got legs I’ll keep trying to have a run and help them out.
“It is probably the most difficult [year for the club] but the last few have been not much better, to be honest.”
When asked why he and his teammates kept playing, he said: “It’s the Swans spirit. Some of us blokes have won flags together. We’re just good mates. We want to keep playing for each other.
“We want to see the club survive, and if we’re not here then it’s not going to do that. I’ll hang around till the club doesn’t need me anymore. Hopefully it’s not too much longer.”
On the eve of Wendt’s 200th game, played against reigning premiers the New England Nomads a week after the Suns clash, Tamworth coach Paul Kelly praised Wendt, whose name is on the club’s best and fairest medal.
“You wouldn’t find a harder and more fairer footballer going around,” Kelly said.
New England won by 97 points. But Kelly said it was “probably” his side’s best performance in “three or four years”.
A likeable former Swans player with a ready smile, Kelly admitted to listening to a country song, the Zac Brown Band’s Fried Chicken, to salve his coaching anxiety. His son Cooper, a Swans player, added it to his phone’s playlist.
In Tamworth’s next match, the Inverell Saints won by 95 points. And in their last match of the season, a local derby clash against the Tamworth Kangaroos on August 5, they lost by 105 points.
It’s just about getting out on the paddock. The boys are still turning up. Haven’t won a game but they’re still turning up because they love the game.Veronica Griffiths
Kelly thought he would have his strongest squad of the year to confront the Roos, but then the flu struck. He had previously complained of never before witnessing a team go through such an injury-ravaged season. Bad luck all round.
Still, he does his best to remain upbeat. “We’re headed in the right direction,” he said following the Moree game, an assessment he repeated after each subsequent defeat. “The boys don’t give up. Even when we’re down by 10 goals, they just keep fighting right out till the end.”
“For years the boys just never give in,” he added. “It’s something that seems to be bred into the culture of the Swans. Whoever puts on the jumper never gives in.”
Manning the canteen at the Moree game was Veronica Griffiths. Her husband Gerry is described as the “patriarch” of the Tamworth Australian Football League, rebranded AFL North West this year. The league commenced in 1997, with Gerry its long serving president and first life member.
Veronica is a Swans life member, and their son Evan was a member of the club’s 2006 and 2009 premiership teams. Another son, Matthew, also played for the club. Veronica, described as the Swans’ “most loved personality”, fought back tears upon revealing Gerry had died last year. They were married almost four decades.
There are versions of Wendt, Kelly, the Griffithses and the Swans in sporting communities across the state.
Veronica said a love of the game kept the AFL North West going. As would be the case with myriad other country sporting competitions in NSW that face an uncertain future.
“It’s just about getting out on the paddock,” she said. “The boys are still turning up. Haven’t won a game but they’re still turning up because they love the game.”
Kelly expects that most of his players will turn up next season, including Wendt, even if his role were a non-playing one. He expects to bark instructions again, as Veronica mans the till.