Bush Beat: Out of the fire, into the pandemic; South Coast clubs hang tough

by Stu Walmsley

Originally published on RUGBY.com.au

Peter McGann stands where his back porch used to be, tears welling in his eyes as he looks across at the ridge where the fire came from.

Behind him, wife Jenny hangs washing on an ancient hills hoist which looks like it’d survive any inferno, but the family home which should sit in front of it is now just a memory - one of hundreds of buildings destroyed in Mogo on New Year’s Eve by the Clyde Mountain fire.

Normally this tourist town, 300km south of Sydney and a two-hour drive from Canberra, would be gearing up for an influx of families starting April school holidays.

But on this day in March just a few visitors browse the trinket stores, ice creamery and cafes in the main street which are still standing, some of which used to stock Mogo Village Honey, once produced by the McGanns in a now-destroyed shed at the rear of their property.

“We looked at so many scenarios if we’d stayed, and each one we thought we probably would have been dead at the end of it,” says Peter, who has found himself constantly pondering if he could have done anything different to save their home and business.

An eleventh-hour plea from Jenny convinced Peter and eldest son Tom,19, to make the dash south along the closed Princes Highway to the evacuation centre in Moruya, a decision which probably saved their lives.

“We knew we had to go at that stage - the air was on fire - and you kept hearing all these explosions get closer and closer as the gas cylinders went up,” Peter recalls.

“It was lucky she called when she did, because we may have tried to stay longer.”

“They would have died if they’d stayed,” adds Jenny, quietly.

The McGanns' home after fire ripped through Mogo on the New Year's Eve. Photo: SuppliedThe Clyde Mountain fire wasn’t expected to hit Mogo that day - its speed and ferocity took many by surprise - and an already overstretched NSW Rural Fire Service was battling elsewhere to save more densely populated areas like Catalina, near the region’s largest town of Bateman’s Bay.

The McGanns were left with the clothes on their back, one shed containing a forklift and, miraculously, all their chooks - but $100,000 worth of beekeeping and honey extracting equipment, their home and its contents went up in smoke.

“Benjamin (14) lost all of his rugby gear, including the IRB-approved goggles he has to wear, and the girls (Victoria, 23, and Sarah, 22) lost all their equipment for dressage and show jumping, and that’s quite expensive,” says Jenny of the impact on her kids.

“They were pretty upset and displaced with all the moving - we’ve been in three different places since the fire.

“But the rugby club (Broulee Dolphins) have been great and they’ve replaced everything.”

Jenny grins as she describes Ben as the ‘rugby nut’ of the family; a front rower in a Dolphins U15 squad who were preparing for the 2020 ACT Junior Rugby Union season.

“They’d already played in the South Coast 7s at Milton, and the pre season was well underway,” says Peter, whose broad smile also returns when we begin talking rugby.

“But, now….”

Now, comes COVID-19.

On the back of their summer of bushfire hell when Mogo, and so many other South Coast communities, were just beginning to get back on their feet - arrives a global pandemic.

Rugby Australia, like its compatriots in all other major sports, has announced a nationwide shutdown of matches and training in line with social distancing protocols, and the season is postponed until at least the first week of June.

Peter, a former player with the Cowra Eagles and assistant to U15 head coach Ian Filmer at the Dolphins, understands the wider ramifications of removing sport from a bush community - especially after a summer like few Australians have ever experienced.

“You’ve gone from your day-to-day routine, to having it turned completely upside down, so getting back to sport and school is really important,” he says, the concern returning to his voice.

“It’s critical because you need that structure back in your life.”

Barely 90 minutes after it decimated Mogo, the Clyde Mountain fire hit Broulee, 10km to the south east.

The Dolphins' home ground and clubhouse at Captain Oldrey Park lies on the western edge of the beach-side town, one of the first properties in the fire’s path, with nothing to protect it but bushland, tinder dry after years of drought.

“Thankfully, there was a wind change,” says junior vice president Jon Brady.

“We were about five minutes from losing the clubhouse, the retirement village (Banksia Lodge) and many more homes.”

Club secretary Michelle Katuke has images on her phone of large blackened areas on the field, the result of spot fires from ember attacks.

“It was incredibly dry, the field was like straw,” she says.

“It came within a metre or so of our sheds, where all the gear is stored, and too quickly for us to move it.

“We were really so lucky it didn’t all burn.”

But club legend and foundation player Mark Hogan, known as The Colonel, wasn’t so fortunate - losing his Broulee home in the fire and another Dolphins old boy, 59-year-old Michael Clarke, tragically died while defending his property near Bodalla in the Badja Forest Road blaze on January 24.

New Year’s Day also proved a deadly one for the rugby community when Robert Salway, 63, and son Patrick, 29, died trying to protect their dairy farm near Wandella, about 10 kilometres north-west of Cobargo.

Patrick was a member of the Bermagui/Cobargo Sharks team which won the 2010 Far South Coast premiership, when former Wallaby Gary Pearse coached the club, and many of that squad were among the 3000 mourners who gathered to pay tribute to the pair.

The funeral of Patrick and Robert Salway in Cobargo on January 24. Photo: Getty ImagesOf course, such a collective outpouring of grief wouldn’t be permitted during the current COVID-19 crisis and, after a summer of trauma, U18 Dolphins prop Ethan Mass knows not being able to physically come together and share experiences will be tough.

“The New Year’s Eve fire was the scariest thing I’ve ever been through - almost pitch black at 9am and dead silent, no birds, no wind, and then the fire came,” says the 17-year-old, who watched the blaze approach from the roof of his family home in Moruya.

“Then everything turned red, and it was almost like thunder, deafeningly loud - out of nowhere - just insane.

“I hope I never have to live through anything like that again and now, with this next thing (coronavirus) it’s going to be very difficult, because everyone is still restocking and rebuilding after the fires.

“Rugby’s off and I know there’s a few youth forums which have now been cancelled, and it’s really so important to be able to meet people your own age, and talk through what’s happened.

“We haven’t really had a chance to process that, before we’ve got this.”

A hard-working committee and the influence of key teachers in Broulee’s Carroll College and St Peter’s Anglican has helped make the Dolphins the dominant junior force on the coast and, in mid-February, Mass was part of a large pod of players who turned up at the McGanns’ back fence on Mogo, ready to do what they could do help get the family back on its feet.

“We had about 30 people here from the Broulee Dolphins and we pulled the shed down and heaped it up the back, making it easier for the government guys when they came to do the clean up,” Peter McGann says.

“Ian Filmer brought his bobcat over, and the whole area up the back was cleaned up, which was a huge help.”

Broulee Dolphins help clear the McGanns' property in Mogo and (inset), the fire approaching on New Year's Eve. Photos: SuppliedA few kilometres south of Mogo, the Bateman’s Bay Boars were throwing their own significant weight around on the beef cattle property of long-time sponsor and supporter Elizabeth Fleming (70).

Fleming’s daughter Katherine and son-in-law Ben Elliot, a player for Braidwood Redbacks, managed to save the farmhouse and outbuildings on New Year’s Eve, and the Boars have pitched in since to clear kilometres of damaged fencing and fallen timber.

“Mogo was hit terribly and, I’ve seen fires before on this property, but it’s never been as widespread as it was over this summer,” says Fleming.

“There was an old couple over here on Maulbrooks Road, they thought they were going to die. They got down in their cellar, and they just hugged one another.

“Now, what we’re facing as a community - it’s a hard set of circumstances - I run a legal business with two offices and I’m making plans about how long I can keep those offices going and how I can look after my people, and my clients, and myself.”

Fleming’s two rugby playing sons, Andrew and David, were also helping out with the family’s recovery effort, but only one of the them was wearing the red and black of the Boars.

After coming up through the junior ranks in Bateman’s Bay, David controversially agreed to captain coach arch rival Broulee in 2010, creating an impartiality dilemma for Elizabeth and husband Geoff, who passed away in 2018.

“They were both captain and they played in at least two grand finals against one another and, when we watched, we used to stand exactly on half way,” she says.

“David went to the Dolphins because they were about to fold - he decided the competition needed another strong team - but he wasn’t very popular with the Boars.

“But it was the best thing to do for rugby.”

Andrew Fleming (right) and Boars teammates clear fire-damaged fencing near Mogo. Photo: Rugby AU Media/Stuart WalmsleyIn fact, the Boars and Dolphins have been slugging it out since the first Far South Coast Rugby Union season in 1981, when current Broulee club patron Rod Shanahan moved to the area from Sydney Wests (now West Harbour) and ran into an old friend and foe from Parramatta Two Blues, Chris Eagar.

The pair convened a meeting at the Moruya Country Women’s Association Hall, with Shanahan appointed zone secretary, and Eager establishing and coaching the Bodalla Shamrocks.

Along with Milton/Ulladulla Platypi and Bermagui/Cobargo, those five clubs contested the first season, ending a period of over half a century where rugby league held a monopoly on organised football in the area.

Union was played as early as 1896, when descriptions of challenge cup fixtures between towns were printed in the Pambula Voice and, further up the coast, the Nowra Leader recorded that Kioloa footballers travelled by steam launch from Bawley Point to play Milton in July, 1913.

Bateman’s Bay rugby union team, pictured in 1908. Photo: SuppliedMost clubs in the region gradually migrated to playing rugby league in the 1920s, but organised competition wasn’t revived until Shanahan’s arrival in the 1980s.

Soon after its comeback, union enjoyed a heyday in the area, with most clubs fielding two grades, and the code was played in the majority of high schools from Nowra all the way to the Victorian border.

An influx of manpower around the logging protests in the late 80s also led to the formation of the short-lived Merimbula Barbarians, and the Moruya Thistles were another flash in the pan around the same time, while teams also came and went from Bega, HMAS Creswell in Jervis Bay, Vincentia, Narooma, Bombala, Tuross Head and Shoalhaven (Nowra).

In 1993, Braidwood re-formed for the first time in almost 40 years around a core of players who had been trekking down the Kings Highway to play for Bateman’s Bay.

After winning a premiership in the Canberra Cup, the Redbacks played in the Far South Coast competition for the first time in 1996, and defeated the Boars in the grand final the following year.

Redbacks captain Michael Toirkens celebrates the Far South Coast premiership at Braidwood Recreation Ground in 1997. Photo: SuppliedLess job opportunities in the traditional industries of forestry, agriculture and fishing, pressure from other sports (particularly AFL) and a lack of administrators forced the zone to fold in 2014 and the remaining clubs entered the newly formed South Coast Monaro Second Division under the Brumbies Rugby banner.

Some tough road trips were in play throughout that 2015 winter; it’s four-and-a-half hours from Ulladulla to Jindabyne and, once you pile off the bus, there’s also a chance John Connors Oval will have just received a fresh dusting of snow.

Broulee, Bateman’s Bay and Braidwood are the only former Far South Coast senior clubs still active and, with the possibility of the 2020 season being a complete write off, the various committees are doing everything they can to keep players engaged.

Braidwood, in particular, managed to turn a summer where the town was effectively under siege by bushfire for 10 weeks into the most promising pre-season for a decade.

After the cancellation of February's annual Braidwood Race Day due to fire and drought, Redbacks sponsor Brendan Sly and captain Jake Holland (brother of Australian Sevens star Lewis) created the Braidwood Bushfire 7s to fill the social void and bring a much-needed influx of visitors to the town.

“We put out an expression of interest on social media on a Friday and, by the Monday, we had about 65 teams wanting to come,” says club scretary Nick Kemp of the event, which was staged on February 8 in the first decent rain for months.

“We ended up capping it at 45, because that’s all we could accommodate, but we could have got 100.

“There were a lot that didn’t get in, but they just came anyway, and you could hardly move in the main street, which was great for the town.”

Braidwood's Nick Blackmore enjoys some post-match refreshment at The Rec Ground. Photo: Rugby AU Media/Stuart WalmsleyClub stalwart George Sherriff, who credits the district’s ‘mosquito crews’ of farmers in utes with helping save his property from the North Black Range fire, and probably also the communities of Reidsdale and Majors Creek, said the ‘mighty effort’ of staging the tournament gave the club great momentum heading into 2020.

“The rain’s been brilliant, there’s a smile on everyone’s dial, the footy boys are stoked because we’ve had a great pre season - so it’s very anticlimactic,” he says, adding the Redbacks had to cancel a four-team knock out with Wagga Ag College, Cooma and Uni-Norths Owls on March 21 due to COVID-19.

“We did have a meeting to discuss how we can keep the momentum going, just with individual fitness training, and they were doing some great charity work on fire-affected farms before BlazeAid were here.

“We want to keep that up, because there’s a continuation of hurt from the fires, but now also an economic hurt.

“Even the quarantining and isolation of people - I don’t think we’ve got our head around what that’s going to mean - and there’s a lot of people in this community we need to look after.

“We know the footy’s off, but we’ve got to keep the lads engaged and giving a bit back to this town, which has always been generous to us.”

The Redbacks also donated contributions from teams participating in the Bushfire 7s to the local Apex club, which will add money raised from catering the tournament to fund the rebuild of a recreational facility at Bombay Reserve, 10km west of the town.

“It’s a swimming hole that’s been used by locals forever, but the stairs are burned out, as were the toilet facilities, the trees damaged and any ground cover that was there to stop erosion is all gone, so it needs a fair bit of work,” says Derek Tooth, long-time Apex Braidwood member and president of Braidwood Junior Rugby.

“Now we’ll apply for Apex Australia to match this funding, we’ll talk to Sydney Catchment Authority (who manage the facility) about whether they can offer something, and all the volunteer labour will come from the Redbacks and Apex.”

Mick McGrath and Nick Kemp of the Redbacks and Derek Tooth and Troy Vardanega of Braidwood Apex. Photo: Rugby AU Media/Stuart WalmsleyEven though community rugby is yet to kick off in 2020 it’s already been a long season for the committees at these bushfire-affected clubs but, in all three areas, locals discovered just how useful a large group of willing rugby players can be.

“The response from players was great and, from the word go, we were trying to get them out into the community where we could,” says life-long Bateman’s Bay Boar and current club coach, Matt Ryan.

“Sell them as a package, so to speak; ‘here’s 30 strong girls and guys who can come and help you out’, but they also did heaps individually.”

The club cleared out its storage and dressing sheds at Hanging Rock Sports Complex to help facilitate its transformation into a bushfire evacuation and logistics centre, but the crisis itself presented a raft of unprecedented challenges.

“We were incredibly appreciative of the response and generosity, but it also created an environment we’d never experienced before,” says Ryan of the donations, which included 32 palettes of goods organised by Quirindi Rugby Club in north-east NSW.

“We wanted to make sure it was getting to the right people and places, so we made the decision to store it and distribute it to specific families, and that required a fair bit of shuffling or resources.

“A local business donated some storage space, but there was a lot of work for the committee around managing that.

“We also had a $10,000 donation come in from a local organisation, and we identified six families that could do with vouchers.

“Most weren’t affiliated with the club, but we just wanted to make sure it was going to the right place, because the towns were overwhelmed with the amount of donations.”

The club also helped the South Coast Donations Logistics team move to the old Bunnings site in The Bay, and continues to assist with simple sorting and grunt work, but also getting supplies to some of the remote bush communities hardest hit by bushfire.

“Once they realised we had a lot of man power and utes, we got a 10-car convoy which went out to Belowra (two hours inland on dirt roads) because they had heard the fire station was housing people who had lost their homes,” Ryan says.

“Those people had actually been shifted once we’d arrived, but they needed supplies on the way back at Nerrigundah, so we dropped off what we could there.

“I had a few of the U16s in my vehicle, and it was a real eye opener for them seeing the devastated landscape, and people who had lost everything.

“Some of the questions were humorous, at times, but you could also tell they were really humbled by seeing house after house flattened, only chimney stacks left.”

Just south of Bateman’s Bay on New Year’s Eve, thousands sheltered on beaches at Malua Bay, Rosedale and Guerilla Bay, the only place left to go as the fast-approaching Clyde Mountain Fire engulfed each headland.

Former Waratah and Wallaby Al Baxter and his family were among the holidaymakers who spent almost 24 hours huddled on the sand with locals, livestock and pets, helpless as they watched houses catch alight, and tried to shelter from the relentless smoke and ash.

“Yeah, they got hit hard down there, and to experience that would have been next level, but we weren’t too badly affected where we were,” Ryan says pragmatically, even though the flames reached within a few hundred metres of his surfside home.

“But the aftermath was crazy; roads closed, a lack of supplies, police in supermarket aisles, people desperate to get out.

“We live next door to a service station, so it was taking us up to three hours just to drive across town.

“You saw the best in people, and some of the worst, but - for the most part - people were amazing and that’s what got us through it all.”

Matt’s father, Boars club legend Peter Ryan, had just cracked a beer with his brother on New Year’s Day to celebrate the fact they still had a verandah to sit on, when he realised the fire had left them a nasty surprise.

“I looked into the backyard and there was smoke pouring out of the storage container, it had a wooden floor, so it burned up from the bottom,” says Ryan Snr, who held a boot-cutting ceremony at his 50th birthday when he finally retired from playing.

“It was full of rugby memorabilia, old Boars and Wallabies jerseys, and my wife’s precious tea set, so that was disappointing, but we’re obviously still better off than most.”

Peter has spent countless hours sorting and delivering donations up and down the coast during the recovery effort and says he is still being struck by the severity of the various fires almost three months after they swept through.

“There’s a guy out at Cadgee who lost everything; his house, shed, all his work equipment and, in his own words, no one could have been better prepared,” he says.

“He had 22,000 gallons of water alongside the house and a tank with a fire pump, he had a small creek with a fire pump on it, sprinkler systems on his shed and house, and he lost the lot.

“He said every fire brigade in the state could have been there, and they wouldn’t have stopped it.”

One of the driving forces behind the establishment of junior rugby in the Far South Coast zone and the hugely popular Friday night twilight competition at Hanging Rock last decade, the 65-year-old says he’s seen nothing like the current set of circumstances the club is having to negotiate.

“It’s devastating, because it’s seniors and juniors, and you can’t even train - but we’ve got to understand why the decision’s been made and it’s done for the right reasons,” says Ryan, a Yeoval junior coached by legendary fly half ‘Bluey’ Stanbrook, who turned down a Wallaby jersey in 1963 because he had to put his crop in.

“But it’s another kick in the guts - there’s been trial games and the club’s raring to go - and now it all stops.

“I do wonder if they announce we can get going again, whether people will come back, or they just say; ‘stuff 2020, we’ll just worry about next year’.

“You come out of a drought, into a bushfire, it finally rains, and then this virus comes around. You just wonder, what’s next?”

Jim Roberts, Peter Ryan, Matt Ryan and Andrew Fleming of the Boars in clean-up mode. Photo: Rugby AU Media/Stuart WalmsleyThe Boars took a further financial hit when the Brumbies were forced to cancel a March 20 ‘Road to Recovery’ fixture in Bateman’s Bay between their Runners development squad and the Waratahs ‘A’ team, and Broulee’s March 21 pre-season gala day and bushfire fundraiser was also a victim of COVID-19.

However, Hunters Hill Rugby Union, who have been a consistent city supporter of various bush clubs hit by natural disasters in recent years, held their first virtual raffle in lieu of their presence at Captain Oldrey Park and raised $2,240 for families directly impacted by the fires.

The Dolphins, Boars and Redbacks, like every other community rugby club across Australia, now face fresh dilemmas around local sponsorship and funding in such uncertain financial times, but they are also operating in an area which has lost the majority of summer trade.

“All the businesses have lost so much income, we have to ask ourselves; ‘do we continue to approach people, or do we just bank what we’ve got now and move forward?’, says Matt Ryan.

“The other thing is, now that we’re not playing, what do we offer? We haven’t even had a discussion about how we’re going to address that we might not be able to deliver what we offered back in November.

“In a country town like ours, I don’t think many businesses will have an issue with that, but it’s just another curve ball to deal with.”

Back in Mogo, the McGanns are making admirable progress, and self isolation is probably slightly easier when you have thousands of bees for company.

The water is back on, power isn’t far away, a new honey extractor has been donated and insurance money will enable them to purchase the town’s renowned ‘pink house’ on the adjoining block.

“Everybody calls it that, it’s a local icon,” says Jenny, who recoils in mock horror when I suggest a fresh lick of paint might be in order.

Jenny McGann hangs out the washing on her beloved hills hoist. Photo: Rugby AU Media/Stuart WalmsleyWith around half the houses in Mogo damaged or destroyed, the landscape of the town has completely changed, but the family continue to marvel at the kindness shown to them since New Year’s Eve.

“The amount of help has been amazing, from individual people, and all different charities,” says Jenny, who is also delighted she won’t be separated from her beloved hills hoist.

“We didn’t even have undies, or a toothbrush, but we were eventually given that stuff at the evacuation centre.

“I met a family there from America, who had been holidaying here in Broulee, and that lady took off the jumper she was wearing and gave it to me because I was cold.

“She then went through their car and gave the kids some jumpers and some food.

“We had nothing, I never thought I would be in that situation and I had some trouble accepting it, but what do you do?

“It certainly makes you realise toilet paper isn’t worth worrying about.”

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia's summer from hell is fading fast from the national conscience, but it will live long in the memories of those on the coast.

Yes, we are collectively negotiating an unprecedented global crisis, but it was only three months ago the rest of the world watched on, aghast, as our citizens were evacuated from beaches, our ancient Gondwana forest and unique fauna burned and we breathed the most polluted air on the planet.

To quote First Dog On the Moon; ‘coronavirus has made things crazy and scary and they were crazy and scary before’, but we can’t exist in a constant state of crazy and scary, and that’s where rugby comes in.

Amateur or professional - rugby is normality, it’s a familiar reference point, it’s an escape - an antidote to crazy and scary.

Dolphins junior Emily Katuke (centre) with a pose that sums up rugby's current predicament. Photo: Rugby AU Media/Stuart WalmsleyAs I order a coffee in Mogo, I get chatting to Ross Galvin, who just happens to be a former premiership-winning captain coach of the Broulee Dolphins.

We stand the coronavirus-required distance from one another, adjacent to charred forest and yet-to-be cleared buildings destroyed by fire, but we don’t talk about that. We talk rugby.

He tells me about the Super Rugby tipping comp he started at Moruya’s Adelaide Hotel in 1995, and how he’s had to cancel it for the first time ever due to COVID-19.

He talks about how he took pre-season to the streets of Moruya, and the players would do push-ups in Dolphins kit at major intersections, to give the club more visibility in the traditional rugby league town.

He tells me why Broulee hate Bateman’s Bay, and why Bateman’s Bay don’t really hate Broulee, but do really hate to be beaten by them.

I don’t know whether it’s right, or constructive, but it sure beats dwelling on how his daughter Lani will have to close her new business next week, or asking more about his former clubmate who perished in the fires.

That same feeling is there when I’m interviewing Peter McGann, and the first time he smiles is when we start talking footy, and he forgets for a second he doesn’t have a home or income.

It was there when Jon Brady moved to Broulee 16 years ago, and the first interaction he had was a neighbour sauntering across the road as they were unloading the car, and saying; ‘so, I hear you play rugby’.

These clubs are the community counterweight to crazy and scary, and we need them. These towns need them. It’s what you do on a Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, but that’s now under threat, and the current scenario on the coast is simply summed up by 10-year-old Dolphins junior Emily Katuke.

“Yeah, it’s sad. I’m going to miss playing with my teammates.”

It is sad. Necessary, but sad, and comes a time when the best vaccine for this part of the world would be a hefty dose of normality.

So, for now, we stay home - hoping to ‘flatten the curve’.

But stick with your club in whatever way you can because, when this is over, we’re going to need them more than ever.

This article was originally published on RUGBY.com.au.