The end of September is well and truly grand final season and all the nation’s teams are locking horns for their version of rugby league’s ultimate prize.
By the time Penrith meet Brisbane on Sunday night, most of those battles will have been fought and won.
Nowhere are the victories and defeats more keenly felt than in country areas, where football can be the lifeblood of a town in the hardest of times, or a fierce and unique expression of pride in where you’re from, or the vehicle through which people find their best selves.
These are just three stories from the bush, but there are always more of them to be found any time two teams meet on a spring afternoon with it all on the line.
That feeling that comes after risking it all in a game where winning feels like you’re touching a bit of paradise, is why heaven must be a country footy grand final win.
The club that wouldn’t die
There is being up against it and there is whatever the hell Cudgen Hornets had done to piss off the universe.
It was the last round of the Northern Rivers Regional comp on the far north coast of New South Wales and the Hornets were struggling to get a buzz going. In a game they had to win to make the finals, they were down 13-0 to Tweed Coast Raiders at half-time.
Truth be told, being denied a finals spot in the last game of the season would still have been a fair achievement for Cudgen – it’s taken a lot of hard work and plenty of elbow grease just to keep the club going since their clubhouse burned down in 2020.
As a result, Hornets president Mick Channells said the team is missing out on “one of the things country footy is built on – both teams having a beer in the clubhouse after the game”.
“At some part of the seasons we had a tent, just so we could be together somewhere. There’s a changeroom across the road at the soccer fields, so we use that if there’s no soccer on, but if there is we use tents,” he said.
“We don’t have showers either, so a lot of teams don’t stick around after games because they don’t want to be dirty and smelly, which I understand.”
If the Hornets sat back and copped the hand they were dealt, they probably wouldn’t be here today. They definitely wouldn’t have been able to do what unfolded over the next few weeks.
In the face of losing their clubhouse, playing without dressing rooms or a scoreboard or a bar, overturning a 13-0 deficit must have seemed like easy work.
They clawed their way back to win 16-13 and scrape into the finals in fifth spot. Then came sudden-death wins over Evans Head and Northern United. They left it late in the preliminary final against Bilambil, winning 17-16 with a last-second field goal.
That’s how Cudgen, the team with nothing but the jerseys on their backs and the bonds that held the club together, came to face minor premiers Ballina in the grand final.
Going into the game, Ballina had lost one match all season. Eighty minutes later, they’d lost a second after an 18-4 win that secured the Hornets’ first premiership since 2006. They won the reserve grade decider as well, just to make it a little bit sweeter.
If it happened in the Bible they’d call it a miracle and if it happened in Hollywood they’d call it a cliché, but it happened in Cudgen so let’s just call it one of the great bush footy tales of all time; a triumph of the human spirit mixed in with a club and a town that refused to buckle when things got tough.
At a time when teams are battling for numbers all over the bush, Cudgen is going strong despite copping the kind of luck that easily cripples a side.
“Our A-grade used 34 players through the year and our reserve grade used 40-odd players and every night at training we have about 50 players,” Channells said.
“Some blokes weren’t getting picked for either side but they kept turning up for training, so the feeling around the club was fantastic.
“They’re all locals, they all want to play Cudgen, they don’t want to play anywhere else. We even have a bus driver who’s decided he’s not going to take any [other] clubs on trips – he’ll drive the Cudgen bus, but not the others.
“That’s the spirit that’s grown out of adversity.
“Since the fire, when we lost the clubhouse and the changerooms, people have been turning up for their mates for two or three years now. It’s built an immense camaraderie.”
As if the fire wasn’t enough, the Hornets also had to weather the devastating floods that ravaged the area in recent years.
The only way they know to respond to hard times is to roll up the sleeves and get to work helping one another, which is exactly what happened, and the ties that are bound by those experiences are not easily broken.
“For two weeks, our training and weekend stuff was our players – and other people from other organisations as well – going around cleaning houses, making food for people, getting boats out to help rescue people,” Channells said.
“As a community, they all lived that together and that bonded everybody and we piggybacked that community feel because it’s become a telling factor across our whole area and the footy grew out of that.
“When you’ve helped someone save their house, when you’ve been up to your elbows in mud with them, it’s a lot easier to play footy with them.”
The Hornets have plans to rebuild, with the board of the Cudgen Leagues Club doing all they can to help out to the point that board members are down at Ned Byrne Field once or twice a week to sharpen things up because the Hornets can’t afford a greenkeeper.
Their luck surely has to turn sooner rather than later, but nobody at the Hornets is complaining. That never got anything done anyway.
And when the better times off the field do come, those same Hornets who rallied together in the hard times will be there. They’re always going to be there.
Turning up for one another, no matter what, is just what they do. In these parts, it’s what a life in footy is all about.
“This might sound trite, but it’s just being there with your mates. You go through things with this group of people – add in our ladies league tag team and our Under 18s and it’s easily 100 people who come to training, 100 people who know each other. It permeates the whole community and it builds community,” Channells said.
“A few people have moved to the area and wandered down to our footy club, they come down not knowing anybody and walk away knowing 30, 40 people in an instant.
“It makes your life so much more enjoyable, it breeds friendships and not short ones – lifelong friendships. We had 40, 50, 60-year-old blokes coming down to Ballina to cheer us on and running on the field after we won.
“That camaraderie, that sense that whatever one person is going through we’re all going through, that’s the special thing.”
From Tumut To France
The distance from the French Riviera to the Riverina region of New South Wales is a little under 17,000 kilometres, or just about as far as one place can be from another while still being on the planet.
Just about the only thing Tumut has in common with places like Tolouse, Carcassone and Avignon is they all have footy teams. The French teams use leopards, phoenixes and geckos as mascots. Tumut are just called the Blues.
In about a week, Lachlan Bristow is going to make that long journey from his hometown to the south of France to play a season in the European winter.
He’s no stranger to a trip like this and five years ago, after some time in the Queensland Cup with Wynnum-Manly, he returned from a sojourn with the Jacksonville Axemen in Florida for what was supposed to be a one-year stint back home.
“I was only meant to play one year here but I realised how good it was, how much it meant to me, and it’s kept me here another four years,” Bristow said.
“The passion, wanting to go out there and put your body on the line for your team and your community, that’s the difference.”
Tumut isn’t one of the bigger towns in Group 9 – its population is a little under 6,500, a tenth the size of Wagga Wagga, but rest assured that just about every one of them is tougher than you – and they take their footy seriously, punching well above their weight against the likes of the Temora Dragons, Young Cherrypickers and Albury Thunder.
Bristow helped steer the Blues to a premiership back in 2019 and the other weekend repeated the dose, this time as captain-coach, as Tumut overturned a 14-0 half-time deficit to down Wagga Kangaroos 23-18.
“It’s pretty much a whole local side – I think 14 of the 17 are local juniors, born and bred, there’s one guy from Sydney who’s family is from Tumut and a couple of blokes from Tumbarumba, which isn’t far,” Bristow said.
“That worked in our favour, having that pride and passion for the jersey, we never stopped fighting because we care about that jersey.”
Footy goes a long way in places like Tumut. There have been times where it’s all the town had, which is just another way of saying they had each other, and the bonds forged in those colours run deep.
After a training run the day before the grand final, Bristow gathered his team together and they shared the reasons behind that pride and passion that would go on the serve them so well.
When it comes to wanting to bring a little bit of glory back home, when it comes to being proud of where you’re from and wanting to show it, when it comes to grand finals it’s easy to understand one another, and to be understood.
“There were a lot of reasons – people wanting to do it for the community, for the town, for their family and for loved ones who have passed away and for one another. That’s what it’s all about,” Bristow said.
“You can always feel the buzz around the town when the Blues are doing well. Getting around the pubs after the game everyone was telling us how proud they were and how well we’d done.
“That history goes way back to when football first started in Tumut – it was all anyone had, and that’s carried right through. It’s more than a game here. It’s more than a sport.
“It can be hard to put into words but we’ve had guys come from the city to play here and they’ve said they’ve found a new love for rugby league when they come to these towns and see what it means to the community.”
The celebrations in Tumut were long and wild and none of anybody’s business, but there’ll be no off-season for Bristow – he had to go straight back to training, so he’d be fit for the start of the French season.
Playing over there will be an adventure and he’s looking forward to it, but it can’t be like playing back home. How can it be?
They have a lot over there, but they don’t have the Blues. They’re only in Tumut. They can’t be anywhere else and even if they could be they wouldn’t want to.
‘I hated it, that’s the God’s honest truth’
There’s nothing like playing for your hometown, but home doesn’t always have to be the place you’re from. Sometimes you find it further on down the road, in a place you never expected, which is proof home really can be where you find it.
That’s how it was for Sia Soliola and Canberra. The hard-nosed forward was already 10 years into his top-flight career when Ricky Stuart lured him to the Raiders in 2015 and over the next seven seasons he became one of the most beloved and respected Canberra players of recent years, playing a crucial role in the club’s rejuvenation and in their reconnection to their community.
At the end of 2021, at age 35, he finally hung up the boots. He stayed with the Raiders and worked in player welfare, a natural fit for a player Stuart once described as “a leader of men”.
But something was missing, so when former Raiders teammate Sam Williams, who was captain-coaching Queanbeyan Roos, called him up to see if he was keen for a run, Soliola said he’d do it.
“I was going through a lot of personal things, especially after I retired. You have a transition from being a footballer to everyday living and adjusting to that life and getting back to footy really helped me,” Soliola said.
“I had a lot going on, at work and with my family, my wife was studying to finish her degree in accounting, to put footy on top of that, you can imagine how hard it is to fit everything in.
“But Sammy was really reassuring. I wasn’t sure if I’d do it but I’d put on a fair bit of weight when I retired and the only accountability I knew to keep me disciplined was through footy.
“So I decided to come back, to get my health back and try and find the passion for rugby league again. I didn’t lose it, I just wanted to enjoy footy.
“A lot of players had told me how much they enjoy the local comp and I wanted that.”
In his NRL days, Soliola was tough like some guys only think they’re tough and could hit with the kind of tackles that make you wince when you remember them years later.
Still, coming back to footy after a year off wasn’t easy and there were plenty of times — especially early — when he wanted to give it away.
“I was hating it, that’s the God’s honest truth. It was a reality check. In the back of your mind you know you can do these things, you’ve done it so many times, but my body just wasn’t allowing it,” Soliola said.
“We played Goulburn early in the year and I pulled my hamstring in the first 10 minutes and it was so frustrating.
“I had to be patient with it and as a wellbeing officer I had to swallow my own advice. I had to go back to my own drawing board and do what I counsel a lot of players to do.
“I found it really hard at the start and I was questioning why I was doing it. But I made a commitment to the boys, I made a commitment to Queanbeyan and I’m glad I stuck with it.”
Eventually, Soliola got it all back again and the Roos became a juggernaut. Under Williams’s astute leadership they romped to the minor premiership, losing just one regular season match.
On grand final day at Seiffert Oval, the ancient and original home of the Raiders, they faced Tuggeranong Bushrangers who’d beaten them twice during the year, including in the major semifinal two weeks before.
Shops around Queanbeyan were decked out in Roos colours. The stakes were high and the town was keen.
“We had a lot of ex-players come in and talk to us about how the Kangaroos were established, there was a lot of old boys talking about what the jersey meant to them,” Soliola said.
“At the top level you can become a bit numb as to why we play this game, why we really love this game, and to get a few guys who are so passionate about our sport, who do it with no other incentive when they play or are involved with the club, it meant a lot.
“These were brothers, fathers, sons, close friends, who all came through the Roos.”
On game day, Queanbeyan found that special thing that champions dig out of themselves when it matters. They won 34-6 with fullback Kaine Pagura, who’d played with the club since Under 6s, scoring three tries to secure the Roos’ first premiership in a decade.
“It was amazing – like anything you work hard for. For me, it was a big achievement because I didn’t think I’d come back to footy. I had no intention to play ever again when I left the NRL,” Soliola said.
“It was a great day and the result added to it, but just talking to the families – not just from Tuggeranong or Queanbeyan, but everyone from around the area – who really love rugby league and really love Canberra, at Seiffert Oval where it all started, it was special.”
Soliola won’t lace up for the Roos again next year. He and his family are moving to the Newcastle area and they’ll miss Canberra as much as Canberra misses them.
He is proof home is where you find it and he’s found it wherever he’s pulled the boots on because sometimes, footy isn’t just a game you play – it’s a part of who you are and a way you live your life.
So if anyone up in the Hunter needs a front-rower, sing out because Soliola might give it one more year. He worked hard to get back into fighting shape and, even though he’s too humble to say it, country footy is richer for having people like him involved.
“I’d never say never about playing again. My body conditioned itself really well through the year and in building those relationships with everyone from the kit man to the medicals staff to the old boys to the players, I found the fire to play again,” Soliola said.
“I won’t say never, because I’m not sure what the future holds. I’d like to give it another nudge.”
#sport #game #heaven #country #footy #grand #final