Bush Beat: Ballarat Rugby looks to the past to forge a bright future

by Stu Walmsley

A local media reference to ‘boom Melbourne Rebels recruit Wade Cooper’ says a lot about the code’s current recognition in Ballarat, but there is actually a rugby-related revolution underway in this regional Victorian city.

The Ballarat Courier’s faux pas was the headline atop its preview of the Rebels 29-26 pre-season trial victory over the Reds, the first ever rugby match played at the city’s Mars Stadium, in which former Queensland playmaker Quade Cooper lined up against the club which cast him out at the end of 2017.

Quade’s first appearance for his new franchise in the February 1 fixture, part of a three-year partnership between the City of Ballarat and the Melbourne Rebels, generated quite a bit of external media interest - but rugby rarely commands many column centimetres in the local press.

Australian Rules Football has been the sporting king of this community, 120km west of Melbourne, almost as far back as the 1854 Eureka Stockade on its prolific goldfields - but Saturday marks the date of a fresh rebellion.

Out of the ashes of a miserable 2018 season, the rebranded and rejuvenated Ballarat Rugby Club plays its first competition match under the new moniker of ‘The Highlanders’, a gala day of junior and women’s clinics, jumping castles, activation spaces and food trucks.

The new direction is not a departure from the history of the club, which was formed in 1976, but rather a strategic effort to avoid oblivion.

A chronic player crisis in June last season forced the club to forfeit its final six fixtures of the Rugby Victoria Championship, but a summer of purgatory, planning and plain hard work has many predicting the game will flourish here long into the future.

“It made it a bit easier that we got to rock bottom last year, we just didn’t get the support, so now we have guys that are genuinely interested in being part of Ballarat rugby,” says second-year head coach Karl Thin. 

“What we’ve done is try to integrate that (history) through as well. The guys came down for a working bee at the clubrooms a few weekends ago, and one of the old guys brought along some of the old newspaper articles and jerseys, so the new guys could actually connect with that, and that’s really important.

“It’s not about losing our history, it’s not about losing where we’ve been and where we’ve come from, it’s more about making sure that when we had those challenges (last year) it was just a blip on the radar.

“But this is where we’re going, forging a new culture, and a new organisation around that.”

That culture shift was clearly evident during the club’s well-attended season launch at Ballarat’s Red Lion Hotel earlier this month, hosted by energetic new president Pat Quigley.

In a room adorned with balloons and bunting of red and black, the new colours of Ballarat rugby, Thin and Quigley spoke briefly of their vision for the Highlanders, thanked the committee for their hard graft over the off season, before each registered player was presented with their kit by Sonia Spokes of major sponsor Spokes Plastering. 

“This time last year we didn’t even know if we were going to have a team on game day one,” says Thin, who has been training a dedicated group of 25 players since mid January.

“The good thing is we’re going to be making selections (on Thursday), which is really positive, so we’ve come a long way.

“It’s all thanks to a lot of hard work over the summer by a dedicated group of people who want to make this work.

“We want to be successful, we want to be part of this community, and we want to make sure we are a sport that is recognised in our community.”

The striking new strip will certainly help, and the fact red and black also happen to be the colours of Quigley’s home club Pershore, who play in the English Midlands at the curiously named Piddle Park, is apparently a complete coincidence.

The expat Brit stepped into the president’s role after initially supporting the club as a sponsor during the 2018 season, and immediately increased its visibility through a slick but simple website and greater social media presence.

Thin estimates up to 70 per cent of his new players in 2019 first connected with the club through these channels, and one example is imposing tight-head prop Brendan Mudzikitiri, who moved from Zimbabwe to Ballarat late last year.

“I love rugby, I’ve been playing since I was in grade three, but I finished high school last year so, when my family came here, I didn’t really know anywhere to go or anyone to meet,” says the 19-year-old.

“I found the club on social media and I haven’t missed a training session - it’s given me a community and I get to know people here and do what I love.”

Farm manager Pete Barker also found the Highlanders on Facebook when he made the move to regional Victoria from Tamworth in northern NSW.

“I rang Patrick, and it went from there,” says Barker, who will likely start in the back row on Saturday.

“I didn’t really have much of a social network in Ballarat because I’m out of town, but this has introduced me to a lot of new faces.

“It’s a huge thing for a rural community to have a rugby club, and my biggest regret is I didn’t do this earlier, I should have looked the guys up as soon as I moved down here.”

In a city of around 100,000, there are more than enough people with a rugby background to support the club, but the key has been lifting its profile and creating a professional and welcoming environment.

“We will build the club, we will move forward with a greater presence and we will become a place that embraces families and all levels of society, so that rugby in Ballarat can grow, and Ballarat Rugby Club will be at the heart of it,” reads Quigley’s mission statement on the club’s website.

“We’re trying to be as professional as we can in a very amateur environment,” says Thin.

“We’ve got the fitness level up and we’ve done a lot of work in getting it to be more than just about what happens on a Tuesday and Thursday.

“We’ve got a nutritionist coming in now, educating the guys on how to look after their bodies, and physiotherapists that the guys are already using on a Monday night.

“We’ve got two chiropractors, two young guys out of South Africa who’ve played rugby all their lives, they’re over here working and they just want to be attached to it.”

Having only fielded one senior team for its entire 43-year existence, the Highlanders’ ambitious five-year plan includes developing a junior section, a colts program and two women’s teams. 

“We are absolutely determined to drive this club forward, we are not about a bunch of blokes in a pub, having a few beers and rocking up on a Saturday just to play rugby,” says Quigley, who moved to Ballarat with his young family this time last year.

“If we just have a senior men’s team, we’re back at square one every single year. Where do we recruit from?

“We need to have a junior section. If we can secure juniors, we secure the club. It’s as simple as that.

“On top of that, we need a women’s side. Women’s rugby is the fastest growing women’s sport in Australia, it is absolutely imperative that we have that.”

The Highlanders already have 51 pre registrations or expressions of interest from junior players and parents, and will be hoping more families commit on Saturday during the club’s gala day at Doug Dean Reserve.

The first female player, Maddie Hollingworth, has been training with the men since January and Thin says he already has several teenagers regularly attending sessions who are keen to form the core of a colts squad.

Also attending the season launch were a few old colts, including two of the club’s ‘originals’, Anthony Russell (known as Terry Terrific) and the first captain coach of the ‘Ratters’, John Daroch.

Terry has been Ballarat’s waterboy for longer than any of the current players can remember, and pointed out that the club’s last premiership came as recently as 2016.

The Ratters, in their old green, blue and white strip, defeated arch rival Melton 18-13 that day at Box Hill in Melbourne’s east to win their first title in 16 years.

Those former colours, and the club’s old leprechaun insignia, hark back to a time when it held a stronger association with St Patrick’s College, the only Ballarat school to boast a rugby program.

St Pat’s compete against opposition like Melbourne Grammar, St Kevin's College and Marcellin College and will host pre-season camps over the next two seasons for the Rebels, which the rugby-loving Ballarat Courier confidently referred to in January as a ‘Super League club’.

For three seasons between 2011 and 2013, the club actually changed its name to St Pat’s Old Collegians, trained and played home games at the school, before moving to Doug Dean Reserve and reverting to the Ratters.

Rekindling the relationship with the school is an obvious step for the club, and was made official earlier this week when St Pat’s director of rugby Mike Silcock accepted a position as director of rugby at the Highlanders. 

“The reason for getting Mike in is, as one coach, I’m not going to be able to service the needs of a women’s team, overarching a junior section, colts and seniors,” says Thin.

“Mike’s appointment was a little bit more holistic, he brings a high level of coaching, a high level of expertise, plus that relationship (with the school), and we’re not just looking to St Pat’s, four of my boys right now are out of Ballarat Grammar,

“They’ve got boys that are genuinely interested, but they don’t have the numbers, but if I can get a critical mass of three to four schools with five or six boys, I’m starting to get enough to put a colts team together.

“Even some of the public schools around Ballarat, like Mount Clear College, there’s potential out there because we’ve got little pockets where we’ve got guys doing touch programs or sevens programs.” 

The lack of a club rugby option for juniors in Ballarat even led Quigley to begrudgingly enrol his son in AFL last season, but he observed that many of his boy’s mates weren’t necessarily there of their own accord. 

“What I noticed was there’s an awful lot of young lads there who are really only playing AFL because mum and dad want them to,” he says.

“If we go back to when rugby was invented and those famous actions of William Webb Ellis when he picked up the ball and ran….. old Bill wasn’t a fantastic soccer player.

“He was a bit different, and rugby players are a bit different, and I am very proud of the fact that rugby incorporates, accepts and has a position for every shape and size of human being on this planet.

“It is politically correct these days to talk about inclusivity, but rugby was the first to do this.”

Those in control of the city’s AFL juggernaut aren’t looking over their shoulder at the Highlanders just yet but, if the club achieve their goals over the next five years, they are confident rugby will have a much more prominent place on the Ballarat sporting landscape.

“We’re probably not ever going to topple AFL in Ballarat, but we can offer something for everybody, because not everyone’s kitted out to be an AFL player,” sats Thin.

“It’s about the breadth of what we can offer - if we can start getting some more of that colts, junior and womens work done it enables us to be a more attractive option.”

On Saturday, old foe Melton are the visitors to Doug Dean Reserve, and a tough road trip to take on premiers Shepparton follows in round two.

There’s certainly a lot of hype around the Highlanders, but they do have some solid pre-season form. 

In Geelong’s 12-a-side tournament on March 30 they defeated Melbourne Premiership club Brimbank, and lost narrowly to Northern Panthers and Kiwi Hawthorn, who play in Premiership Reserves, one division above Ballarat.

Vice captain and former St Pat’s student Mitch Cattell, who will start at fly half on Saturday, returned from Melbourne when the club was struggling for numbers five years ago, and said having competition for starting spots in 2019 feels like a luxury.

“This year it’s more like everyone’s excited to be there, rather than having to be there for it to survive,” says the 24-year-old.

“We probably had our best training session on Tuesday night and, bloody oath, the boys are pretty keen.

“It’s probably the first year where we’ve got good depth in most positions, and there’s been a real tight tussle for spots in the loose forwards and midfield in the backs.” 

Inevitably in the week before the first competition game, there’s been a few talented ring ins at training under Doug Dean Reserve’s new floodlights this week, but Thin said he won’t be forgetting the players who were there in January when he settles on his first match-day squad.

“In terms of initial selections, the guys who have done 11 or 12 weeks hard work, and been dedicated to what we’re trying to build as a culture, that’s really important,” he says.

“The piece I will take the most satisfaction from won’t be the result - sure, it would be great to win - but it will be the fact we’re turning up against a club we haven’t played in a couple of years, at a ground that we’ve actually got some support in developing through council, with a team we’re rebuilding a culture with.

“The pride will be at that moment before kick off, it will take its own course afterwards, but beforehand I’ll be able to look out and say; ‘you know what, we’ve made a difference’.”