Family is central to everything Lisa Campbell and Afa Polo do, so when the couple started a rugby club in Melbourne’s south east, those values were always going to be at its core.
Casey Crusaders formed in late 2017 and had no ground, no players and no physical infrastructure.
Two years later they can boast more than 200 registered players, two Rugby Victoria premierships and, perhaps most importantly, have solidified rugby’s future in the sporting landscape of one of Australia’s fastest growing regions.
Remarkably, the club’s home ground at Clyde Recreation Reserve - 55km south east of Melbourne’s CBD - still doesn’t have goalposts, but the Crusaders have shown that if you create the right atmosphere, you don’t actually need them.
In age groups under 11 and above where posts are required, Casey have contested home games at Southern Districts in Seaford, an arrangement made possible by the generosity of past Pirates president Nadine Dowie.
This neighbourly gesture from a club that has struggled in recent years is an acknowledgement from the Rugby Victoria family of the serious traction Casey are getting in Melbourne’s burgeoning south-east corridor - an area in which the AFL are also pushing hard.
The club’s family focus has struck a chord with newcomers in places like Cranbourne, Beaconsfield and Officer, all among the nation’s fastest growing suburbs, according to 2018 figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
After fielding eight junior sides in their first season last year, Casey expanded into senior rugby in 2019, entering a women’s team in Rugby Victoria’s Lindroth Cup which finished the regular season second on the table.
Cranbourne residents Alicia Pena-Tipene and Lusia Samuelu (both 18) are part of that senior squad and, in a prime example of club’s ethos, also became joint coaches of the club’s under 7s.
“I think I got lucky finding Casey because they’re such a family oriented club and, as soon as I got there, I just felt right at home,” says Pena-Tipene, who played junior rugby league for the past three years.
“Lisa and Afa are amazing, they’re like mum and dad of Casey Crusaders.
“But everyone’s so happy to help out, it really is like a family.”
On a brisk morning in mid May, Pena-Tipene and Samuelu are coaching amid the chaos of Saturday’s junior fixtures at Kiwi Hawthorn, and their team is very much representative of the cultural melting pot that is south-east Melbourne.
Kids from various Polynesian backgrounds play alongside teammates from India, Sri Lanka and South Africa, with the odd blonde-haired Aussie, but three seasons ago none of these teams existed.
Kiwi Hawthorn under 8s coach Peter Taitoko became involved in 2016 when he saw an ad in the local paper for the club’s rejuvenated junior program, and children Luke (10) and Alice (8) attended the first training session.
“We bought the kids down just to have a look at what it was like, and the rest is history,” says the 45 year old, who also works on the committee of the club that has 60 juniors, almost half of which are girls.
“Alice was one of the first girls to start playing Touch 7s, the junior girls non contact, and since then through Rugby Vic they’ve met the Governor General, played with the Rebels, played at half time for the Wallabies and represented against the Brumbies Girls last year.
“The rugby culture is a great culture for families to be part of, there’s just a lot more community engagement opportunities for us.”
South-east Melbourne is perhaps the ultimate case study of Australia cluttered and competitive footballing marketplace.
The four codes jostle for juniors in an area which absorbs around 80 new families a week, but the complex cultural mix also means many of the newcomers don’t have entrenched attitudes about which sport their kids play and are actively searching for options.
After attracting mainly Polynesian families in their first year of existence, there’s now a genuinely diverse range of cultures gathered around the barbecue after Wednesday night training in Clyde, while the kids continue tearing into one another on the freezing grass outside the converted cricket pavilion clubrooms.
“We’ve tried to create that family environment, so it’s not just a rugby club, but a community club - create a sense of belonging for families to socialise and hang out while (the kids are) playing a game we all love,” says director of rugby Afa Polo, while filming an under 13s fixture at Northern Panthers in Reservoir.
“Usually when you train a lot of the families would stay in their vehicles or just drop their kids off, but the families that we’ve got down at the club have been keen on supporting wherever they can.
“A lot of them have created new friendships through the club, and it’s heartwarming to see that stuff.
“Especially the girls that have come through, their parents have been really supportive, getting involved and meeting each other.
“It’s been great to go down to the clubrooms and see it packed.”
Polo and wife Lisa Campbell can empathise with the challenges facing the region’s new families; they moved to Melbourne in 2012 from Christchurch in the wake of the deadly earthquake which struck the city, and balance two full-time jobs with challenges on the home front.
“We have four kids, one with autism, so it’s kind of like having 100 kids,” says club president Campbell, during a fundraising sausage sizzle at Bunnings in Cranbourne.
“People think we’re a bit crazy, but we’d be lost without rugby.
“It’s just in us - we have to do it - and we’re always talking to the community about rugby and wanting more and more people involved and getting the message out there, because it’s such an AFL dominant state.
“Just getting people to come and give it a go, come down to a training, get a feel of it - and once you get people down there they love it and come back.”
After volunteering as junior coordinator at Endeavour Hills Rugby for five years, Campbell and Polo could see a clear need for a club servicing the city’s south-eastern fringe.
“Afa and I got together with Tom and Adrienne (Tufuga) and sort of brainstormed, thought we would start with juniors, maybe a couple of teams,” the 32-year-old says.
“We ended up with 129 juniors in the first season, spread across eight teams, and a huge amount of youth girls.
“Sometimes I have to pinch myself, because we originally thought we’d just have a couple of teams for a few years, but we had a response which was way beyond that.”
The club’s founders also had the blessing and support of Rugby Victoria which, on the strength of a joint audit with the state government, had pinpointed Casey’s catchment and suburbs like Point Cook on the western side of Port Phillip Bay as rapid growth areas they wished to target.
“There was a genuine need there, and it was at a time when Lisa and Afa came to us - they live out at Pakenham - and they said they wanted to establish a club in that Clyde area,” says Rugby Victoria general manager Chris Evans.
“The stars aligned, but the beauty of the club today is that they are by far the most engaged junior rugby club in the state.
“They’re attending Get Into Rugby sessions at primary schools, they’re getting off their backside and genuinely engaging with us, and they’re reaping the benefits.”
Another crucial supporter has been City of Casey Council and, while goalposts might not be completely necessary, the Crusaders did need a bit of turf to kick things off.
“Two-and-a-half years ago when Lisa and I went and met the council, they said; ‘here’s a patch of grass’ and they were quite responsive, but now they’re pretty much saying; ‘what else can we do?’,” says Evans.
“They provided some funding for us to run a major event down there in October (Melbourne International 7s), we had 30-odd teams down at Casey Fields, an NRC (National Rugby Championship) game, and a Wallabies live site with a big screen.
“They’ve really been hugely supportive.”
In fact, the Crusaders couldn’t have timed their emergence much better. City of Casey confirmed the club will be one of the permanent tenants at the planned Clyde Park Sports Precinct, a sprawling 82-hectare complex catering for 17 sports and due for completion in 2025.
The development will complement existing infrastructure and a new boutique 8,000 seat rectangular stadium at nearby Casey Fields - all part of the council’s multi-sports strategy in a municipality which is expected to match the population of Tasmania by 2041.
“Rugby’s growth is really bringing a lot of benefits - we have 162 different nationalities in Casey and greater Dandenong - so it’s very very diverse,” says Wright Paterson, Casey Fields sports and partnerships coordinator at City of Casey.
“Rugby and rugby league are really interacting with the Pacific Islander community and getting other parts of the community involved, and also with the huge amount of women’s teams as well.
“Clyde Park a staged site, as Casey Fields is, but we’ll be pushing for rugby to be first because of the pressure we’ve got from the development we’re seeing, so best case scenario they’d be playing on that by 2024-25.”
In the meantime, the club’s current home at Clyde Recreation Reserve has also been earmarked for a $12 million upgrade, due for completion in 2022, on top of continuing major improvements for Endeavour Hills, which also falls within the council’s catchment.
“We really felt we were at full capacity when they (the Crusaders) came to us in 2017, but they didn’t ask for that brand new rugby facility straight away and were happy to grow with us,” says Stewart Broussard, coordinator for Casey’s southern recreation reserves.
“It’s been the perfect example where they’re going into their third season, but they were patient and were able to work with us, and it’s exciting where they can go from here.”
But the small army of volunteers at the Crusaders aren’t pulling back on the sausage sizzles just yet.
City of Casey have also approved a minor capital works grant for goalposts, which will hopefully be installed before the 2020 season, but with that comes the added cost of pads, corner flags and roping.
“The new Bunnings in Clyde North has opened up, and they’ve been really generous, and we’ve got one (fundraiser) coming up there before Christmas and a couple in January as well,” says Campbell, adding that visibility is just as important as sausage sales.
“If there’s any community things we can be a part of I think we always gain something from it, a few extra people knowing we’re here, word of mouth.
“A couple of weeks ago we were at a barber and my son was wearing the club hoodie, another family there asked about the club, and now they’re going to bring their boys down next season.”
The fact Casey has a senior women’s team before there’s even been a whisper of a male equivalent is indicative of the seismic shift in junior participation right cross Australia.
The Crusaders are very much playing what’s in front of them, providing a development pathway for their junior girls, and Casey prop Titilia Yabaki is showing the way with her selection for Australia A Women to contest the Oceania Rugby Women’s Championship in Fiji later this month.
The Melbourne Rebels and Rugby Victoria also launched the U18 Youth Girls Academy early in 2019 to assist the transition from club rugby to Super W, and Polo says Casey’s initial focus is to show their community that rugby is an ideal team sport for teenage girls.
“The girls are really keen to learn the game and when they learn the game and they’re playing, they’re just smiling and loving the social aspect and the camaraderie that rugby brings,” he says.
“It’s been amazing, but a lot of it is due to the volunteers that have come on board and have had the same vision and passion that we have for growing the game.”
Polo also uses the power of sport in his day job as a residential youth worker with the Department of Human Services, assisting kids removed from their families through court order.
“In any sport, you’re always going to learn life skills, and with some of the kids it’s also about trying to give them a better life,” he says.
“A lot of the kids I deal with come from broken families, drug and alcohol affected, so it can be about trying to give them a different look into life when I introduce rugby.
“They see that there’s more to life than what I’ve got here in this small bubble, and can also introduce a different peer group to the ones they already have.
“A lot of the kids (at Crusaders) come from really good, respectful, kind families where all the positive values are present, and they can guide these others by making them feel like they are valued as a member of the club and the community.
“It’s something I get great pleasure out of, seeing that unfold.”
Even though the season proper has finished, The Crusaders are still running a Spring program at Berwick Chase Primary School every Wednesday.
“A few kids were asking; ‘what can we do in the off season?’,” says Campbell.
“Some go and play cricket and basketball, but others just love rugby too much, so we decided to do this program for nine weeks focussing on specifics like ball skills, decision making, defence and tackling.
“We’ve actually picked up about 14 new children through that, wanting to give rugby a go and see if they like it.”
Campbell also praised the Get Into Rugby program, specifically designed to introduce the core skills and values of the game to players with no previous experience.
“It’s great because it’s not massive training with hundreds of kids, there’s just 20 or 30, so they don’t feel overwhelmed,” says Campbell.
“But they get a taste of rugby and we’ve actually had quite a few kids new to the game come and do their five or six weeks (of Get Into Rugby) and carry on to now playing for us this year.
“It’s a great way to give them the rugby bug.”
The hard-working committee and volunteers at the Crusaders are very much indicative of the heavy lifting immigrant families often do at the community level of Australian rugby but, while they might be developing Wallaroos and Wallabies, it’s still a different story when they sit down to watch a Test Match.
“I know we’re called the Crusaders, but we do go for the Melbourne Rebels - we’ll always support our local Super Rugby team - but I think we will always support the All Blacks,” says Campbell.
“We’re still pretty hard-core Kiwis.”
This article was originally published on RUGBY.com.au.