Bush Beat: Why roller derby is helping girls' rugby thrive in North Queensland

by Stu Walmsley

It’s doubtful whether roller derby has ever led to a rugby revolution and, if it were to happen, Charters Towers would possibly be one of the least likely locations on Earth.

Mining and agriculture dominate the lives of most families in this small North Queensland community 140km south west of Townsville, but it’s also an education hub, and junior coach Bianca Phillott has tapped into this student body in order to create one of the fastest growing regional girl’s rugby programs in the state.

A teacher at the town’s Blackheath & Thornburgh College and former member of Townsville’s Top Gun Rollers, Phillott’s path to rugby is an unusual one, and it’s a development journey she’s sharing with her players at the Charters Towers Bulls and several other regional centres in the area.

Over the past two seasons, the towns of Ingham, Ayr and Hughenden have also fielded teenage girl’s teams for the first time in their history and Phillott says her troupe of teenagers have jumped at the opportunity to play a more physical sport.

“When I finished school I started roller derby when I was at uni (in Townsville), and went overseas doing that in America, and realised that the stress relief from playing that contact sport is an amazing feeling,” she says.

“We would train three times a week and compete every second week, and when I came back here as a teacher I thought; ‘there’s got to be something else for girls to do’.

“I started doing off-track training with some of the girls at my school, just fitness, and so we would do hitting drills and things, and it just progressed from that to playing footy.

“I mean roller derby is kind of just rugby on wheels, without a ball.”

A major factor in this segue was Phillott’s existing association with the Bulls; mum Cathy West is the only female life member, current secretary and manager of the junior girls, husband Josiah is reserve grade captain and coach of the under 11 boys and her brother Russell is one of the lynch pins of the A grade side. 

The club has a first-rate facility just east of the town, the pride of countless volunteers who have scratched their names in the cement slab of the self-built clubhouse, and Phillott’s motivation to start junior girl’s rugby also came from one of these old boys.

“I got my coaching inspiration from Ted Vincent, he lived just down the road and spent all of his waking hours here with his kids as well.” she says.

“He coached my brother (Russell), and me wanting to coach started by watching Ted do everything, he put in so many hours coaching juniors and seniors, as well as playing.

“I took that and started the girl’s teams.”

In addition to Blackheath & Thornburgh College, the town of just over 8,000 is also home to Columba Catholic College, All Souls St Gabriels School and Charters Towers State High, and the boarding schools cater for kids from central, western and northern Queensland, the Torres Strait and even Papua New Guinea.

None of the schools have existing rugby programs, apart from the annual Charters Towers Secondary Schools Tens held in October, and it was this competition which led to the Bulls starting their hugely successful junior program in 2006.

“The juniors have gone from strength to strength - we now have 11 teams including the Walla group - plus the two senior teams,” says Cathy West.

“Last year for the junior grand finals we decorated the whole of the Gill Street strip with black and orange, and half way to Townsville.

“It was massive.”

A series of come-and-try clinics held by the Townsville District Rugby Union (TDRU) in the zone’s regional centres have also helped generate interest, and the under 16 girls were one of those junior teams which brought a premiership trophy back home to Charters Towers in 2018.

“Last year was probably the first true competition, it was still a shortened (12-week) season, but we had the firepower there and got amongst it,” says West.

“It’s the kids (who are driving it) - they just want to play - and they spread the word themselves.

“The girls especially wanted a contact sport and there was nothing else here for them.”

In the cane fields of Ingham, a 90-minute drive north west of Townsville, it’s also the time and dedication of school teachers behind the town’s first junior girl’s teams.

Peter Bishop, Mr Fixit for the Ingham Cutters and year nine coordinator at the town’s state high school, is head coach of the club’s new under 14 and under 16 squads and he knows first hand what it’s like to pick up the game later in life.

“I’d never played rugby before, I was a hockey player, but there was a bunch of teachers who restarted the Ingham Rugby Club in 2003 World Cup year,” says the 41 year old, who still plays hooker for the Cutters’ senior team in TDRU second grade.

“I came to town the year after, all the teachers were playing rugby, so I had a go.”

Bishop’s assistant coaches, Hayley Hobbs and Julian Haddad, are both health and physical education teachers at Ingham State High and the trio can already see the impact playing for the Cutters is having on many of their students.

“For some of the girls just getting them to school every day was a challenge, but they’ve really turned around in the last year,” says Hobbs, who hopes to form a senior women’s team next season.

“To be in a sport like this where they get to be around other girls and people who care about them means we’re developing a team, and that grows into the community as well.

“It’s a really good support base for them and - for most of them to come from not playing any organised sport at 14, 15, 16 (years old) - this is a great avenue for them to just be able to get out and have fun.”

Ingham junior footy has traditionally been dominated by the Herbert River Crushers in what is very much rugby league heartland, but Bishop is hoping more school tournaments and the buzz created by the girl’s teams will lead to the Cutters further expanding their junior section.

“It’s great to see some fresh faces around the club and we’ve never seen so many people there at home games, because of the interest,” he says.

“People in town are talking about rugby, and we’re sponsored by the Brothers club, so it’s good to see them getting some crowds there and we’ve got plenty of home games to come.

“There’s just a good feel around the club and the feedback I’m getting from parents around the opportunities available in rugby is all great as well.”

Hobbs says there has been fantastic support from many of the Cutters’ old boys in helping coach and run the junior girls, but they simply wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Bishop.

“Without him, there’s no junior rugby, simple as that,” she says.

“He’s just happily done all that groundwork, he’s reached out to other schools and individuals, and at school we’ve got to jump through all kinds of guidelines and risk assessments. 

“It is a lot of work, and I’m helping out a bit with that side of things, but we’re just fortunate that he’s passionate and happy to drive it, because if some random person came in they’d just go; ‘that’s too hard’.”

On top of February’s disastrous floods around Townsville and north-western Queensland, the Wet season is lingering, and the Cutters’ home ground at Brothers Sports and Community Club backs on to TYTO Wetlands.

Agile Wallabies bound across the pitch, families of curlews wander through the metal seating and a sign at the wetland entrance warns of a recent croc sighting.

It’s a unique rugby setting, but not without its challenges. During the 2009 floods, the water level almost reached the crossbar, the club was inundated, and this year the Cutters have been forced to train on ‘high ground’ out the back of Gilroy Santa Maria College.

“It’s been really, really wet and sometimes we just haven’t been able to train and it’s also impacted on the cane season,” says Hobbs, who was born and raised in Ingham, a town of around 4,300.

“It’s just part of life here, and it’s probably a low-to-mid socio-economic town, and distance is a factor. 

“We’ve got kids in our team who travel half an hour to get to school from Abergowrie, in from all the beaches, all four corners of the district.

“There’s kids in there who wouldn’t have even thought about talking to each other and now they’re playing side by side.” 

The hype around Ingham’s newest junior teams will be familiar to residents of Hughenden in central Queensland.

Sporting opportunities for teenage girls are scarce in this community of around 1,100 residents, a four-hour drive south west of Townsville, one factor which led expat Kiwi Donny Mill to establish the Flinders Heat at the start of 2018.

Representing the Flinders Shire, this under 16s junior girls team committed to three months of 900km round trips to play in the TDRU’s 10-a-side competition, bringing much of the community with them on an unfamiliar rugby journey.

“Even though we play as a team, our family is the community as well, and when everyone comes together to support, that creates the family of rugby,” Mill told RUGBY.com.au at the annual Hughenden 7s tournament in 2018 where the team acted as touch judges.

“For these girls to do what they’re doing, it’s a refreshment for the community.” 

Mill and his young family have now moved south to Yeppoon, and the Heat have unfortunately folded, but parent Arlene Cairns posted a touching tribute on social media about the impact the experience had on the girls and the community.

‘Donnie, you are a legend in your own right,' it reads.

‘From the very beginning when they knew nothing, you have treated our girls with love and respect. In return you have their love and respect and all us parents will be forever grateful that you chose Hughenden to move too.

‘We all wish you the very best of luck for your future adventures and want to say that our loss is the next team’s gain. 

‘I hope they treat you will the respect that you deserve, you are forever imprinted in the hearts of our girls and their families.’

Burdekin Canetoads women’s captain coach Josie Coddington certainly grew up wishing she had a Donny Mill in her home town.

An agronomist at Northern Agri Services in Ayr, 90km south east of Townsville, Coddington also coaches the club’s under 14 and under 16 girls squads with partner and injured first grade flanker Nick Bartlett.

“I wish I could have had that opportunity, played juniors at that age or younger, because you’re starting so early your skills are going to be amazing by the time you finish school,” she says, as the late Wet season rain hammers on the clubhouse roof at Joe Vasta Memorial Field.

After commuting to Townsville to play for North Ward in 2018, Coddington formed a senior Canetoads women’s team at the start of this season for the TDRU ten-a-side competition, and the club had a great response from junior girls to the zone’s come-and-try day at the end of last year.

“It was just word of mouth for the under 14s and 16s, get your friends to come down and give it a try, and we built from there,” she says.

“The girls really drove it themselves.”

The couple say the sudden female presence has been embraced into the culture of the club and many of the senior men come down early to watch with the parents on match days.

“Having the two junior sides, and now the ladies, they can all come here on the Saturday and play at home in front of all their friends and family,” says Bartlett.

“So far it’s been great, we’ve got really good numbers for both sides, and we’ve got that ability for them to move up into another team which will hopefully mean they just keep rolling on through the grades.”

It’s the first time either of the two have coached juniors and, apart from a general inability for any of the players ‘to go five seconds without having a chat to their mates’, they have found the experience rewarding.

“You’re watching them make new friends, and learn the fact you need to work together to win and you can’t just be an outstanding individual, you need to work together at trainings and in the game to get results,” says Coddington.

“Also just building confidence. If they make a good tackle they realise; ‘oh, I can actually do this’, and every week you see their confidence building, and also their general fitness.

“They’re out and about rather than on their phones or devices.” 

The five Townsville-based clubs have found it tougher to recruit junior girls in the more saturated sporting environment of the city, and there have been a few forfeits in a competition which is still very much in the establishment phase, but Peter Bishop is proud towns like Ingham are leading the charge.

“Teachers West and North Ward have got some girls, but it’s good to see the regional teams contributing our bit to make sure it’s viable,” he says.

“Getting a women’s team is a major goal and we’re targetting a few girls who, if they’re in the district next year, I’d love to be the backbone of an Ingham women’s side.

“That’s the ultimate plan, whether we play 18s next year, and make the jump the year after.”

After years on the sidelines watching the boys, Charters Towers under 16 player Charli is thrilled to finally be playing rugby with twin sister Neeve for the Bulls, and says they enjoy matches against the other regional clubs the most.

“Yeah, it’s good playing the places like Ingham, because they have more players, like us,” says the 16 year old, who hails from Normanton near the Gulf Of Carpentaria.

“It just feels so good to be finally playing matches. 

“People are like; ‘oh, girls don’t play rugby’, but, yeah we do, and we play it well, too.” 

Burdekin’s Jayla Baldwin says she didn’t get along with all her teammates when she started playing in 2018, but she’s now close friends with most of her fellow Canetoads.

“I think, through playing, they got to know me more as a person,” she says.

“The tackling and stuff, just playing rugby, definitely brings you closer together.”

The 14 year old can also confirm Phillott’s philosophy that roller derby is good for stress relief also rings true for rugby and teenage angst.

“You can take all your anger out on the game, instead of just filling up with rage,” says Baldwin.