Up Front with Tony Butterfield

WINNERS: The Knights showed true grit against the Titans.
WINNERS: The Knights showed true grit against the Titans.

RETRO, nostalgia, back-in-the-day, or, as I thought it was called, the olden days. It all conjures up memories and emotions that take us to another time. A different time. In rugby league circles, the game we knew as kids is just that, yet the basics remain familiar.

Teamwork, tackling and scoring tries will always be the bedrock of this hybrid version of rugby union. These days, however, interchange, time-outs, two referees, slowing down of the play-the-ball and no appetite for drawn games are but a few of the innovations, for better or worse, that define and separate the modern era from the halcyon days of our youth.

For me in the late 1970s and ’80s, players like Craig Young, Mark Graham, Lew Zivanovic, Arthur Beetson and Ray Price were my pick of the toughest, in a wild and brutal bunch. For others it might be Terry Lamb, Larry Corowa, Brett Kenny or Peter Sterling. If rugby league offered me anything, it was the chance to later meet and play against many of my childhood heroes. Cherished memories indeed.

My only criticism is Retro Round (as Pay TV would have it) makes reference almost  exclusively to the NSWRL or the ARL, forgetting the mighty Queensland teams of old, and the many famous country teams that were the mainstay conduit to the big time.

The role in sustaining the broader game played by these forgotten outposts over the past century is rarely told. A group that now need some help but can’t find it despite the billions in play.

I was last week delighted to be invited to attend one such club’s 100th anniversary ball in the far north-western reaches of NSW, with Narromine legend, Dave Gillespie in tow.

The Moree Boars, the club at which Immortal Clive Churchill played his last game, is a proud community institution. Gathered together at the stately if chilly memorial hall in the centre of town, a gala event did unfold with ball gowns, suits, speeches and honoured guests galore. It was a big night after a big day that featured for all four grades against arch rivals Inverell.

Slated to say a few words, I gauged the temper of the 400-strong crowd at 9:30pm and realised I should probably steer clear of too much footy jokes and banter and instead simply pay homage to the contribution by generations of Boars who have kept the club afloat for 100 years, since the end of the Great War.

In doing so I may have touched a nerve. I referred to the truly remarkable and dedicated stewardship undertaken by many in the room, and those who have passed on, to sustain the club when their turns came. I acknowledged the sacrifices they’ve made and continue to make in spite of dwindling numbers, bigger commitments (their closest away game is 92km) and, it’s here that I stirred up a nest, a lack of support and recognition from either the Country Rugby League or the NRL.

By nearly universal acclamation, the room went up as one. As if to say: “We have carried the game in the Moree for 100 years, yet receive next to nothing from the national or country body to help sustain the game in this far-flung outpost.” 

Later, senior officials expressed dismay as we gathered around the outside bar. “Tony, what you said was spot-on. It’s a joke that we never receive any support from the billion-dollar game. There seems to be no plan...we’re isolated and the AFL is taking over.”

One wag even seriously floated the idea of ceding from the CRL to join their Queensland brothers up the road: “At least they care”. A sentiment I’m told is not uncommon among many other satellite clubs in the forgotten parts of the state.

You know your business model is in trouble when your most loyal people don’t know who to turn to.

Honoured on the night was 94-year-old Alfred Stokes. Alfred has assiduously maintained records on players, tryscorers, man-of-the-match winners etc since 1952. That’s 66 years of dedication. All in his smooth and refined cursive hand until recently encouraged to try out those new-fangled computer things.

STUDENTS OF THE GAME: Herald columnist Tony Butterfield meets Moree legend Alfred Stokes at the club's centenary ball last weekend.

STUDENTS OF THE GAME: Herald columnist Tony Butterfield meets Moree legend Alfred Stokes at the club's centenary ball last weekend.

Alfred regaled me with his own stories of the great grand finals and the players of the many eras he witnessed first-hand. One such yarn involved him regularly travelling the 16 hours on a train to Sydney to trial with the Newtown Jets in 1942.

It’s here he trained alongside and forged strong friendships with, among others, the brothers Jack and Ray Lindwall. Jack could play but it was his brother who decided after the war to become the fast bowler of his generation. 

As sharp as a tack and dressed in the tartan coat synonymous with his clan, here was a man who had seen it all and valued family and community above all else.

An icon in the north west, if he lived in Sydney he would be feted as a national rugby league treasure. Somehow, I don’t think he cares. So long as he makes it to the sidelines next weekend to again watch, cheer and record the history of a proud club and resilient community that for the first time in 100 years need a helping hand.

* IN the scheme of things, the Knights-Titans encounter last week was anything but a clash that might change the course of the competition. 

It was, however, a home win that proves our Knights have a lot of what it takes. At one stage, under pressure and 14 points down, getting the train back on track required willpower, patience and smarts after conceding two soft tries early in the second half. 

In the end, they did find the necessary composure, went back to basics and rolled up their sleeves. A “very Newcastle” win, with our forwards, led by “bus driver”, Danny Levi,  ramping up the intensity, when it mattered.

Looking forward, there are now only five preparatory matches until the final game of the year: Old Boys day vs the Dragons.

A must-win game that, in the absence of a premiership target, sounds like a fitting way to bow out of 2018. So, let’s get on to it.

Meanwhile, in far North Queensland tonight, it’s the Knights by two in hot conditions. Carn the Knights!

This story Tony Butterfield: It’s time for the NRL to dig deep for country clubs first appeared on Newcastle Herald.