Almanac Rugby League – Convent Kids in Clydesdale Country (Part 2)

During the footy season, we’re featuring a series of rugby league stories which were the product of an attempt to produce a collection of rugby league yarns along the lines of the very successful Malarkey Publications, Australian football-focussed book, Footy Town. Today, Damian Roache concludes his tale of young kids playing rugby league on cold Saturday mornings in 1970s Toowoomba.


Our games were played early on freezing Saturday mornings. This scheduling ensured that no school time was lost or Sunday altar boy duties were affected. My pre-match routine included getting up in my flannelette pyjamas, dressing gown and zip-up slippers at some ungodly hour like 6.30am to plonk myself on top of the overworked two bar heater to watch the latest instalment of Ironman, The Hulk, Thor or Captain America. Based on some of the more interesting attacking manoeuvres put on during our games, I’d say some opposition players did likewise. Different types of skills were required to tackle a kid pretending to throw a hammer or a shield in your direction, or an opponent with his arm rotating clockwise in a thrashing action! Morning cartoons done, it was a stomach-warming big bowl of porridge, then off at 8.30 to have the pre-game discussion at our home ground. The discussion traversed subjects such as our opposition for that day, the girls we liked in our class and the exploits of whichever Marvel Comics hero had been on TV that morning.


Eventually the moment would arrive when weekly chaos would become the norm. The attempt at a controlled handout of our jerseys always descended into bedlam as names and numbers were confused. Goose-bumped blue skin covered only in a white singlet shivered in the Toowoomba chill until you received the warmth of the school colours, emerald green with one thick red band hooped top and bottom by gold bands. Now the challenge was to fit what seemed like six feet of material onto a three feet skin and bone frame. I’m sure the manufacturers misread the instructions sent down by the nuns or perhaps they were just being forward thinking, hoping we would all have a growth spurt to amaze our parents. Untucked, the knees of several players disappeared. An armada of mothers took to shoving and shuffling the jersey material into our shorts, throwing our bodies around like rag dolls as they somehow managed to make the jersey length look respectable. Sleeves would then need to be rolled up several times until there was there a sighting of fingers protruding. The white, lace-up front was done in a nice symmetrical bow before our necks were almost put in traction by an over-eager mother keen to get the big white collar looking just right.


Possibly hindering the packing of these ginormous jerseys into our tiny pants was the fact that, like every other nine-year-old footy player of the time, we had already set in place those all-important equipment items for injury prevention, the foam inserts. Secreted into pockets sewn INSIDE the shorts, their size was dependent on the mother’s personal care and concern for the upper thighs and hips of their offspring together with their skills on a Singer sewing machine. For some team-mates, the foam was akin to a wafer thin slice of white bread while others ran out to play looking like they had two editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica shoved down each side. A final motherly lick of the face, a comb through the hair and, finally, we would be ready.


Our first opponents were the Lourdes boys where we were convincing victors on our home turf.  This means, in real terms, that our star player, Bladesy, scored more runaway tries than their star, Gilly, or that Gilly didn’t play at all. Playing on our home ground at school provided an opportunity for us to use the red brick shed that was also used by the senior grades of the All Whites Rugby League Club as this was also their home ground at the time. For we easily distracted kids, this meant we got to be nasally excited by those great aromas of liniment and Vaseline whilst also being wowed by the sight of strapping and rubdown tables. At times, another aroma seeped through which seemed to hint at the fact that the odd player from either us or All Whites may have found the relative warmth inside the shed more appealing for a tinkle than a walk to the nearby loo in the arctic winds that whistle through up on top of the range!


The field was like many others in Toowoomba mid-winter, rock hard, occasionally frost covered and home to various weeds and prickly things. Big toes were no match for the grass covered granite or the hard leather, watermelon-sized football. Medical attention and some comforting words were often required for a small, wailing child writhing in agony after he attempted to produce a perfect kick-off.  A teary eyed, limping captain, almost always the self-appointed kicker, was a common sight on those cold Saturday morns. Smart ones like myself were happy to pass the privilege on to others after the first kick caused enough pain.


Over the next few weeks, we continued on our winning run. The St Joey’s outfit was not so super as we put them away with ease before twice squeezing past St Anthony’s in back to back games. Another victory over an improved Joey’s and we were undefeated at the halfway mark of the season. Our next clash with the lads of Lourdes proved to be a memorable one, but not for any valiant actions on the field.


As was our routine, we all met at school on the Saturday morning. As there were no nuns around to drag us off by the ear for a hiding, we ran amok on the playground imitating the adventures of the superhero we had all watched an hour or so earlier. Eventually we were rounded up and half a dozen or more of us would pile into Harry’s car for the short but rowdy drive up to the Athletic Oval.  Some other poor parents did the same. Our oranges were cut and ready for us to chomp on at the half-time break and, naturally, we would attempt to use the skins as an unofficial mouth guard. As we walked past the canteen, we drooled at the prospect of hoeing into a Big Charlie Chewing Gum (another improvised mouthguard option) as a reward for a win post-game. However, we never got to play on that particular day because, just as many of today’s NRL stars are confronted with the ‘Club v Country’ decision when the growing international component of the code comes around each year, we had our own controversy with the first ‘Club v Convent’ calamity being etched into the competition.


The Darling Downs Junior Rugby League, of which Toowoomba was the hub, commenced in 1970 with the youngest age group being for twelve year olds. Now, three years on, the Under 10s age group had been added. A local club, Southern Suburbs Tigers, had seen the same talent as the Lourdes coach and lured their chief playmaker, the turning ten years old Peter Gill, away from his Convent school ‘contract’. Unfortunately, club commitments were played at the same time as the scheduled Convent game. After some ‘argy bargy’ between the two coaches about not being able to delay or postpone the game till Gilly was available, we were somehow awarded the game with Lourdes ‘taking’ the forfeit. I greeted the news quite well myself, jumping around with others exclaiming that we had won ‘100 – 0’!


The one downside of this occasion was that we missed out on playing on the Athletic Oval which, unlike most of the other grounds in town, was well kept and offered something for those who perhaps did not get as engaged in the game as others. Mud piles near the halfway kick-off location were a magnet for up to dozen or so kids to congregate and cake themselves with some good old reddish brown clumps of earth to vindicate your place on the team. After every try had been scored, or if there was a scrum nearby (or, in some emergency cases, after the game had finished!), pristine clean limbs and jerseys (or guerneys as they were also known) were given a mud cake makeover much to the horror of the poor mother who was rostered to wash the jerseys that week.  Many a conversation between opposition players was struck up during this gathering of the ‘desperate to get dirty’, most likely about the cartoons or the evil nuns at their Convent. Athletic Oval also had a slight slope from east to west meaning that play was usually on the western side of the field, close to the coach and crowd and, most importantly, a short run off the field at half-time oranges. (Thinking back, surely having us eight and nine year olds playing on a field with the same dimensions as that used for A Grade teams was some form of child exploitation!)


Our sixth consecutive win now secured without a toe being bruised, we were on the home straight for an undefeated run to collect the awaiting silverware. Perhaps here I failed in my duty as captain to have my charges stay focused, keep our minds on the job and take the rest of season ‘one game at a time’.  For at our very next outing, our unblemished record was no more when the buzz cut crew of St Anthony’s got one over us. (I wonder now if their haircuts were an intentional tactic to intimidate us. I mean, really, who gets a buzz cut during a bitingly cold Toowoomba winter?)


I can only assume that this shock result had a debilitating effect on me at the time because I failed to record the scores of the remaining games in my trusty little programme. It was either that result or the traumatic experience I went through in our very next game against St Joeys on their home turf. The rascally Terry ‘Bruno’ Brennan took advantage of the fact that, just prior to our game, the field had been used by a group of horse riders and he had used this to his tactical advantage. Not long into the contest, he had the opportunity to put his scheme into play, resulting in him being dealt with swiftly by the referee. I doubt that, as captain, Cameron Smith or Danny Buderus ever had a player sent from the field for shoving an opponent into a mountain of manure!


The probable return of Peter Gill to the Lourdes outfit (possibly due to the threat of expulsion by the nuns and local priest) brought with it another loss. Although we still ended the season top of the table, coach Kunkel let his disappointment at our end of season demise be known in the ‘Downs Star’. We all eagerly awaited the weekly write-up in this free weekly paper used mainly for advertising haberdashery or wrapping up vegetable peelings. We hurried to read the ‘Holy Name Rugby League Report’ after catching the paper flung from the delivery car by a man who I can only assume had a very sore arm every Wednesday night. To see your name in print after being credited for some great attack or heroic defence was true bliss. (For this writer, a detailed description of my first ever try in rugby league is a piece of sports journalism more moving than anything seen on the back page of any Australian newspaper.)


As winter gave way to spring, there was one last opportunity for us to don our trench coat sized jerseys and foam protected pants. Trophy Presentation Party! Our very own auspicious occasion to celebrate the achievements of the season. On that bright Saturday morning, we all took turns at having our photo taken individually, no doubt after our mothers had embarrassed us with a comb and a moistened hanky for a last minute face scrub.


Then what turned out to be the highest point of my sporting career unfolded as my team-mates made their way onto to the steps of the Holy Name Church and were arranged into some form of order.  I was positioned in front of them and, with cameras of all shapes and sizes poised for action, I, their proud Grade 4 Captain, was handed the Betros Brothers Trophy.


Captain Damian Roache (holding the Betros Brothers Trophy)
with his Grade 4 teammates.


The moment captured in stills and on Super 8 film, it was party time! Jerseys swapped for an outfit possibly purchased from one of our programme sponsors, we lined up outside before making a triumphant entry up the stairs into the school hall that had been decorated with balloons and crepe maché streamers. In the centre of the hall, two long tables awaited us, one for my team and one for the Grade 3 team who were crowned Esso Cup winners that year. A double premiership year for the might of the Mercy Sisters!


Seated at the front of the hall was the official party which included some roped-in local dignitary, the parish priest and our coach, Mr Kunkel, sporting a fashionable purple shirt and white tie that was wider than most of our torsos. Apart from making speeches, the occupants of the official table were also on constant guard duty over the adjoining trophy table. It gleamed with trophies donated by local businesses, store owners, football identities, parishioners and anyone else Harry could con into donating the cash for one in exchange for having their name beautifully hand-written on a little name tag tied to the trophy. Any attempt to get a good look at the various trophies, however, was thwarted by a fast moving member of the official party.


Welcoming speeches were rolled out and special guests thanked for attending. Then it was time for the feast to begin. Sausage rolls, cheerios with tomato sauce, cakes, slices, biscuits, sweets of all kinds, potato chips and lollies were the main fare. Strangely enough, the egg and lettuce sandwiches were not a big ticket item and so the parents enjoying a cuppa ensured they got devoured.  No tea for us, we washed down all the goodies with gallons of locally produced soft drinks from McNamaras or Orfords.


Our bellies and bladders at bursting point, it was the obvious time to commence the presentation of trophies. Each player made his way up to the trophy table after coach Kunkel said some words of praise or encouragement about them. Cameras clicked and whirred. The trophies were in all different shapes and sizes, too. Shiny silver cups with handles, black plastic bases with mini sculptures of players atop, some with round rotating pieces that you could flick with your finger – until it came off after the use of excessive force (normally by someone who quickly left the scene). It was a treasure trove to bedazzle any youngster. Fed, watered and rewarded, we left our trophies with Mum and ran out to the oval for an impromptu game of footy. Tears or a torn shirt, possibly the cause of the tears, signalled the arrival of an angry parent and the end of the game. Trophies collected, we said our farewells and headed for home.


Lifelong friends like Mick O’Neil still proudly display these trophies in their family homes, no doubt having told their children of their exploits in those days. I distinctly remember that Wayne Reis won the Most Improved Forward Trophy. In fact, I’ll never forget this detail as he has reminded me of this life highlight every time I’ve seen him for the last 40 something years!


Sadly, mine were all but destroyed in a fire at the family home a decade and a half later. I’m sure others have not survived the passing years and were last seen at the local tip or in some charity shop. However, it doesn’t really matter that the plastic and metal are now long gone because the great memories of those days will always remain and are always revisited when I catch up with old mates for an annual race day. For just a few short minutes each year, we are back on the Athletic Oval looking for that perfect mud pile.


If you missed Part 1 of Damian’s story, you can read it by clicking here.


To read more stories in our rugby league series, click here.


Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


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  1. Great stuff, Damian. Game mornings sound like organised chaos! And those biting westerlies blowing in off the Downs – I remember them well. On the odd winter Saturday afternoon, we had to ride our bikes across town to play tennis at Downlands College (then boys only). Riding back in the late afternoon into the teeth of the wind was not much fun, especially if the Catholic lads had done a job on us!

    Just such a pity that you lost your memorabilia from this important part of your life, but thank goodness you haven’t lost your love for the game. Looking forward to reading more of your research into the league scene in Toowoomba.

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