Last month Walgett Rugby’s home ground was a desolate landscape of dead grass, bare dirt and spiky catheads, but an inspiring community initiative has breathed new life into the field and the club’s season.
One of the worst droughts in living memory has certainly taken its toll on Algy Friend Oval, home of the Rams (seniors) and Lambs (juniors), and times have rarely been tougher in this NSW country town of 2250 people, 650km north west of Sydney.
Walgett’s lifeblood is agriculture, and the lifeblood of agriculture is water, something there’s been drastically little of this decade.
Apart from a brief respite in 2016, the area is entering its eighth year of drought. Farmers need significant rain in the next month to avert yet another failed cropping season, are hand-feeding sheep and cattle in a desperate attempt to save breeding stock and the town itself has been on level 5 water restrictions since September.
This means potable water can only be used for essential domestic consumption, the town’s parks and recreational facilities didn’t receive a drop all summer and - in a rude shock to the rugby club - the gates to Algy Friend Oval and every other sporting field in town were locked by Walgett Shire Council in February.
“Basically we were told the ovals were locked until it rained, there was no community consultation or anything,” says Bec Yeomans, secretary of Walgett Lambs and Western Plains Junior Rugby president.
“There were obviously some alarm bells and the community and council got together and said; ‘we’ve got to find a way to solve this’.”
Walgett, a Kamilaroi word which means ‘meeting of two waters’, sits near the junction of the Namoi and Barwon Rivers, but residents have been surviving on bore water for the best part of two years.
Keepit Dam, 300km to the east at the top of the Namoi River system, is currently at 0.7 per cent capacity and none of its 78 billion litres released in the back half of 2018 reached Walgett, which sits at the bottom.
Concerns have been raised over the alkalinity of the artesian water, and its sulphur and sodium levels, something which almost caused a mutiny among regulars at the town’s Sporting Club.
"For months and months people were complaining and saying; ‘the beer tastes funny, the beer's off’, and I'd say; ‘nah, it's fresh kegs, it can't be the beer’,” club manager Natalie Thurston told ABC last year.
"We realised it was actually the water (they were washing the glasses with), when they switched over to the bore.”
Bec’s husband Troy Yeomans, president of the Lambs, said the bore water can be a ‘culture shock’, but several communities in the shire, such as Lightning Ridge, have survived on it for decades.
“The rivers running dry is the biggest issue, the two bores are sufficient to supply the town with water and, yes, it is a little bit high in alkalinity, but they are now treating that,” says Yeomans, who owns a steel fabrication business in town.
“The community organisations as far as rugby league, rugby union, soccer that utilise the ovals, and even the parks and gardens, have got together with the shire and come up with a solution.
“Because all the fields actually have their own reticulation systems, we’ve come up with the idea to install permanent reservoirs, and we plan to irrigate with a blend of bore and river water.”
Installation of tanks at Walgett’s number-one oval (used for rugby league) and the two rugby club fields was completed last week, an initiative which should effectively drought-proof the facilities.
“It’s been a good outcome, a joint initiative between community and council to ensure that we can get water from that particular bore to sustain the footy ovals,” says Walgett Shire Council’s new general manager Greg Ingham.
Council has footed the bill initially, but NSW Rugby has also come to the party, lobbying state and federal governments for sporting grants through Government Relations Manager Natalie Baini.
“It’s not just for Walgett, we’ve put in an application for Bourke as well in the interim stage,” says NSW Country Rugby executive officer Stephen O’Brien.
“The overall proposal is to make all the fields sustainable - so eventually set up bore systems like they’re doing in Walgett with tanks for all Western Plains rugby clubs - and just for the sporting community in general.
“But Bourke and Walgett are obviously in desperate need otherwise they won’t have a home ground this year.”
It’s now a race against time in Walgett to have the fields playable for the club’s second ever junior gala day on May 5, planned to coincide with the Rams’ first home game of the season against Cobar Camels.
“A week before the last meeting I didn’t think we were going to have an oval, it was looking really bad, but now I’m confident that they’ll keep it going,” says Bec Yeomans.
“But it’s coming into winter, and once we start to get frosts, everything stops growing.
‘We’re not going to be sitting on gorgeous green grassy fields in a month because the water’s become available, but we’ll hopefully be able to use them because they haven’t cracked up.”
Vast distances and dwindling population are the main threats to rugby in this drought-ravaged zone, where the likes of Ben McCalman, Pat McCutcheon (Macquarie Emus) and Ned Hanigan (Coonamble Rams) played their junior rugby.
Cobar face an nine-hour round trip dodging various emblematic wildlife to play Walgett next weekend but it’s the fear of what will happen to their bush communities in the absence of rugby which drives people like Bec Yeomans to devote countless hours to keeping the code alive.
“If you take rugby union out of our community, you lose the fabric of it from about April to September,” says Yeomans, who was named NSW Volunteer of the Year - Youth in 2017
“We have the show, the races and a rodeo - and they get harder and harder to keep going every year - but this is what people do in between.
“It’s really important to keep things alive in your town, it brings people together, and that’s how you can check on each other.
“If these things fold in our country towns, then you won’t get them back.”
Five years ago juniors in Walgett and Coonamble had to travel to the neighbouring NSW zones of Central North or Central West for games, but Western Plains now hosts its own gala days, involving new or reformed clubs in Bourke, Cobar, Macquarie Emus, Gulargambone and Brewarrina.
“Bec’s been one of the driving forces behind Western Plains junior rugby and being really passionate about establishing a competition within Western Plains,” says NSW Rugby’s Far West development officer Angus McDonald.
“You only have so many men out there, so many farmers, so towns are only ever going to have one or two grades, depending on the season.
“Juniors was where we saw potential for growth, and that will make it more sustainable.
“If you have a good person in a town driving it, being the voice for rugby, it makes such a huge difference to what we do.”
Together with Kate Kennedy of Macquarie Emus, which caters for juniors around Trangie and reigning senior premiers Warren in the zone’s south, Yeomans also organises a Western Plains pilgrimage to a Waratahs’ home game in Sydney every March.
“It’s a cultural experience, taking country kids down for that, it’s not only about the games here,” says Yeomans of the annual trip, which included 62 registered juniors in a tour group of 125 which witnessed the round six Super Rugby win over the Crusaders at the SCG.
“There were families from Gulargambone, Trangie, Warren, Cobar, Walgett and Bourke - we stood out a mile in our Western Plains hats - everyone was stopping us.
“We trained at Narrabeen with (NSW Rugby development officers) Owain and George, then went to Easts and the kids formed a tunnel for first grade in their trial against Gordon, then to the SCG and they got to go on the field and do a clinic and be part of the guard of honour for the tragedy in Christchurch.
“It was a great trip and it’s also about building that network, not just in Western Plains, but getting those links and visibility in Sydney.
“You have to give back to NSW Rugby. We’re going to NRC (National Rugby Championship) games and we’ve taken our kids four times in the last five years to cheer for the Waratahs.
“They’re our team. Our kids idolise those players, and most of them are just wonderful role models, and have so much time for our juniors.”
The zone’s junior season kicked off before Easter with a mini gala day in Brewarrina, run alongside the senior Western Plains Knockout, and Yeomans said it was just the tonic for families desperate to focus on something other than the drought.
“Our little gala day in Bree was just great, and that’s the kind of thing that lifts you back up again,” she says.
“At the end of the day one child from each club got up to thank everyone, and this little Bree boy got up and said; ‘thank you for coming to Brewarrina to play footy with us. We don’t get to play much footy, because no one comes out here’.
“Everyone just went; ‘awwwww’, and it was just one of those moments, it wasn’t put on or pre-arranged, it was just so genuine.”
Bush kids may occasionally be cute, but they’re also tough. ACT Brumbies Super W coach Adam Butt included seven country-based players in his 2019 squad, and built a game plan around the uncompromising attitude they brought.
“Work ethic. Commitment. Toughness, as well,” Butt told RUGBY.com.au when questioned about selecting the players from Orange, Goulburn, Tumut and Wagga.
“I don’t know what it is with men’s or women’s regional (players), they just have it, and you can’t have too many tough players.”
A mum of four, Yeomans says keeping rugby alive is part of normalising life as much as possible for kids while families endure the hardship of drought, but agrees growing up in a place like Walgett is definitely formative.
“Most country kids have been doing chores since they were four, they’ve been riding - in control of a 500kg animal - they’ve worked beside their parents since such a young age,” she says.
“Our whole life isn’t based on sport every afternoon, there’s a lot of work in there, and once the work is done then you have your fun, like going to footy on the weekends.
“We’re used to sitting in the car for hours to get anywhere, to do anything.
“I drive past St Josephs (Primary School) and look at the oval, it hasn’t had a blade of grass on it since before the end of last year, that’s what the kids are playing on.
“They’re hands on, and everything they do they make and create.
“They say about the Western Plains men that they’re tough and they’ll go hard all day, but the skill set isn’t there, and it’s the same with the kids.
“Sometimes they get heckled because of it, but they’re hard, and they’re tough, and they keep turning up, and that’s going to count for something one day.”
To prepare for the season, Walgett’s Lambs have been training on a tiny patch of grass at the town’s pool, which still boasts a surface even some city kids wouldn’t mind being tackled on.
But now the tanks are installed at the town’s ovals, the Sporting Club has donated machinery and staff to fertilise the fields this week, they’ll be re-sown with kikuyu grass seed, sprayed to prevent the growth of broad-acre weeds and the council has engaged an agronomist to advise how to get the best out of the turf using bore water.
In another positive development, river water is on the way. Recent rain in the Pilliga scrub has bolstered the Namoi and, together with scheduled releases into the Barwon River from Copeton and Glenlyon Dams, it’s hoped the town will soon be able to draw water from the Walgett Weir using a new new dual-pontoon pump.
“We’re hoping that (release) will be the game changer, both for the town water drinking supply, and for us being able to irrigate our recreation spaces,” says Greg Ingham, who will make a decision about potentially relaxing water restrictions on Monday.
The winning tender for a project to raise the weir by 1.1 metres will also be notified in mid May, with construction to start in July, but driving through Walgett right now is far from an uplifting experience and Yeomans said she was insulted when News Ltd papers recently referred to the state’s ‘invisible drought’.
“We see drought everywhere we look, from when we open our eyes in the morning, to when we close them at night,” she says.
“Look at our town. You go for a drive out any road…. kangaroos are dying under trees, not the 30 that are living on my lawn, but they are actually dying under trees.
“To us it’s not invisible, we’re living it every day.”
Despite the drought, Angus McDonald expects junior registrations to again increase in the zone this year, and Yeomans tries to communicate the importance of commitment to families who want their children to play for any Western Plains club.
“People can just look at the smaller picture, they look at their child or their family in their bubble, but the bubble is bigger than that.
“This is about keeping rugby in the Western Plains, it is about teaching teamwork, and sportsmanship, integrity and determination.
“Our kids are the underdog everywhere they go, and if any of them are going to go on to be champions, that lesson at age 10 and 12 is going to mean more than all the fancy shininess (later).
“We measure our success by having a go, and making sure our kids know they are awesome enough in their own skin.”
Greg Ingham, who has drawn praise from all sections of the community for his approach since arriving in December, admits the situation with the town’s ovals could have been managed better but the shire does understand how crucial an asset they are.
“I don’t think certain people at council had the commitment to the community they probably should have had, to be honest, and I’m hoping to change that,” he says.
“Footy is a very important part of the Walgett community and is so important for our youth - it’s a real positive means of them being engaged, keeping healthy, being fit, teamsmanship - everything that comes with sport.
“Especially at a time like this - we need to be able to still play sport in a drought.”
In November last year, Walgett’s infamous Tin Shed clubhouse hosted Pat McCutcheon and NSW Rugby general manager Tim Rapp on the Get Talkin’ Tour, a joint initiative by the NSW Positive Rugby Foundation and charity batyr to arm communities with the ability to look out for their own physical and mental wellbeing.
Speakers on the night emphasised the continued existence of sporting clubs as central to the health of rural areas, a message repeated in a more primal but no less effective way by a promotional video released by Western Plains club Gulargambone at the end of March.
Set to Tina Turner’s uplifting 1986 classic ‘What You Get Is What You See’, the pre-season package features a cast of Gular players, each covered in around 1000 flies, punching out push ups and shuttle runs in the dry bed of the Castlereagh River.
While several forms of post-training refreshment also featured may not be readily endorsed as coping mechanisms by Rugby Australia, the central themes of humour in the face of hardship, shared achievement and mateship typify what senior rugby in this part of the world is all about.
Bec Yeomans and Angus McDonald agree that the friendships juniors make through Western Plains rugby will prove vital if they move away from the region for work or study, and when they hopefully return to the farms and businesses later in life.
“Population means we’re not going to look like Central North or Central West, but we have to make Western Plains junior rugby what it can be with the issues we have,” says Yeomans.
“Time wise and everything it would be a lot easier to drive to another town but, if you stay here, your children are making memories with their friends, and we are meeting so many new people in our area.
“We love our local clubs and the Waratahs and the Wallabies, but we don’t do what we do because there may be a few future Wallabies amongst us, we do it because every child deserves the chance to experience rugby union, regardless of distance or their socio-economic background.”