How gold medals and family rugby days helped Albury steam back to life

by Stu Walmsley

There are hundreds of young Australian girls who dream of playing like Charlotte Caslick, but none have nailed the impression better than Albury’s Audrey Hogg.

The trademark goose step, the ribbons in the hair, carrying the ball in two hands to the defensive line and, after scoring a try, flicking back the ponytails in a just-doing-my-job fashion - the Steamers junior is like a 11-year-old Caslick clone - and the type of prospect to cause excitement among talent scouts.

But, there’s more. 

Hogg has siblings - three of them - and the bedrooms of the family home are a collective shrine to various idols of Australian rugby, while mum Natalie is the star of a laundry detergent ad campaign in waiting as she wades her way through the endless supply of soiled playing kit.

The Hoggs are the pin-up stars of Albury Wodonga junior rugby, a club based on the banks of the Murray River, 550km south west of Sydney and 330km north east of Melbourne on the cannonball run up (or down) the Hume Highway.

The Steamers, named after the paddle boats which used to haul passenger and commercial payloads along the river, ply their trade at the playfully-named ‘Murrayfield’, and conditions in mid-July can feel decidedly Scottish.

Albury sits on the southern edge of Southern Inland Rugby Union (SIRU), a NSW Country zone formed in 2000 out of the former Riverina and South West regions. 

All around them and in every direction is Australian Rules Football heartland and, apart from a few determined outposts in Bendigo, Ballarat and Shepparton, it’s all Sherrins and short shorts until you hit Melbourne.

The combined population of Albury and Wodonga is 90,000, and the community boasts the myriad of sporting options available in most regional Australian cities of its size. 

Aussie Rules is king, but basketball also rides high on the back of the fact superstar Lauren Jackson grew up here. Hockey is big, the local junior soccer competition boasts 12 clubs and, in such an ultra-competitive environment, you could understand if junior rugby was struggling.

And it was. Five years ago the Steamers only had 14 registered juniors but, in 2019, the club expects to have around 140 kids in teams from under 7s through under 15s.

This is in addition to a hugely successful Foxtel Touch 7s program which attracted 240 juniors over summer and the club’s participation in Rugby Australia’s new Get Into Rugby initiative; a five-week introduction for people of all ages to the basics of the game in all its formats.

Dan Hogg coordinated this program, and the family don’t just bolster the club in terms of sheer playing numbers. He and Natalie are fixtures at Murrayfield, as are kids Will (14), Hattie (10) Audrey (11) and Hugh (nine), and the Hoggs are part of an enthusiastic group which has rebuilt junior rugby in their region.

“Our junior committee has been really solid for the last few years, Mick Redfern and Dan Hogg are the two main drivers there, and they run a really tight ship,” says senior president Mick Raynes, who coached the club to its most recent first grade SIRU premiership in 2015.

‘I think the success of our club, recently, has been built on the organisation and the energy those guys are putting in and the parents that they’ve brought in to help run the canteen, and run the gala days, transport players and all the countless other jobs.

“Those numbers in the summer program; that’s also due to the legwork of that junior committee, and if I was in a rugby club somewhere in country Australia, I’d look at the blueprint set up by the committee here, and how they’ve forged ahead.”

While the foundation of Albury’s success has been laid over a number of years, the gold medal winning performance of the Australian Women’s Sevens team in late 2016 had a profound effect on junior participation at the Steamers and throughout the SIRU zone.

Inspired by the feats of Caslick, Emma Tonegato, Evania Pelite and Ellia Green, junior girls flocked to clubs in tiny towns like Hay, Grenfell, Young and West Wyalong, turning SIRU’s already popular gala day concept into a regional rugby behemoth.

Faced with dwindling junior numbers in Saturday competitions run in a traditional home-and-away format in the 2000s, development staff initiated fortnightly gatherings of all SIRU junior clubs in a single location on a Sunday, vastly reducing travel and time commitments for families. 

In one of the first gala days of 2017, hosted by the Cootamundra Bears, staff in the town’s two open cafes barely knew what hit them as hundreds of families rolled down the Olympic Highway with cars full of kids who had spent the past six months in the back yard perfecting their Caslick goose step.

While teams tore up and down the pitch in colourful new kit, mums and bubs enjoyed a sideline lunch on picnic rugs, dads swapped stories about their own playing days or the fact it still refused to bloody rain. The atmosphere was thick with contentment and conviviality.

“The junior gala days…. I don’t think I’ve had more entertainment at rugby than going and watching a five-year-old run in completely the wrong direction, and being cheered on by everybody,” says Mick Raynes, adding that the initiative has won almost universal praise throughout the zone.

As a mum and taxi driver to four children who all play multiple sports, Natalie Hogg is also is big fan.

“At least every fortnight we’re all together every Sunday, going somewhere together, and all the children are playing the same sport, in the same town,” she says.

But the influx of junior girls has essentially doubled the number of players, and providing a positive experience for up to 1200 kids in one day is a significant challenge, especially for junior committees in smaller regional centres.

“On the ground, at a gala day, one of the disappointing things that I’ve noticed with my girls is they’ve been coached really well, they know the rules well, but you turn up and the match might be played on a small field because of space restrictions, or they’ve just got a volunteer referee who only knows the league tag rules,” says Natalie Hogg.

“There’s been a couple of times where I know our girls have been really disappointed in the outcome of the game because they’re playing as they’ve been coached, to the rules, and we really need to be careful that they don’t become disengaged because of frustration.”

Keeping these junior rugby converts in the game as teenagers is certainly an issue currently preoccupying administrators, and SIRU falls within the catchment area of the Brumbies, who will bring their entire Super Rugby and Super W squads to the first gala day of the season in Wagga Wagga on March 31.

“It’s about looking at the competition construct and the balance of that, and being agile enough to shape that depending on what the wants and needs of the participants are,” says Craig Leseberg, general manager of community rugby at the Brumbies. 

“It also comes back to the environment, that’s the environment in the clubs that are fostering an inclusive, cohesive, social hub,” 

Leseberg said in 2019 there will be more half-gala days, where clubs are split into southern and northern conferences then converge at a central location, juniors up to the age of 14 can choose between tackle and touch formats and there will be more mentoring to improve coaching and skills development.

These are steps in the right direction according to Dan Hogg, Albury’s junior coach coordinator and recipient of the ACT and Southern NSW Rugby Volunteer of the Year Award in 2017.

There are 40 Aussie Rules teams in Albury and Wodonga, but only one rugby club, and Hogg has focussed on demonstrating the ‘rugby difference’ to parents, teachers and potential sponsors through initiatives like Touch 7s and Get Into Rugby.

“We cook them dinner every Wednesday night (at Touch 7s) - every person is fed before they go home. You’ll come down, and you’ll play and be part of it, we’ll have the music going, have fun, have a feed and linger and chat,” says Hogg, a premiership player with the Steamers in 2000, and still a part-time third grader.

“We play three games a night and you don’t just come down, play a game, and take off. They’re quick games, but then you talk to your teammates, talk to the other side, and we wear reversible shirts so everyone is mixing and matching. It’s all about fun.

“We use that to get people involved and then they say; ‘right, so this is what the rugby club’s about’.”

Hogg has also been proactive in reaching out to families of non-English speaking backgrounds and has subverted the problem of rugby’s limited exposure on free-to-air television by organising tours for local families to a Wallabies Test in 2018 and this year’s Sydney 7s.

Dave Benson is another member of the committed crew in Albury and, speaking at a pre-season Super W trial between the Rebels and Brumbies the club hosted in February, also praised the contribution of the Hoggs.

“Every successful club needs that commitment, it’s not a position that’s rewarded, it’s something they do out of passion and love for the game, and trying to make the club a better place for not just their family, but for other families around them,” says Benson, who sits on both the junior and senior committees.

“They’ve been big on the ethos of the game and, as you can see in front of us here, we’ve got them on flags; respect, community, friendship, discipline. They’re really big on that, they’re the major themes they’re pushing through the club rather than results, to be quite honest.

“We’re a big family, and we just want to grow our diversity, and make sure every member of the family’s getting a run.”

Junior clubs in all sports across Australia are struggling for volunteers, but Dan and Natalie Hogg understand there’s greater meaning to attending committee meetings or all those hours spent washing the under 12 team’s jerseys.

“We’d like our kids to think about giving, and seeing that it’s important to be part of a community. We engage with footy because we love the people around it and the club and everything, but they also see that no one’s paid to run around and do this stuff, it’s all volunteers,” says Dan Hogg.

“They learn the lessons there, there’s someone they know cooking the barbie, and doing the line marking - and the children are starting to see that and, as parents, we think that’s got to be positive.”

Raynes also knows the club’s senior ranks will be the ultimate beneficiary of its increased junior strength, and he’s already fostering initiatives to increase the already significant link between the two.

“We’re very mindful of that. This year we’re asking our senior players to commit two or three each to one of the junior teams - not to coach or anything - but just to hold a bag, or pass a water bottle, get to know the names of the juniors,” he says.

“Because the juniors look up to the seniors, and sometimes the senior players in a club like this don’t understand that.

“To see the way Will Hogg or Angus Redfern, the way they look up to these players that are fit and committed to rugby and are balanced guys is fantastic. It’s great to see.”

But the most convincing argument of why anyone should play junior rugby comes from Audrey Hogg’s submission to Rugby Australia’s #partofmore portal, which encouraged people to share their inspiring rugby stories.

Coming off a grand final win over Hay in Leeton, watched by the whole family (including Grandma, waving a specially made Steamers flag), she summed up what rugby offers that she hadn’t found in any other sport.

“The way rugby has brought the community together and to create one is amazing, everyone acts like one big happy family,” she wrote.

“When I run out onto that field I’m full of trust, the girls trust me, and I trust them and I know we would do anything for one another. We’re like sisters.

“The friendships I am making, I hope are lifelong ones. The girls and I have been through a lot together, big loses and high wins, which I think has brought us closer together.

“The commitment people have shown is awesome, people travel from everywhere, and the feeling I have inside of me is outrageous. 

“I’m nervous and excited and I have the adrenalin running throughout my body. It's a mixture of crazy feelings all in one!

“Rugby has taught me a lot about being a better version of me, from being respectful, to getting back up even when facing the toughest challenges (I think people call it resilience), and that teamwork, passion and commitment are important when you are wanting to fulfil goals.”

That goal is unashamedly to play rugby union for Australia in the Olympic Games and, while mum Nat has tried to initiate conversations about a plan B, it’s definitely falling on deaf ears for now.