Reds to Regions tour shows representing whole state more than just a mantra for Queensland

· Super Rugby
by Emma Greenwood

It's 40 degrees on Harry Hoopert's family farm at Jondaryn on Queensland's Darling Downs, the surrounding fields absent of the crops that would normally be planted due to a lack of moisture in what is usually some of the most fertile soil in Australia.

A haze hangs over the horizon like a sheer curtain, a reminder of the bush fires that burn throughout the state and prevent the cloudless sky that will deny rain yet again, from shining a brilliant blue.

A farmer's son, Hoopert needs little reminder of the issues facing people on the land throughout Queensland.

But even he has been surprised at the level of devastation seen throughout the three-day Reds to Regions tour during which he and fellow Darling Downs product Hamish Stewart visited Roma, Chinchilla and Dalby before dropping in at the farm.

"I think half the boys don't understand what drought really is and how bad it really does affect some people," Hoopert said.

"The family I was staying with (in Dalby), the Elders, they said they've run out of all tank water and they have to buy their drinking water from the supermarket.

"So I'm sure heaps of boys have now realised what the drought actually is and all those bush fires and how everyone's impacted by them and can understand all that sort of stuff now.

"Seeing how different communities act on the drought, I think that's going to help us bring that (resilience) into our game as well, helping each other out in hard times."

Hoopert and Stewart's visits were just part of the massive undertaking that was Reds to Regions - a statewide blitz by the Reds that included school, hospital and club visits, as well as sponsor and council activations.

It's a "back to the future" move for the Reds, who are working hard to rekindle their relationship with fans around the massive state by revisiting the statewide community work they used to do.

But nothing has been on this level before.

 

It's a move that is not only supported but driven by head coach Brad Thorn, who is well aware of the benefits of being connected with the community you represent.

After the Christchurch earthquake in 2011, Thorn was among members of the Crusaders and All Blacks who worked and stayed in the community in an exercise that not only helped those people but forged closer links and purpose among teammates.

Those team bonds have been built by the Reds during pre-season camps in recent years but the club decided against heading again to the Canungra barracks in favour of last week's unprecedented regional blitz.

The 21 regions visited encompassed the width and bredth of the state - a logistical exercise that took two months to organise.

 

Thorn and his coaching staff also took part, heading south-west to Goondiwindi, while players recovering from injury and off-season surgery were even involved, doing day trips to schools on the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast to ensure they were part of the experience while not missing out on treatment that will help them return to the field.

The most important aspect though, was to connect with ordinary Reds fans in the regions - regular working people, many of whom are doing it tough at the moment due to a record drought plaguing the state.

While school and hospital visits are a regular part of the players' season, the Reds headed to work in some of the most remote parts of the state before being billeted with local families.

Hoopert and Stewart spent time at the Roma Saleyards, the largest cattle-selling facility in the southern hemisphere, while Liam Wright and Harry Wilson tended to fences in searing heat on a host family's property at Barcaldine.

Moses Sorovi talked leadership at Woorabinda, Brandon Paenga-Amosa worked on a cane farm in Gympie, while Bryce Hegarty helped work horses.

"It's an exciting thing to connect with the whole of Queensland," Hegarty said.

"I think it's super important. Just support for your state. The boys are from a lot of places around this great state and even places where we're not from, we're going out and giving a helping hand where we can and connecting with those guys in the community and just living a different way for a few days."

Wright is the Reds' newest Wallaby, having made his debut in the Bledisloe Test in Auckland before being on stand-by for the World Cup, meaning he has had little time off since ending his Super Rugby season.

But the backrower was thrilled to spend the opening days of the pre-season in regional Queensland, including working on crucial fencing on the "Dunraven" property at Barcaldine, almost 600km west of Rockhampton.

The eastern fence - needed to keep kangaroos and wild dogs away from the battling stock and few remaining tufts of grassland - has been renamed "the Reds line" in honour of Wright and rising star Wilson, who is almost certain to win a maiden Super Rugby cap this season.

"It was pretty tricky at the start, it works your thumbs and fingers and they're pretty sore at the moment but it was pretty cool to do and just get a look into what goes into running the property," Wright said.

"We were happy to help out and just learn a bit along the way. It shows you what it takes out here, it's a different sort of work to what we're used to, so it's eye-opening."

Filling up feeders for sheep who are relying on dry pellets for their survival and bottle-feeding lambs was also on the agenda for Wright and Wilson, who came away with not only a better understanding of the drought conditions but the resilience of those facing them every day.

"Supposedly everywhere around here used to be knee-high pasture and there's barely a speck of grass anywhere," Wright said.

"They're in severe drought out here which is incredibly sad but they make do and just keep working and grinding away and it's inspiring really.

"(Coming out here has been) well worth it. To be out this far west is crazy.

 

"You hear about the drought and you talk about it but in Brissy we don't get a speck of what's actually going on so just to really catch what's happening out here.

"We met a lot of people … and there were some really great people there whose spirits were still high despite what's going on.

"Just really good people, really good communities and I've loved coming out here this week."

A Toowoomba product, playmaker Stewart said he had been touched by the humility of the people who had opened their homes to Reds players despite facing their own issues.

 

"I always knew country people are loyal and true to what they say and they've been through that many hardships over the years through droughts, floods, loss of crops and stuff like that and they always seem to bounce back even better," Stewart said.

"We saw it first hand and I really appreciate that and for them to be opening and willing to let us into their family homes and tell us all their stories and tricks of the trade, I found that very valuable."

Stewart said the benefit would be ongoing for the Reds, who are set to hang jerseys swapped with schools, club teams and other organisations in their team room at Ballymore as a constant reminder of those they are representing when they pull on the maroon.

"Going into the 2020 season I think we can always look back on that and say: 'These fellas are doing it hard out here and they only want the best for us'," Stewart said.

"We're not only playing for Brisbane, where we're based, we're playing for everyone in the whole of Queensland.

"And I think getting out to the 21 areas we've been to, and letting them know that the Reds are always playing for the country people as well, not only the city people, that's a big thing."

The players were back in action at Ballymore on Thursday, taking the opening steps in a gruelling pre-season they hope prepares them for a season that marks a return to the Super Rugby finals.

Their Reds to Regions visits will help spur them on. But perhaps more importantly, those they have visited know they are not forgotten.


"The last couple of days, they've always thanked us pretty significantly for being out here, they all appreciate it and they think it's a good thing for the rural towns around Queensland," Hoopert said.

"It's been good."