Almanac Rugby League: Footy in the South Burnett

Dave Goodwin was born in the South Burnett in the early 1960s, the grandson of peanut farmers. He grew up in inland Queensland towns – Kingaroy, Biloela and Dalby – before heading to Brisbane for a university education. These days he’s an academic at a university in Melbourne and he’s lived Down South and overseas for the past 35 years. But he still has the red dirt of Kingaroy under his nails.



John Harms’ ‘Yes, Virginia, there is meaning in rugby league’ sent my memory banks racing. As an old Kingaroy/Biloela/Dalby boy, I can’t resist weighing in.


Rugby league, played country-style, is rough and raw but, with the passage of the years, has a certain romance about it.


As a schoolboy, my rugby league team in the Brisbane competition was Wests, the Panthers from Purtell Park in the red and black horizontal stripes. Premiers in 1975 and 1976, with ten premierships in all to that stage. They took over from Norths as the dominant team before the Easts/Valleys era and then the Souths / Redcliffe / Wynnum period of dominance. I supported the Panthers because my Dad was from the western suburbs of Brisbane, because Wests were top dogs when I was aged 11 and 12, and because Richie Twist, who was a good player for them and a school teacher, got transferred to the town where I lived. That cemented it. Wests went into decline in the post-Broncos era and dropped out of the QRL.


My real number one team, however, was my home-town side, the Kingaroy Red Ants (in St George colours), for whom my uncles Wayne and Grant Barkle were star players. They were both Wide Bay rep side regulars and perennial contenders for selection for Queensland Country. Grant was a hyperactive hooker, Wayne a flashy ball-playing second rower who modelled his style on Artie Beetson. They called him ‘Sparkle’ Barkle. Wayne was also a goal-kicker.


In 1972, when I was eight, my family moved to Biloela in Central Queensland, a five-hour drive from Kingaroy, but we could still pick up the Radio 4SB signal. On Sunday afternoons I’d settle down next to our old wireless and tune in to the Red Ants game. It was enthralling listening to the antics and misadventures of these rellies over the airwaves. They dished it out and they copped it, too. The voices of the broadcasters would boom with every big hit and coat-hanger, and they’d commentate in lavish detail on the punch-ups that followed. Wayne and Grant were as much my boyhood heroes as Dennis Lillee, the Queensland leg-spinner Malcolm Francke and Ken Rosewall.


The Red Ants played in the South Burnett league against arch-rivals Murgon, Wondai, Nanango (in the butcher’s stripes), Cherbourg and Blackbutt, who featured young forester Bunny Pearce up until he was about 25. Bunny went on to be a dominating player for Redcliffe and Queensland. Can you imagine the thrill of watching him play country football? Yet Kingaroy used to beat Blackbutt.


Uncle Wayne eventually captain-coached Kingaroy to a Grand Final victory and he mentored future Test players Dave Brown and Brad Tessmann. It’s a great sadness that, when the Red Ants’ club rooms burnt down years ago, the mementos of those times – trophies and premiership team photos – were destroyed. One of these decades I will spend time in the archives of the South Burnett Times trying to re-create the stories of those triumphs. The 1970s rugby league lifestyle based on steak, eggs and beer caught up with Wayne, a Kingaroy peanut farmer, who died of a massive heart attack in 1985 before he was 40. I still miss him.


One of my good mates from high school, after our family moved to Dalby, was Neil Wharton. A half-back who captained Queensland schoolboys, Neil played under Wayne Bennett at Brisbane Souths, alongside Peter Jackson, Gary Belcher and Mal Meninga. Neil shared a house with Bryan Neibling who had played for Murgon. When Neibling found out I was kin to ‘Sparkle’ Barkle, he seemed to turn menacing. That was pretty frightening. Wharton’s playing career came unstuck through being lightweight and susceptible to injury – he was on the receiving end in a sickening collision with Redcliffe’s Tony Obst who was prone to lining up promising ballplayers. Neil went on to coach Redcliffe to four Brisbane Grand Finals and three premierships.


That brings me to Cherbourg, always a mystical name to me. The aboriginal teams from the settlement on Barambah Creek played the most eccentric and spectacular football, though not necessarily the winningest, I’ve ever seen. In the backs, it was like watching seven Ellas or Krakouers together, swarming and flick passing with innate brotherly understanding. They were as different to behold as that first ever Japanese rugby union team in a World Cup, compensating for lack of physical size with originality and team ethic. Cherbourg’s forwards were undersized but hard and reckless to a man.


The 1970s were only two generations on from the displacement of the local Waka Waka people from their traditional lands. In his 1991 Ph.D thesis on the Barambah aboriginal settlement, Thom Blake discussed Cherbourg sport as the Aboriginal way of resisting white values and domination, as a means of asserting their ‘otherness’. He says they didn’t play for personal glory or individual attainment but as a legitimate means of demonstrating superiority over the ‘whitefella’. And it was awesome to behold.


Here are the words of the Cherbourg football song, which says it all:


 Keep the ball in motion, like a rolling ocean,
Cherbourg plays the game,
Keep the forwards moving, and the wingers dashing
We just play the same.
If the game is dirty, and the crowd is ‘shirty’
We just play the same,
Keep the ball in motion, like a rolling ocean,
Cherbourg plays the game.


To attend a Cherbourg game was to witness crowd scenes from a different world. I used to watch play from my grandparents’ car. The effects of alcohol were on all too frequent display with crowd fights complementing the on-field mayhem. More than once in the early 70s we drove past fatal car accident scenes on the way home from the footy. Life on the edge. Growing up, Cherbourg to me was some kind of Soweto, a no-go zone riddled with taboos but a place where you just knew extraordinary things happened. There was something special in the water in that Barambah Creek.


My grandfather, Jimmy, was one of a family of boxers. His brother, Herb Barkle, the Queensland professional bantamweight champion, was just about Australia’s best bantam in the 1920s. Another brother, Bobby, who tragically died from suffocation in 1969 after being sucked into a peanut storage bin, was coach of the Australian boxing team at the 1962 Empire Games in Perth. He was the long-term trainer of three Cherbourg fighters – winners of multiple amateur Australian championships in lower weight divisions – who rank among the greats of Aussie boxing: Adrian Blair, Jeff Dynevor and Eddie Barney. Another Cherbourg boxer from that time was the welterweight Jimmy Edwards Junior who won two national amateur championships and the Queensland professional welterweight title.


I own a copy of a fabulous book by Colin Tatz (Uni of NSW Press, 1989) called Obstacle Race, an encyclopedia of the achievements of Australian Aborigines in sport. In it he marvels at the stupendous achievement of “three men from a government-run institution of 1000 people” – in the early 1960s – representing their country in a major international sporting event. Jeff Dynevor won the bantamweight gold medal in Perth to go with his three Australian bantam championships in 1960, ’61 and ’62 and the flyweight title in 1957. He went on to become one of Australia’s first indigenous Olympians, in Tokyo in 1964. There was plenty of fight and talent, in the sportsmen from Cherbourg.


Cherbourg was also the home of Eddie Gilbert (Eddie Barney’s father) whom I grew up regarding as a legendary figure and one of the greatest ever Queenslanders. He dismissed Bradman for a duck, Bradman had doffed his cap to him and was said to have been scared of him. He was thought to be the ‘fastest ever’ pre-Thommo and a real gentleman to boot. And he was from ‘out our way’, a designation which drew a respect from all quarters. In the Bradman duck game in 1931 (Qld v NSW), Stan McCabe played one of his greatest ever innings (229 not out) but Gilbert finished with 4 for 74 off 21 overs. Eddie also got 5 for 65 off 19 overs and 2 for 26 against a West Indies side featuring Learie Constantine.


But back to rugby league. No account of the South Burnett’s football achievements is complete without reference to Cathy Freeman’s grandpa, Frankie ‘Big Shot’ Fisher. Colin Tatz discusses accounts of Frank’s brilliance as a five-eighth, recording that after he played for Wide Bay against Great Britain in 1936, the English captain Risman praised Fisher as the best player he’d encountered in Australia. Frank was invited to play for a side in England but the administrators of the Cherbourg settlement denied him the opportunity as ‘one star from Barambah (Eddie Gilbert) was enough’.


Finally, let’s not forget Frank Fisher’s great teammate, Jack O’Chin, after whom the Cherbourg footy oval was named. He was the son of a Chinese businessman and an indigenous mother. How about this account of his play, from a Murgon-born journalist, Evan Whitton: ‘He had a technique for fielding a high punt in the face of thundering forwards that was a marvel of skill and confidence. He reached up for the ball with one hand, the palm turned away from him, and let the ball settle there. There was always a moment when he and the ball seemed motionless, as the forwards rushed on. Then he would turn the wrist inwards, let the ball spiral down his arm, feint one way and step languidly the other.’


In 2008, Bunny Pearce, Jack O’Chin, Frank Fisher and Bryan Neibling were all named in the South Burnett rugby league Team of the Century alongside Test players like Dave Brown. Due to an obvious anti-Kingaroy bias, Uncle Wayne – the great ‘Sparkle’ Barkle – missed out.


To read John Harms’ original
“Yes, Virginia, there is meaning in rugby league’, click HERE.



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  1. Dave, I enjoyed your memories, a fitting follow-up which applies the Harms notion of ‘meaning in rugby league’ to your experience of country footy. They brought back quite a few of my own in the Laidley/Ipswich area from a similar era. I did see a bit of South Burnett footy a number of years ago and witnessed that ‘something’ about the lads from Cherbourg. Unfortunately the undercurrents of the racial divide were still apparent even if perhaps more mooted and subtle. And ‘Sparkle’ Barkle – what a classic moniker!

  2. Dave Goodwin says

    Thanks Ian. I originally contributed most of this piece as a comment on a John Harms story nearly a decade ago, so it was interesting for me to read what I’d written again, and to realise how sentimental I am about those uncomplicated days. They were very macho times – it’s noticeable that I didn’t mention any female figures in the story, even though as a little kid I used to spend most of my time in the company of my grandmother and her four daughters – peering out at the peculiar behaviour of the men of the family, trying to understand it. I don’t think anyone in Kingaroy knew Wayne as ‘Sparkle’ – that was what they called him in Murgon.

  3. I love this piece – with its memories and its everyday-life intersection with the history we have come to read. Primary source material to go with the histories.

    The story of your uncles is a classic, and very sad to have lost Uncle Wayne. I’m imagining him as the guest at a Queensland Almanac lunch – in Kingaroy.

    Some well-known names sprinkled throughout your piece.

    Thom Blake’s thesis is now a book – called A Dumping Ground. Well worth reading. It was mandatory for me when doing Steve Renouf’s story, as was the Eddie Gilbert biography by Colman and Edwards (based on Ken Edwards academic research).


  4. Matt O'Hanlon says

    Great piece Dave. The South Burnett league was once a powerhouse and in fact Murgon SHS under the coaching of legendary Wide Bay Schoolboys figure Greg Smith were virtually impossible to beat at home. I took many school sides there in the 90s and returned winless. Players like the Birds, Malones, Romas, Dynevors, Costellos, Stanleys etc who are the sons and grandsons of those fellows set schoolboy fields alight. Including winning the State-wide Foots Cup in the late 80s. In the 1990 47th Battalion Shield Final, I played for Bundaberg and we were beaten by Sth. Burnett. The great Frank Malone kicked a goal from a penalty on halfway at Salter Oval to sink us! What a player. Sth Burnett were always at their best when the forward pack was from Kingaroy and Nanango and the backs were from Murgon. Recent stars include Matt Ballin who, as well as being a top NRL player, was an outstanding Red Ant, and Gavin Cooper who was a Mustang and they both represented Qld. from the Sth Burnett as schoolboys before Origin.

  5. Hi Dave, my first sports journalist position was at the South Burnett Times in 2007. I knew Matt Ballin’s dad who was principal at Kingaroy State High School. I also knew Matt’s older brothers who were involved with the South Burnett Thrashers rugby union.
    The Bushrangers were the major rugby league team in town, competing in the Ipswich Rugby League. The Bushrangers were runners-up that year, which was just their second year. The Bushrangers didn’t last long, while there were still Kingaroy and Murgon teams in the local competition.
    The one player I’ll always remember is Bushrangers fullback Dennis Sandow. He had such class and style. Less talented players have played Test football for Australia. But for various reasons, a professional rugby league career didn’t occur for him.
    In early 2019, I went to Jack O’Chin Oval at Cherbourg to watch a legends of league contest involving retired NRL players against a Cherbourg Hornets team. The NRL All Stars team included John Hopoate, Kevin Campion, Noel Goldthorpe, Robbie O’Davis, Scott Hill, Ben Hannant and Kerry Boustead. Willie Tonga meanwhile played for the Hornets. Saltner and Dynevor were among the other Cherbourg names. It was an enjoyable outing, with the All Stars winning 38-34.

  6. My knowledge of South Burnett Rugby League goes back about 60 odd years when most major games were played in my home town of Wondai. We would leave the family car early up against the fence to ensure a spot. David I think you forgot Kilkivan Goomeri a quite dominate team in 60’s. the Weir brothers, (Acca) Denning, Cyril Peters. My standout players of this eara were Bunny Pearce, John Wittenberg, Perc Iszlaub, Bobby Dennien, Buddy Hunter, Darryl Schultz. interesting that Norm Meninga captain coached Wondai and married a Wondai girl. I think he played 2nd row or lock and the talk was on of his team mates would have to hit in the scrum to rev him up. He was so placid.

  7. I had the prevelege to play a grade second row for the mighty kingaroy red ants in 1982. The coach was wayne barkle, who i admired very much as a person with a great knowledge of our great game. He put me straight into a grade after my first week of training. Mark hey , who i had played against the year before, put a word in for me. He played for blackall, and I played for winton. I clearly remember standing with bomber irwin and Russell nugent at the great mans funeral. Holding back tears, because big boys don’t cry. I have never forgotten him, and I have been back to the cemetery in recent years trying to find his grave, with no luck. To play a grade football in the south burnett in those days was an absolute honor. Every team was full of great players. Greg henry, bernie hunter, rod frohloff, bruce ryan were just a few of the great players who i played with in 83 84 and 85. for the mighty nanango stags a grade side, what a player glen argent was from blackbutt. It was wise to avoid any contact with him during a game. The outcome could be unpleasant. He was a great attacking player, who tackles like charlie frith, the great south Sydney enforcer. Duncan cobbo was the lock for churburg, the best player i have ever played against, and I have played against the great vern daisy, ray higgs, greame O’Grady, Larry corawa, on the back ends of their careers. I visited Duncan last year and enjoyed a coffee on his front verandah. Bevan costello told me where he lived , i knew he was not well, a real gentle man off the field, but a very tough and talented man on it. He has recently passed away from his illness. R.i.p. great man. Frank and the Watson brothers, bevan costello, greg sandow, and a cavalcade of stars completed the great entertainers of the south burnett, the mighty churburg hornets. Unpredictable and brilliant are just a couple of ways to dicribe this great side. Unfortunately we may never see country football played at this standard again. Skippy exelby, willy harrison, jeff denine, and mark hayden, were members of the wondai side we beat in the 84 grand final. Ken Churchill as well. It was a long time ago. Murgon was a great side as well in that era. It’s character building to be a small part of the south burnett rugby league family, and inspiring to talk to some of the greatest players of that era in a friendly and respectful way.

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