Outback Rugby League: The Normanton Stingers

It was 2008. Normanton Stingers coach Paul Stephens was worried.

A former SAS officer was taking his charges through a gruelling pre-season at the start of the year and Paul was concerned they might pull the pin.

“For the first couple of months I didn’t think we’d have a team,” he said.

“I thought I would have to tell him to take it easy or they would pull out but to their credit they came through it.”

The hard work paid dividends as the Stingers went through the 2008 season undefeated in the Mid West Rugby League, winning the grand final in front of a home crowd of 850.

It was Normanton’s third grand final and second premiership in three years, having lost the 2006 decided by four points in its debut year.

As the pre-season would suggest, the club’s success was  built on hard work and unwavering commitment.

Normanton had to prove its commitment when it applied to join the Mid West league in 2005 – the year it reformed – playing other teams during their bye.

It is the most travelled team in Queensalnd, with its biggest trip a 1400 kilometre round journey to Hughenden, but it proved it was willing to do the miles and was granted entry the following year.

Normanton’s fitness underpinned the team’s performance but Paul  instilled discipline into a side with a healthy share of talent.

“We have a lot of indigenous players who liked to play a flashy game and score length of the field tries,” he said.

“I took that out of the game and introduced set plays. We concentrate on defence and hold the ball for a full set.

“It was hard at first, because our players wanted to pass the ball all the time, so we introduced rules like forwards can’t pass.”

Paul said although the team averaged 64 points across its games this year, he was more proud of the average 16 points conceded.

The 2008 team was  well led by captain Les Henry and vice-captain Sorren Owens, who book their annual leave as soon as the fixture is announced each year so they don’t miss any games, and former Brisbane Bronco Tony Schaefer.

“The other players certainly play harder when he’s around because they are trying to impress him,” Paul said.

Tony is a diesel fitter with the Carpentaria Shire Council and asked Paul whether he could train with the side to keep fit. He offered to fill in if they needed him and Paul said there was a spot in the team if he wanted it.

He played all home games in 2008 and is keen to commit to every game next year.

“He might have slowed down a step or two (since his Bronco days) but not by much,” Paul said.

“He doesn’t run with the ball because his knees are shot but no one can get past him.”

Former SAS officer Mark Hogno also came to Paul with a fitness query, this time asking him whether he could offer his services.

Mark was  a Ranger Coordinator with the Carpentaria Land Council Aboriginal Corporation and maintains a fierce fitness regime.

“There was a lot of running to get them fit but he also worked on their mind, helping them break through the pain barrier.

“There was a massive improvement because they boys used to say they were buggered but they now know what they can do.”

The improved fitness levels soon became apparent in the team’s first pre-season game against Hughenden.

“We took 14 blokes and I thought we’d be in trouble but we beat them 44-16 with one reserve,” Paul said.

It was also obvious throughout the season who had taken part in the pre-season and who hadn’t.

“Blokes that came in during the season had no hope of keeping up,” Paul said.

“One winger came to training and couldn’t keep up with a front rower. He was lying on the sidelines catching his breath and I told him: There’s big fat fellas running around and you’re lying here. We didn’t see him again after that.”

Paul is originally from Tara and played for Logan City in Brisbane before moving to Normanton to run the supermarket in 2003.

He said Normanton is not a traditional football town but it  the Stingers  made a massive impact in only four years.

The Stingers received money from the State Government’s Gambling Community Benefit Fund for gym equipment then allowed all members of the community to utilise it.

Businesses also support the club through sponsorship, which enables it to raise about $20,000 each year.

All sponsors are listed on a supporter’s shirt and Paul said the number of fans that wear them around town ensures they receive excellent exposure.

“You can’t come to Normanton without seeing them,” he said.

“North Queensland Cowboys players often come to town for development work and have said no other town they go to is more supportive of their local team.”

Most importantly, the Stingers used their profile to counter domestic violence in a campaign that featured them on high profile television ads shown on the Imparja network and also in Brisbane State of Origin telecasts.

The slogan ‘Domestic Violence – it’s not our game’ was adopted by the team, which agreed to become role models in the community by taking a stand against domestic violence. Normanton police said domestic violence cases fell by 64 per cent in the first 12 months.

NB: The Stingers beat the Doomadgee Dragons in this year’s Grand Final.

About Stephen Cooke

Cumbersome ruckman of the garden variety

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