How footy beat the flood

by Pete Miers

We were 20 kms from Marong when the phone rang, Rex telling me the road ahead was closed between Bridgewater and Serpentine. We had already heard that the SES had shut down the Boort road to Quambatook, so our options were rapidly diminishing. There was nothing for it but to divert right at Marong and get to Serpentine via Eaglehawk, and on to Quamby via Kerang.

Ahead of us in the dark, the Avoca river was flooding for the first time in 17 years and, as is the way of these things, the floodwaters were set to peak on Saturday, around about the same time the umpire was due to blow his whistle and bounce the ball to get the Golden Rivers Football League Grand Final under way. Local boys Nullarwill and reigning premiers Wandella were to meet at the picturesque Quambatook Oval, surrounded by gum trees, wheat farms and the swollen Avoca River.

The authorities were concerned about what might happen if a thousand local football followers found themselves surrounded by rising floodwaters so ultimately the match was transferred to Murrabit, but I was oblivious to this as I headed north up the gun-barrel-straight road to Kerang. Heather was asleep, the headlights lit up the road for kilometers ahead, I put on the new Teenage Fanclub CD (it was heartening that at first listen it appears to be a return to form, when I thought their last one or two efforts had them on an inexorable slide to middle-aged irrelevance), and made a list of all the footballers who had a double-t in their names. Who knows why you start thinking of these things but before long it was Ottens, Platten, Ratten, Bortolotto, Nettlefold, Whitten, Sutton, Doug Gott, Adrian Battiston and a hundred Scotts.

Thankfully the road ahead stayed clear but here and there I caught a shimmer of reflected glare that promised paddocks that were well under water on either side. As we approached Quamby the work of the SES became apparent with temporary levees pushed up by graders to prevent the rising water from rippling across the single-lane Kerang road. Rex’s family’s house is right on River Street, where piles of sandbags kept the Avoca at bay. I have never seen a drop of water in the river here and was beginning to think the whole thing was a hoax, so it was rather surreal to hear all those frogs croaking in the darkness.

Rex’s mum is one of those ladies that keep a whole town running, organising, lending a hand and just being involved in everything. She was getting up early to make about 300 sandwiches for the footy and was incensed at the decision to move the game to Murrabit, what with all the stuff that now had to be carted 70kms when the footy ground was going to be prefectly dry just across the road. We drank a few beers and cursed the nanny state. If only they had listened to the local farmers, they’d known everything was going to be ok all along.

Next day we were at the Murrabit oval, not quite as ambient as Quamby’s but the decision to switch appeared not to have hurt the gate. The netball final was on the courts next door and a crowd ringed the oval. Rex had volunteered to help at the beer tent but there was no shortage of helpers there and all the takings were still going to the Quamby footy club, so all was well with the world. All we could do was support the club in the only way we knew how. Rex is a bad man to get in a shout with. By the third Chop had already fallen off the pace.

In the Magoos Nullarwill had won pretty easily over Murrabit. Both senior teams were lining up facing one another, arms linked as a team as a respectful hush descended on the crowd. Two lines into the national anthem the Nullarwill reserves launched into a full-throated team song in the shed behind us to drown out our being girt by sea. It seemed to inspire their team who started the match with a lot of possession but found it hard to convert kicking into an almost imperceptible breeze, a bit like a green that looks flat but consistently rolls to the left. Against the run of play Wandella kicked two quick goals to remind everybody that they know how to play come September. They had two spring-heeled young lads in the forward line who looked dangerous every time the ball went long into their half.

In the second quarter Wandella stamped their authority with four unanswered goals to open up a six goal lead and it looked like the match was over. Wandella itself is a funny place, barely a dot on the map not even boasting a store, just a collection of three or four farmhouses. How can a place like this raise a footy team, let alone a successful one? Most of their team come from Kerang and some of them are on pretty fair money for playing country footy. Where the money comes from is a mystery. But if their fundraisers do as well as the Quamby FC beer tent, I was starting to get some idea, and by the third quarter it was becoming difficult to work out who had the ball.

Nullarwill kicked their first, then another, and began to work their way back into the game until there were only three kicks in it at three quarter time. The raffle was drawn and some lucky ticket-holder won a wheelbarrow full of prizes, the tuck shop was doing a roaring trade and the beer tent and terrace was finding its voice. On the ground Wandella quickly snuffed out any hope Nullarwill had of a fairytale finish with two quick goals and ended up running out winners by….. I have no idea.

We left the ground at the final siren to escape the inevitable bottleneck on the road back to Kerang. The Murray River was close at hand. Earlier on we had discussed going to see it to witness a once-in-a-generation flooding event, but by the time we remembered this we were back at the Quamby pub. Roger Whittaker was on the jukebox.

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