Country sport: senior teams leaning heavily on middle-aged and adolescent players

DEEP END: Corey Peck and Wayne Saunders - the rookie and the veteran. Photo: Mark Bode

DEEP END: Corey Peck and Wayne Saunders - the rookie and the veteran. Photo: Mark Bode

On sporting fields around the region, clubs are increasingly plugging lineup holes, caused by alarming player losses, with replacements whose best days are either long gone or hopefully ahead of them. A kind of Dad’s Army-Young Guns fusion.

Middle-aged and adolescent recruits are pooled with top country athletes in their prime and then pitted against such athletes, whose respect for the contest dictates that no quarter is given. The alternative is an unpalatable but common event, the dreaded forfeit. Or worse, extinction.  

Corey Peck sits pensively on the bench as his Narrabri Blues play the Werris Creek Magpies at Werris Creek in a first-grade match on August 5. His coach, Wayne Saunders, says Peck recently turned 17 and was a late addition to the side. It’s the top-grade debut of the under-18 halfback.

VINTAGE: Winger Troy Ward has played the past three matches for Narrabri due to a player shortage.

VINTAGE: Winger Troy Ward has played the past three matches for Narrabri due to a player shortage.

A boy amid men, fragile-looking in comparison, Peck enters the fray and is soon brutalised by a Magpies player, dragged along the ground by the jersey, one-handed, mind you. He springs to his feet and remonstrates at the aggressor, experienced pivot Dwight Millgate – instinctual pluck.

Troy Ward is Peck's teammate. Saunders says Ward is 45 years old and among a "couple" of 40-somethings and three juniors playing for the Blues on the day. Ward looks older beneath a shock of neatly trimmed grey hair, his thin frame slammed to the hard surface at David Taylor Park, as the defender grunts venom.

Werris Creek is co-coached by former NRL star Matt Parsons. The hulking ex-prop speaks to a Blues player after the match, stunned by the age of some of his teammates. If Ward is indeed 45, he is Parsons’s age. Parsons, who played the last of his 164 NRL games in 2004 when he left the Knights, no longer gives interviews. 

DESPERATE TIMES: Peck shares the bench with veteran Kevin Condran.

DESPERATE TIMES: Peck shares the bench with veteran Kevin Condran.

Narrabri, losing grand finalists last year, needed to win the match to secure a finals berth. They get another chance to do that when they host ladder-leaders Kootingal-Moonbi in the final round on Saturday. Ahead of the Magpies game, Saunders advised that the team would not take a bus for the trip to Werris Creek, owing to a lack of players.

The Blues play with heart but lose 52-22.

The only other player sitting next to Peck on the bench at the match's commencement is Kevin Condran, whom Saunders says is 40 years old. "He's had a knee problem all year," Saunders says of Condran. "He's a great clubman," the coach adds. "He said, 'Mate, I'll come and sit on the bench. I might be able to give someone 10 minutes [break].’"

LEARNING CURVE: Peck is manhandled by seasoned Magpies pivot Dwight Millgate.

LEARNING CURVE: Peck is manhandled by seasoned Magpies pivot Dwight Millgate.

Post-match, Saunders, a self-described "league tragic", details a frustration felt by coaches around regional Australia, and how the Blues are "doing their best". "We just struggle with work commitments and things like that," he says. "We have blokes away in the mines. 

“But look, we come here with a side and we give it our best shot and the Creek were just too good for us on the day. It's as simple as that." He adds: "We've got good spirit in the club but we're just lacking numbers.

“We're just here doing our best ... It's hard, bush footy. But look, I love my footy."

Saunders says country football teams need to survive "to get the kids off the street”. Failure to adequately respond to the player-drain issue would result in "footy dying in the bush", he warns.

PRIME PEDIGREE: Former NRL star Matt Parsons watches the Magpies battle the Blues.

PRIME PEDIGREE: Former NRL star Matt Parsons watches the Magpies battle the Blues.

Narrabri’s reserve-grade side recently folded, as did Gunnedah’s reserve-grade side. 

Group 4 chairman Ray McCoy said: “I’ve spoken to both Gunnedah and Narrabri clubs, and the common factors are heavy injury tolls to their senior players and the ever-changing workplace landscape that is limiting the availability of a large number of players throughout the region – not just in rugby league – to play their desired sport.”

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Other reasons given for the problem include fewer youngsters seguing from junior to senior ranks and greater competition among the sports for participants.

The Manilla Tigers were founded by recently inducted Immortal Dally Messenger in 1917 after he moved to Manilla and became a hotel publican, leaving in 1919 when his wife, Annie, died of the bubonic plague. The club celebrated their centenary in July last year, and eight months later their men’s team folded due to low player numbers.

COMMON STRUGGLE: Tamworth Kangaroos coach Tony Bishop and Tamworth Swans mentor Paul Kelly.

COMMON STRUGGLE: Tamworth Kangaroos coach Tony Bishop and Tamworth Swans mentor Paul Kelly.

Trevor Hatch, a former Manilla player who served as chairman of the club’s centenary committee, was left “bitterly disappointed”. At the time, he said: “The town’s a bit upset as well. Small towns rely on footy to bring the town together and give people something to do and something to talk about.”

On August 4, the Tamworth Kangaroos travelled to Armidale to play the New England Nomads with only 21 players including, says Roos coach Tony Bishop, “myself and another 45-year-old” and a junior player making his senior debut.

Tamworth Swans coach Paul Kelly presided over a 305-point loss last year in which his side, who had fielded just 14 players, kicked only one behind. Last year Kelly admitted to listening to a country song, the Zac Brown Band’s Fried Chicken, to ease his coaching anxiety. 

DEDICATION: Tamworth Swans veteran Damien Wendt directs the troops last year.

DEDICATION: Tamworth Swans veteran Damien Wendt directs the troops last year.

Greying Swans veteran Damien Wendt came out of retirement in 2016 to help the club. Last year he said he and his fellow seasoned teammates wanted  “to see the club survive”. “And if we’re not here, then it’s not going to do that,” he said. “I’ll hang around till the club doesn’t need me any more. Hopefully it’s not too much longer.” 

The Swans will make the finals if they beat the Kangaroos at No.1 Oval in Tamworth on Saturday.