Footy Almanac Grand Wizard John T. Harms raised the big question last week.
“Why do we do the things we do?”
“Why do men in the prime of their lives, chase a pig leather full of air around in the mud?”
I stumbled upon an answer on a moody Saturday afternoon in Brisbane watching second division Rugby League.
It was an afternoon of contrasts and similarities.
A home game for the Fortitude Valley Diehards or ‘Valleys’, the oldest club in Queensland and the most successful elite team in Australian Rugby League history.
Valleys once were royalty with 24 premierships in 86 years, 4 more than the all-conquering South Sydney Rabbitohs in the NSWRL.
Valleys’ history is one of excellence, a production line of Queensland stars including gargantuan Origin hero Chris Close, Bryan Niebling, Mark Murray and Grant Rix.
But Valleys’ biggest name was none other than arguably the greatest of them all, the Emperor of Lang Park – King Wally Lewis.
Who back in his princeling Valleys days went by the nickname of Gator.
The great Valleys had gone downhill since the 70’s and their loss of alpha male status was sealed when the Broncos entered the NRL in 1988 and turned Brisbane into a one team town.
Like a great empire in decline they unsuccessfully tried to partner their way back into relevance but the mergers failed leading to major hardships in the 80’s and 90’s.
In a slap in the face to history and tradition, in 1996 Valleys’ application to play in the inaugural Queensland Cup was denied due to their financial situation.
Comparisons can be made to the demise of Fitzroy in the VFL and North Sydney in the NSWRL but neither had the extraordinary record of Valleys – the proud club that won Brisbane’s first premiership in 1909 now languished in the Brisbane Second division.
To add insult, Valleys original home ground and shrine to rugby league greatness had been sold to Queensland Cricket and is now the Allan Border Field, consigning the former giants of the QRL to a small suburban Rugby League Park – Emerson Park in Grange.
In season 2014 Valleys were struggling at the bottom of Brisbane Second Division, 8th on the ladder and with 8 games played they had 2 wins and 6 losses.
They had lost their last 4 games in a row and the hardy Valleys faithful were eyeing today’s bottom of the table clash as the day to break their losing streak.
Their fans had come out in good numbers.
The Valleys weren’t nicknamed the Diehards for a lark.
Their opponent was the Brisbane Natives Rugby League Football Club, the beating heart of Brisbane’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Club community.
In a similar plight to Valleys, they were also having a mediocre year, sitting in 9th place, 2nd last on the ladder with their season ledger reading 1 win and 7 losses.
The Brisbane Natives also have a proud history, started in 1974 by Wakka Wakka men from the Cherbourg mission who had come to Brisbane and wanted a game of footy.
The Cherbourg community had produced a long line of high-achieving Aboriginal men including Opera tenor singer Harold Blair, 1930’s lightning quick bowler Eddie Gilbert, Indigenous Education leader Chris Sarra and modern day NRL heroes Queensland and Kangaroos star Steve “The Pearl” Renouf (from nearby Murgon) and current Parramatta half back Chris Sandow.
Like Valleys, the Brisbane Natives had also been wildly successful winning 11 premierships in their 40 years of existence including A and B Grade premierships in both 1980 and 1989 and the latest one in 2010.
Both clubs had much in common including amazing histories and a proud record of serving their respective communities through building heroes and role models.
As the teams warmed up, family and friends dotted the sidelines and a solid and vocal crowd from both teams had concentrated in the terraced alcohol friendly balconies around the Valleys club house, perched on a hill in the corner of the ground.
A behind the hand whisper was working its way through the crowd of both sets of fans that the Brisbane Natives had only 9 men for the game, 4 short of the regulation 13 on the field.
A Natives mothers group had gathered in the centre of the balcony and they were laughing and sharing their babies around to be cuddled and tummy rubbed.
“There’s still a few in the change rooms, don’t worry.” said one mum with the joyous optimism.
The Brisbane Natives older men had corralled in a group behind the mums and were more cynical.
“This is shame”
On cue, shaved headed and strongly built Brisbane Natives Coach Ricky Bird came out of the changeroom, slowly locked the door and meandered over to his team, eyes to the ground…. thinking of an angle.
There was no way out of this.
His slumped body language told no lies.
He had been an elite professional footballer and to preside over such an embarrassing moment made him uncomfortable – this shouldn’t happen on his watch.
This was a tough one to digest.
Ricky was from Cherbourg and had risen to star for the Ipswich Jets, his wily playmaking skills winning him the most prestigious QANTAS QRL player of the year award in 2005.
One of the Ipswich Jets great all time half backs he was also durable becoming the fourth highest capped player for the club and its second highest all time try scorer.
He’d seen it all, done it all, trained and played against the best.
And his coaching career had come to this.
A couple of the Brisbane Natives old boys in the crowd offered to put the jersey on but the officials stuck to the rules that players had to be registered and have an ID number.
This was the proud Brisbane Second Division, not a bush league.
And 2 points were on the line that Valleys badly needed.
A quick recount on the Natives players warming up confirmed the rumour.
One of the Valleys crowd pointed out that if a single Brisbane Natives player got injured, the game would be forfeited by only having 8 players on the field.
In addition to their 13 starting players, Valleys also had 4 reserve players on the interchange bench ready for rotation.
I planted myself in the middle of the full viewing balcony and the comments were all gloom and anger from the Brisbane Natives fans.
Reasons were bandied about.
Injuries, players not turning up, players working, players having to go home to Cherbourg for an event.
One of the older Natives men snarled “It’s a sad day.”
“Why don’t you put on a jersey ya whinging old fart,” joked one of the mums.
This broke the tension and both sets of fans roared with laughter.
“I’ve done my time,” the old man proudly replied.
Myriad excuses were offered but nothing could help the 9 players about to do battle, each of whom could not afford to be injured or even rested against a hungry, full strength and unsympathetic Valleys team.
This was to be 80 minutes of hell.
Valleys charged out of the dressing rooms through the corridor of encouragement provided from their reserve grade players, fresh off a classy win against Pine Rivers.
The 9 Brisbane Natives players chose not to come out of the change rooms instead sheepishly making their way to the centre of the ground to join their captain who was having a long chat with the referee.
And so it was. Diehards v Natives.
The game was to go on – no quarter given and none asked.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aeschylus once commented, “I fear nothing for a match of equals.”
I had great fears for this looming terrible mismatch and considered heading home, unable to stomach what looked on paper to be an unedifying slaughter.
The loudest mum looked over at the grumbling men and growled.
“Hey the lot of yas. Quit worrying about who hasn’t turned up and start worrying about the nine that ‘ave.”
That sorted me out.
These mums had stared down disadvantage before, and to be a few men down was nothing to them.
Valleys kicked off and within a minute the Brisbane Natives had run the ball the length of the field and scored, a brilliant solo effort by the dark and stormy Jerome Leedy.
An equally brilliant conversion from the sideline by the seemingly giant Anthony Gadd and the Natives had a 6-0 lead.
The Natives crowd went wild at this unexpected scoreline.
“Too Deadly Natives!”
The Valleys crowd shocked and grumbling – rationalising the try as a mere flash knockdown that would have no impact on the fight.
Regardless, it was embarrassing against 9 men.
Valleys came back with two tries of their own and that man Jerome Leedy scored again for the Natives to bring the score to 12 all.
What a talent.
The Natives were playing a simply unbelievable brand of football.
Brilliant one on one defence.
Unbelievable 30 metre passes to hit the wingers.
Scrambling cover defence.
Anthony “Chesty” Gadd like a colossus, fending off Valleys players, kicking towering bombs, delicate chip kicks and a memorable 40/20 long kick.
Every scrum was a nightmare for the Natives Backline as 3 men had to mark 7 Valleys Diehards players creating a perpetual 4 man overlap (both teams having 5 men and the halfback involved in the scrum.)
But the Natives held on. Forcing errors, taking their Diehards opposite down in one on one tackles, backing up furiously, committing to their team mates.
This was simply unfathomable. Rugby League played at touch footy pace, brilliant talents on display. 9 against 17.
Guerilla warfare is defined as “a form of irregular warfare in which a small group of combatants use military tactics including ambushes, sabotage, raids, petty warfare, hit and run tactics and mobility to fight a larger and less mobile opponent.”
I was witnessing a brand of Rugby League guerrilla warfare that would have brought a smile to Vietnamese Guerrilla warfare specialist ‘Uncle Ho’ Chi Minh who once said:
“It is the fight between tiger and elephant. If the tiger stands his ground, the elephant will crush him with its mass. But, if he conserves his mobility, he will finally vanquish the elephant, who bleeds from a multitude of cuts.”
Robbie Budd scored again for the Brisbane Natives bustling towards the line, fending off Diehards to score right in front of the fan balcony.
Even some Valleys Diehards fans clapped this try as the balcony fans went giddy.
“Told yas” screamed the unofficial spokesperson of the Mums’ group to the men’s section.
“We love you number 3” roared the Natives crowd.
“Lets go Natives Lets Go.” clapped the mums group.
“They’re not lying down” said a surprised hipster Valley Diehards fan.
Seven minutes before half-time the Brisbane Natives trailed by 4 points 22-18 and the Natives crowd was delirious.
Some of the grumbling men now dared to believe.
“Valleys won’t ever live this down, boy”.
“Imagine if we had our full team”
The football gods however can only do so much and in this game the Valleys interchange bench was the romance killer.
Valleys brought fresh legs onto the field and the Natives finally looked a spent force.
Holes started to appear, and Valleys broke through via a 5 man overlap, overrunning the Natives in the last 5 minutes to score two tries and go into the half time break ahead 34-18.
I went over to the far side of the field to listen to the Brisbane Natives half time address.
They were exhausted to a man but cursing that they hadn’t been able to hold on the last few minutes.
Their Coach Ricky Bird hadn’t given up.
“Stay compressed and keep sliding”.
“Where’s your fend gone brother.”
His troops were broken and injured, but sweating with pride that they hadn’t given in, chosen not to capitulate.
Jerome Leedy came across to the coach with bad news.
“I’ve done my hammy.”
Coach Ricky Bird was famed for playing through adversity and injury in his time at the Ipswich Jets.
But wisdom had taught him there was a time to fold up your tent and return for another day.
With his boys sporting all manner of injuries including one with a possible broken hand and now their star player with a hamstring, it was time for the coach to pose the question.
“We can call it here boys, no shame.”
A lone voice “Let’s keep going.”
The scene reminded me of Jimmy Sharmans Boxers, one of Midnight Oil’s great songs which ponders the bravery of Aboriginal tent boxers, standing their ground against men much bigger than them, taking beatings, giving beatings, country town after country town.
The song tails out with the ancient unanswered question on warrior bravery “What is the reason, they keep coming back for more?”
The exhausted Natives loped out for the second half.
The confident Diehards were in position and waiting.
They knew they had them, it was now just a matter of time before the Elephant crushed the brave Tiger.
After kickoff the Brisbane Natives tried to execute their plan but fatigue triumphed and the Diehards scored again.
First half double tryscorer Jerome Leedy was hobbling around on one leg, impotent in attack and a liability in defence.
Next to me was an older Aboriginal man in a Brisbane Natives tracksuit. He was taking it all in.
“They’ve done you proud today,” I said to him.
He nodded: “Sure have”
His name was Lance Bligh and had played for the Brisbane Natives for 30 years, the first time at 18 years old.
I was curious if they had much interaction with the Redfern All Blacks Club, their first cousins in Sydney who perform an identical role in building and maintaining community identity.
Lance answered: “We played ‘em once in 78 in the Knockout at Kempsey. They got us in the Semis.”
“Not that much after that,” he added.
I asked him about the standout players, the brilliant Jerome Leedy and gifted big man Anthony Gadd.
He smiled and told me their story.
Two of the most talented Aboriginal juniors in Brisbane’s history.
Big Anthony “Chesty” Gadd the ball-playing, goal-kicking second rower had been anointed next in line to continue the great Cherbourg football tradition.
He had played for the Australian Schoolboys Under 18’s team and had been picked up and played for two NRL Clubs, the North Queensland Cowboys and Newcastle Knights Under 20’s.
Now he was back with his mob, undermanned, outgunned but never giving in always craftily scheming.
At the tender age of 22 there was still time for greatness.
The talented speedster Jerome Leedy had also played for Australian schoolboys and made the Bronco’s Under 20’s team, a highly sought after spot in a Rugby League mad city.
He had bounced around QRL teams Norths and Redcliffe and at 21 had returned to the safety of his community club to spell and regroup after some personal issues.
And here they were, both child prodigies regrouping with their mob, anonymous among the 9 Natives players each manning a rampart of the Alamo, each try against them a reminder that nothing comes easy.
Another try was scored against the Natives, yet there was no quit.
Coach Ricky Bird threatened to pull the game but was waved off by the players.
No one wanted to be the first to come to the sidelines to trigger the forfeit.
Many boxing experts rate Mike Tyson’s destruction at the hands of Lennox Lewis as his greatest moment, where his true character and heart was revealed.
Not as an overwhelming bully of scared opponents but as a man who bravely fronted up time after time to face Lewis’ booming straight rights, even when he knew he was going to lose.
In such moments a man is made and truly knows himself.
The Natives walked back to the half way mark after another Diehards try.
Heads up, eyes forward, exhausted.
In baseball they have the mercy or ‘slaughter’ rule to end a game when a team gets more than 10 runs ahead.
In boxing the referee or the cornerman can stop the contest.
There is no such luxury in Rugby League.
If the first half was about the Natives bountiful natural talent, joy for the game and ability to adapt, the second half was about the great intangible – ticker.
Murri pride manifesting itself in a refusal to submit, the crowd curiously watching in silence taking in how men behave when defeat is certain.
A telling moment was an old fashioned sprint – Cyril Rioli vs Lewis Jetta style.
The Diehards had one West African player, fullback Gabriel Kafi who ran around a lunging and limping Jerome Leedy.
Another try looked inevitable but 35 year old superfit Natives half back Dennis Cobbo took off after him in a brilliant chase.
“Back yourself,” said Kafi’s Diehard teammates as he hit top gear.
What a sight it was, two men from different continents testing their top speed.
But Cobbo wouldn’t give in and almost got him before Kafi pulled away.
As Kafi lay on the ground exhausted after scoring the try, Cobbo patted him respectfully on the head to acknowledge their battle.
Ten years ago it might have been a different outcome but not today.
To the winner goes the spoils.
The Diehards crowd clapped loudly at this show of athleticism and sportsmanship.
With his players now limping and depleted, Coach Ricky Bird came onto the field to end it ignoring protests of his players.
He had seen enough, like an old bent nosed boxing trainer throwing in the towel to avoid his fighter taking unnecessary punishment
The referee blew time and the game was over with 18 minutes left on the clock.
The scoreboard read Valleys Diehards 62- Brisbane Natives 18 and will read that way for future generations – but that score will not tell the story of the day.
As both teams trudged off to a standing ovation from the Diehards fans, the Brisbane Natives fans tried to make sense of what they’d seen – a low point and high point in the club’s history.
Stereotypes had been shredded on this overcast day and why not celebrate with a few rum and cokes as the Diehards and Natives fans tucked in.
As the Natives players drifted out of the change rooms to join the fans they were engulfed with hugs and handshakes by fans from both sides.
Almost like they had won the game.
I approached the Match Official after the game to take a photo of the Match Report.
It read “Referee called full time, Brisbane Natives Insufficient players with 18:23 remaining”
I said to him: “A brave display”
“Yes it was,” he said. “Amazing that our fans clapped them. I’ve never seen them do that,”
“Especially for the Natives, the fans don’t normally get along so well,” he added.
I looked up to the balcony to witness a mini party going on as the fans of both clubs joined as one.
A gloat free zone from the Diehards fans and a humble celebration from the Natives.
The quiet superstar Jerome Leedy trudged up the hill and into an all encompassing Aunties hug.
“I pulled my hammy Auntie,” he whispered.
“Proud of you boy,” she replied.
The Natives mums club was in full celebration mode with one of them brandishing a freshly won meat tray. The gods had smiled at last.
And what did I learn about why “Men do what they do.”
Men have a hardwired need to prove to each other and to themselves that they can perform in the furnace.
Men need to find out how good they are.
They must be tested.
Even when all seems lost its better to know than not know.
And days like today provide the answer they are seeking.
And this band of Murri brothers – the Magnificent Nine showed skills, courage and toughness that won’t be forgotten by the lucky few who saw it.