Bush Beat: The hugging dynamo at the heart of Goulburn Rugby Club

by Stu Walmsley

If you’re the kind of person who isn’t that comfortable hugging, then you need to book a few sessions with Goulburn Rugby’s Geoffery Shepherd.

As Geoff sees it, the whole world deserves a hug, but this is just one reason why the Goulburn waterboy, groundskeeper and assistant manager is now very much at the heart of Australia’s oldest country rugby club.

Geoffro, as he is known around Goulburn’s Simon Poidevin Oval, lives with Down Syndrome, a genetic condition causing developmental delay and learning difficulties, but he’s every bit as synonymous with the Dirty Reds as the club’s 59-Test Wallaby.

World Cup-winner Poidevin, who won a premiership and the club best and fairest with Goulburn in 1977, has been on the receiving end of quite a few of Geoff’s infamous hugs - most recently in late 2017 when the club hosted a National Rugby Championship fixture between NSW Country and Sydney Rays.

“Geoff’s just an amazing bloke and that was an exciting day for him because he’s very proud of that ground,” says Poidevin, who grew up on a cattle farm just outside of Goulburn, a town of 23,000 people situated 200km south west of Sydney.

“It was a big event, TV cameras, high-profile players showcasing the club on a national stage.

“The game has a strong history of inclusiveness and caring and, out there (in the bush), you know you have to be more than just a rugby club.”

Goulburn certainly takes its role in the wider community seriously, and Geoff’s involvement began when his parents Chris and Elaine Shepherd contacted life member Kevin Kara in 2000.  

“When I first met Geoffery he looked at me and said; ‘we’ve got to be twins’, and I went; ‘yeah, well you got all the looks, I’ve got nothing’,” says Kara, who has filled countless roles at the Dirty Reds since arriving in Goulburn 40 years ago.

“It’s a case of him being Arnold Schwarzenegger and I was the ugly bloke (Danny Devito) so, from then on, we’ve always been known as twins.”

In his two decades at the club Geoff has missed exactly one home game, when he was flat on his back with the flu, and his role has expanded considerably to helping prepare and maintain the ground and various other match-day duties.

“I started 19 years ago as the waterboy, and now I’ve moved up to assistant manager of both sides, second and first grade,” Geoff says, while overlooking the lush playing surface at Poidevin Oval.

“I also set the ground up with dad and, now we’ve got a women’s team, so we have to set the field up for them as well.

“Watering, mowing, marking the ground - helping set up on match day, then running water and Gatorade.

“It’s a hard job.”

Like any good clubman, Geoff’s passion for the Dirty Reds also extends beyond his match-day duties, and he’s always on the look out for any new players while working his day jobs at Subway and Stephen Hazelton Electrical.

“He recruits, every day of the week. All he thinks about is rugby - if he’s down the Workers (Club) having a beer or on the pokies, he’s asking random people if they’ll come and play rugby,” says first grader Jackson Reardon, perhaps the world’s only laconic scrum half.

“In the off season he’ll be asking who we’ve got coming this year? New people? Where are they from?

“The first thing he does when he sees them is he lines them up, gives them the hug, introduces himself.”

Founded in 1872, Goulburn has played in such competitions as Central Tablelands, Illawarra and Monaro in its long and storied history.  

But since the late 1950s it has generally looked toward the nation’s capital.

Last weekend the Dirty Reds hosted Canberra powerhouse Vikings, recording their first win against the Tuggeranong-based club since joining the ACT First Division in 2016.

It was a big day for the club, and pretty much every visiting player experienced the emotional boost of a Geoff Shepherd hug, too, as they trudged off the pitch.

“Yeah, he’s always had that, the whole time he’s been part of the rugby club he’s had that embracing way about him,” says Kev Kara, father of Brumbies 2018 Super W fly half and Goulburn Women’s coach Ash Kara.

“When we took him on we introduced him to all the players, and he went around and hugged everyone, which pretty much set the tone.

“Even the guys from the Canberra clubs and in Yass, they always ask; ‘where’s Geoffery?’

“It’s the first person they look for when we arrive, and they all give him a hug, too.”

Geoff wears his heart on his sleeve and his love for the club just underneath that - he has Goulburn Rugby’s crest tattooed on his upper left arm.

Reardon says he’s also not shy of offering a few coaching tips.

“He always watches Friday night footy, and he usually comes with a few ideas, so you’ll get those early on in the morning,” Reardon says, after Geoff led the club’s victory song in the dressing room on Saturday.

“Whether he’s seen Mitch Pearce kick one to the corner, or something, you’ll always get a few tips.

“He got in my ear down on the sideline today; we were walking to the line out and I came to have a drink, and he mentioned a bad box kick or something.”

But Geoff stands behind his coaching advice, citing the time he inspired rugby league legend Andrew ‘Joey’ Johns to lead the Newcastle Knights to a comeback victory over the Melbourne Storm in the late 1990s.

“I’m close with Joey Johns, and I told him to fire up, and he did fire up and they came back and won,” says Geoff, before revealing the tattoo of the Knights club crest on his right shoulder.

Dad Chris recounts the journey to Newcastle when Geoff was a teenager and, after leading the Knights on to what was then Marathon Stadium for the NRL clash, he refused to come from the field before getting in the ear of the famous Novocastrian.

“When he led them on to the field, he wouldn’t come off, because he obviously thought he was playing,” says Chris.

“I had to run to the sideline and get him off, but he broke free, ran over to Joey Johns and said; ‘come on Joey, you’ve got to fire up’.

“Fire up he did - he scored a heap of points in the second half and they won.”

Geoff says his proudest moment in Goulburn was leading the team on to Poidevin Oval for the 2015 grand final when the Dirty Reds defeated arch-rival Hall, a triumph they followed up the following season with a one-point grand final defeat of Gungahlin at Viking Park in Canberra.

Club legend Boyd Newby captain coached that 2015 team, and regularly drops in at Subway to see Geoffro, one of the countless friends the 38-year-old has made through rugby.

“My best mates are the famous Boyd Newby and Mik Webber - but Mik is mad - he wears shorts and thongs down here in the middle of winter,” says Geoff.

“Mik is in the centres now and, even after the season is over, I see him in the gym and jogging - he works hard.”

Goulburn veteran Webber certainly does work hard - club registrar, historian and statistician Chris Gordon believes the 34-year-old’s 2182 points for the Dirty Reds is a record in NSW Country rugby.

Almost all of them have been witnessed by Geoffery.

“It’s been a great avenue for him, and a great outlet, and he’s met so many people and made such wonderful friends, too,” says Chris Shepherd, of Geoff’s ongoing involvement. 

“This club’s just been so wonderful to him, and he’s grown with them over the 19 years.”

There’s no off season for Chris and Geoff - they’re at the ground constantly throughout summer watering and preparing the surface for the season, and the club is very much their second home.

“‘It’s Poidevin day, today’ - that’s what I hear most mornings (from Geoff),” says Chris.

“I actually get a bit tired of hearing the name Simon Poidevin, every day of the week.

“I thought for what they’ve done to look after Geoffery and give him some sporting involvement and friendships that, when I retired, I would always put a lot of time back into the club.

“They’ve done their bit, so now I’ll do mine.”

There’s no doubt Geoff has gained a lot from his time at Goulburn Rugby, but he’s given just as much, something Reardon summed up nicely after his eight seasons with the Dirty Reds.

“Geoff epitomises rugby union and why I love the game,” says the 26-year-old.

“I think that these days every sport tries to be inclusive, and the vast majority offer opportunity to everyone, but I don't believe any do it nearly as well as rugby.

“Geoff has definitely taught me, and I think anyone who has pulled on a jersey for the Dirty Reds over the last 20 years, to make sure I never take a game for granted, as he doesn't like to accept anything less then a win. 

“But, in his own way, he's also taught me that there is far more to life then just rugby. 

“The hug from Geoffro is there before and after every game, no matter the result.”