Country Footy: Yeppoon Swans crack the code

It is truly a miracle that Australian Rules football is played in Central Queensland. Forty years ago the code was virtually unknown in Rockhampton and Gladstone.

 

Yeppoon Swans (est. 1983) hail from a seaside township of approximately 25,000 situated 50km to the east of Rockhampton. The Swans opponents in the 2015 AFL Capricornia grand final were the Boyne Island/Tannum Sands Saints (est. 1984). Boyne Island/Tannum Sands is obviously also a coastal location, but it is a mining town with a population half the size of Yeppoon and is situated 25km south of Gladstone.

 

Last weekend I made the 1300km round trip from Brisbane to Rockhampton to catch up with an old football colleague and watch the AFL Capricornia grand final. It has traditionally been one of the weaker Queensland leagues, but from what I saw last Saturday that is changing rapidly.

 

The Capricornia Australian Football League commenced in 1972. Three of the foundation clubs are participating in 2015 (Gladstone Mudcrabs, Rockhampton Panthers and Glenmore Bulls). The Panthers were originally the Parkhurst Panthers but changed names in the 1990s, keeping their black and white colours. Glenmore were originally the Wandal Bulls and they wore a maroon and gold strip. In the early 2000s Wandal became Glenmore and they switched to a Brisbane Lions style jumper but kept their Bulls logo.

 

Boyne Island/Tannum Sands Saints (BITS) and Yeppoon Swans joined the competition in the early 80s with the Brothers Kangaroos (est. 1981). Other clubs that have participated over the past forty years include the Blackwater Cats, Biloela Bombers and Parkana Demons.

 

AFL clubs have drafted Zac Smith (Glenmore Bulls/Gold Coast Suns), Gavin Urqhuart (Glenmore Bulls/North Melbourne) and Paul O’Shea (Brothers/Western Bulldogs) from the league in recent years. Nick Tomlinson (Yeppoon Swans/Morningside) has represented Queensland and recently played his 250th game for his state league club.

 

At a time when many country leagues in Australia are shrinking, merging or folding, the inauguration, survival and current position of the Capricornia league are a testament to the volunteers and the AFL staff of the region.

 

For those from the wrong side of the Barassi line1 in Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria to begin to understand the scope of the achievement in the area try and imagine launching and developing a rugby league competition in a rural part of your state. And then imagine that league beginning to obtain its fair share of media and junior interest. And then for it to thrive and prosper and produce athletes that are capable of earning professional contracts.

 

It was an absolute joy last weekend for me to witness a football league that has battled and struggled, been maligned from within and outside, eventually emerge into a vibrant community organisation that is recognised and admired by some of its loudest critics. And I could only marvel at the performance and presentation of the Yeppoon Australian Football Club. They are an exemplar to footy clubs of any code anywhere in Australia.

 

The volunteers of AFL Capricornia, people like John Broad, Bernie and Helen Gottke, Graham Orr, Bob Davies, John Round, Peter Watkins, Darryl Dunnett, Mal McArthur, Ross Laycock, Don Pollock, Tony and Wayne Clifford and Maree Lambart (apologies to the many others who have carried the league over the last 40 years), have achieved some amazing results in the face of huge challenges (distance, local media indifference, transient population, 100 plus years of rugby league history, local labeling of Australian Rules as “aerial ping pong” [70s and 80s] and GAY FL [more recently]).

 

My 74-year-old friend John Broad (who prepared this year’s grand final footy record) was heavily involved in the 1980s when, as he says, “They all told us that the code would never survive”.

 

Central Queensland is rugby league heartland. Depending on where you live in the region any of the three c’s are the primary source of income – Cattle, Cane and Coal. And when it comes to sport, rugby league rules. But “Aussie Rules”, or now the more popular description of “AFL”, has carved out a niche, and from what I saw on the weekend it is thriving.

 

“Broady” is one of football’s true colourful characters. One league stalwart described his contribution to Australian football in the region over the last 35 years as “monumental – he has been a charismatic champion”. Broady and league founder Darryl Dunnett (a rugby league convert who is now a life member of the league and two clubs) regaled me over the weekend with amazing stories that will have to wait for another day.

 

One of their best anecdotes was from when the league was attracting a large group of female patrons in the mid 70s. The “league headquarters”, which was a paddock situated on private land, had no female amenities. League officials, after receiving complaints about the lack of the aforementioned facilities, made a 100km midnight dash to Zilzie Beach to acquire a public thunder box from a beachside park.

 

From the stories I have been told and from my visits to the region over the past 20 years two names resonate when anyone talks of the league’s achievements and controversies. John Broad was the brash, articulate, outspoken house painter-cum local alderman who got things done. By Broady’s own admission he was “a bit of a table thumper”. Bernie Gottke was the behind the scenes quiet achiever with attention to detail, process and protocol. Both were determined men who, at great personal expense, laid the foundations for what AFL Capricornia is today.

 

Unfortunately both Broad and Gottke are not in the best of health at the moment and were unable to travel from their homes in Rockhampton to the season finale.

 

Last Saturday’s grand final was played at Gladstone 130km south of Rockhampton. Yeppoon Swans travelled 180km south from their seaside home to take on the BITS Saints who had a short 25km journey north. The ground is wedged between the Dawson Highway and the Gladstone Airport. On several occasions during the day it was impossible to hear the umpire’s whistle as a Boeing screamed up the runway.

 

BITS have dominated the AFL Capricornia competition for the last 20 years, winning thirteen premierships and missing only three grand finals. The main source of recruits for the club over this period has been from those moving north for employment at the Boyne Island aluminum smelter. The Shipard family looms large in the history of the club and veteran Nathan Shipard was selected for BITS to play in his tenth grand final.

 

Yeppoon, like most other clubs in the league, have relied on a trickle of junior players and any young men who have moved north for work. Unlike BITS they do not have an aluminum smelter on their doorsteps to provide employment.

 

Several years ago the Yeppoon club made a conscious decision to focus on the development of their local youth. Several ageing veterans in the reserve grade were moved along as the club made way for a succession of successful under 17 teams.

 

The decision was to pay dividends last Saturday.

 

When the A Grade grand final commenced well after the scheduled start of 3.30pm there were approximately 1500 patrons at Clinton Oval. 500 plus Yeppoon fans had made the two-hour drive south to Gladstone.

 

Earlier in the day the Gladstone Mudcrabs defeated Brothers (under 13s) and BITS (under 15s) and many of their junior parents were manning beer booths, canteens and barbeques. When I was last at the club in the early 2000s the Mudcrabs had virtually no juniors.

 

The under 17s match between Yeppoon and BITS was, like the two earlier grand finals, extremely tight. BITS won a quality junior final, but the end of the match was soured somewhat with a couple of unsavory incidents.

 

It was not so long ago that youth football in the region was on its knees. In some seasons the only junior grand final came from a three team under 14 grade. In 2015 the junior season ended with three close and interesting matches.

 

Over the past decade the junior league, under the leadership of Peter Watkins and Maree Lambart, has blossomed. Peter and Maree are both also involved with the Yeppoon Swans (Peter has been the president of the league juniors and his club for the past five years). Peter has umpired in the league and he and his daughter Lisa would often act in tandem as field umpires in senior matches. Peter’s three sons have all played for the club.

 

Maree Lambart, originally from the Wilston Grange club in Brisbane, has also been the prime mover behind the commencement and development of women’s football in the region. A youth girl’s competition has been curtailed by the lack of time on match days to squeeze in another grade of football. John Broad is currently preparing grant applications for lighting to remedy this problem.

 

The women’s grand final was umpired by senior league president John “Poppa Smurf” Round. The diminutive Round had earlier in the day also umpired the under 15 grand final. 70-year-old Round, that’s right 70-year-old, advised me that the women’s match was his 48th grand final. His first was in 1961 in the Wimmera League in Western Victoria.

 

The women’s open competition completed its fifth season (six clubs) with the Glenmore Bulls convincingly defeating the Rockhampton Panthers. When the match was over umpire Round became president Round and he presented the medals and best on ground award. Many of the Glenmore women were sobbing uncontrollably when Round acknowledged that the ribbons they were all wearing were in honour of a team mate who was very ill with ovarian cancer.

 

The Panthers had more luck in the reserve grade when they came from fourth to defeat warm favourites and minor premiers the Gladstone Mudcrabs. The Mudcrabs wear a striking all-green playing strip with a prominent GFC emblazoned on the front. I saw at least 50 children aged between three and fifteen running around during the day in their GFC jumper. There was not one AFL club jumper on any of the 2500 plus patrons who attended during the day.

 

Prior to the national anthem and the commencement of the main match, AFL Queensland Football Operations Manager Craig Millar presented long serving Rockhampton Panthers volunteer Tina Martin with an AFL Merit Award.

 

The Grand Final

 

In the 2014 decider the youthful Swans had been blown away in the second half by a bigger, stronger, fitter and more physical Glenmore Bulls. Yeppoon’s coach Mark Wallin initiated preseason training in November and his young charges accepted the challenge. Some of the grueling preparations included dragging tractor tyres and sandhill runs along the beautiful Capricornia Coast.

 

Wallin, originally from the Noble Park club in Melbourne, had tasted premiership success with the Fraser Coast Lions in the Bundaberg/Wide Bay league in the early 2000s.

 

BITS lined up with several seasoned veterans, including former Sandgate stars from Brisbane in Aaron and Daniel Fabian. Daniel Savage, a former state league on baller from Mt Gravatt, who has bulked up significantly in recent years, was an important withdrawal for BITS after injuring his hamstring.

 

The average age of the BITS squad would have been in the late 20s, Yeppoon’s was low 20s, very low 20s.

 

Yeppoon were captained by former Queensland under 16 representative, Matt Wallin (son of Mark). He was selected to represent Queensland as an 18-year-old but an untimely knee injury sidelined the tenacious on baller for two seasons. The 26-year-old Wallin had earlier in the week collected the Bernie Gottke Medal for the league’s best and fairest.

 

Seventeen of Yeppoon’s players were local juniors. Six of them had won league under 17 medals over the past eight years. Four sets of local brothers were in the starting team – Mick and Jake King, Tom and Leigh Cossens, Dan and Cam Watkin and Jake and Michael Gallagher. On several occasions during the year a fifth set of brothers played when Hamish Boyd was joined by his younger brother Tylor who plays in the under 17s and narrowly missed selection in the seniors.

 

Yeppoon Swans are the epitome of a family club. One club representative said, “Yes it is a family club, and at the Swans you don’t just get the kids, you get the whole family”.

 

A howling breeze had swept across the Gladstone ground for most of the day and at the start of the match it had swung around a little to favour BITS who were running to the airport end of the ground.

 

The old man of the Swans line-up, 36-year-old Wes Hawke, resplendent with pony tale and a Crackers Keenan like pre bounce stalk, lined up and knocked the first tap down Brandon Worner’s throat. A succession of handballs led to Alex Chapman kicking straight from 35 metres out. 15 seconds in and the Swans were on the board.

 

Back to the centre and another clearance went the Swans way with Worner and Chapman combining with the later spearing a bullet pass to the safe hands of Jake King. King kicked straight allowing perfectly for the deceptively strong breeze. Within 90 seconds the Swans were up by two goals. Two minutes later, and less than four minutes into the match, when King kicked his second the scoreboard read: Yeppoon Swans 4.0.24 BITS 0.0.0 – into the wind!

 

BITS steadied over the next 20 minutes. They had to. Their burly centre half forward Daniel Fabian took some strong contested marks and the equally burly Scott Sloan was picking off several intercept marks across the half back line. In the centre Stephen Pugh was playing a lone hand but he had to contend with the classy Worner and Chapman who continued to win the ball. Worner, one of the few non-locals amongst the Swans, was particularly effective in close. He had come to the club from Golden Square in the Bendigo league.

 

At quarter time the Swans lead 6.4 to 2.0, but BITS had had the advantage of a significant breeze.

 

The ominous signs of the first quarter were confirmed in the second. Wes Hawke continued his control of centre bounces and Harrison Boyd had completely shut down the running Jack Miechel who was touted as a match winner for the Saints.

 

Tall Swans forward Tom Cossens, who was running through the midfield on occasions, was dominating. Young Cossens won the league best and fairest as an 18-year-old in 2013 and was runner up to his captain this year. Another who was having an influence for the Swans was the other “old man” of the team, Nathan “Roughie” Milburn. At half time Milburn, who was also playing through the midfield, was clearly leading the possession count. Other high possession winners for the Swans were Alex Chapman, Brandon Worner and the lanky, ungainly but effective Mick King. The Saints woes were compounded when solid and reliable defender Jake Mostert was yellow carded for an errant right forearm to Alex Chapman’s head. A goal resulted from the ensuing free kick.

 

Half time: Yeppoon 11.7.73 to BITS 3.2.20

 

Coach Mark Wallin would have been well pleased with the score line. He predicted in the Morning Bulletin that if the Swans were in front at half-time they would outrun their older opponents. Wallin had formulated an impressive coaching panel with former league and club legend Rod Chapman (father of Alex) and Craig O’Brien (Sydney Swans/Essendon/St Kilda) forming part of his brains trust. The Swans were fit and they were well coached.

 

By mid way through the third quarter the match was over. The Swans led by 10 goals, and the Saints main avenue to goal, Daniel Fabian, was also yellow carded. Tyson Morrissey (ex-Sandgate) continued to battle courageously in the midfield for the Saints but he had few helpers.

 

Cam Watkin, who had been a contributor for the Swans in the first half, joined in the party, helping them to a five goal-to-one third quarter.

 

The 3.30pm start, which in the end was closer to 3.45pm, meant the sun had almost disappeared. The impressive electronic scoreboard was clearly visible in the gloom. Yeppoon 16.9.105 to BITS 4.5.29

 

Alex Chapman put on a clinic in the last quarter as he and Jake King continued to rack up goals. In the end they both kicked seven each. At the other end Simon Clarke was at least presenting for the Saints and in the end he was rewarded with five goals.

 

Some of Alex Chapman’s feats were remarkable. He is known amongst his teammates as “the string popper”. Several opponents during the year suffered hamstring injuries chasing the explosive Chapman who has an uncanny resemblance to Chris Judd when explodes out of a pack.

 

The match was petering out and the only interest that remained was whether the Swans would win by 100. They did, although Simon Clarke and Tyson Morrissey in particular, were trying to avoid that ignominy. All of the Saints were trying and they certainly didn’t surrender. A fit, enthusiastic and skilful Swans outfit just convincingly beat them.

 

In my 40 years of watching community football in Queensland I have never seen a club dominate so comprehensively almost entirely on the back of local talent.

 

When I rang Peter Watkins on Monday to ask him a few questions he was setting up for the players to come to his home for Mad Monday.

 

Yeppoon Swans have cracked the code for football club development in Queensland.

 

Final Score: Yeppoon 22.15.147 defeated BITS 7.5.47

 

Yeppoon: Jake King, Alex Chapman 7, Tom Cossens, Nathan Milburn 2, Dan Watkin, Cam Watkin, Wes Hawke, Damian Cervay, James Malone.

 

BITS: Simon Clarke 5, Nathan Shipard, Daniel Fabian.

 

Yeppoon Best: Alex Chapman, Brandon Worner, Tom Cossens, Nathan Milburn, Jake King, Wes Hawke.

 

BITS Best: Simon Clarke, Steven Pugh, Tyson Morrissey, Jake Mostert.

 

1 The “Barassi Line” is a term which was first used by Ian Turner in his “1978 Ron Barassi Memorial Lecture” to refer to an imagined line in Australia which divides areas where Australian rules football is the dominant winter code of football from those where rugby league and rugby union, are the most popular. Overall attendance rates, media coverage and participation are heavily skewed in favour of each sport in its traditional areas and against the sport from the opposite side of the line.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Great write up Murray. its awesome for the club to get acknowledged for the hard work over the years. I won a premiership in 92 with the Swans, it was a very proud day watching my son Harrison get his first. He is one of five of my boys that play for the Swans. Cheers and go the Swannies!

  2. Murray, I played for the Wandal Bulls from 1989-91.
    Won a couple of reserve grade premierships.
    Missed a grand final through injury.
    Yeppoon were our main rivals back then. I watched them win their first premiership…
    Your story brings back memories.
    Well done.

  3. Mick Jeffrey says:

    They were the best team all year by some distance. Certainly when we (Brothers) played them they were about the only side that we couldn’t get near in any of the 3 meetings (only saw one, injured for the first encounter, running in Brisbane for the second). Run very well off the field too which can only be helpful.

  4. Damon Quigley says:

    Hi Muzza I’m tipping your the Muzza x ump that came with us Teal cup in 80s or Qld rep sides. This is my home club Yeppoon am a foundation member there and was a big step to head Sth to Mayne from Yippy Yeppoon we had a lot of success back then in juniors to although Sunday training wasn’t compolsery everyone got there ( to make sure no one was dehydrated) there was a few to follow in years to follow to head Sth great to see were on the map in country footy all the best Murray the boys just had a 30 yr reunion for our 85 teal cup side at the breaky creek hotel org by Bazza McCarthy by the way

  5. Murray Bird says:

    Thanks Mick, Mike, Damon and Grant,

    Forgot to mention Ben Ryan, now an AFL Umpire. His dad Steve umpired Grand Finals in the late 1990s and early 2000s in the CAFL/AFLC.
    Yes I remember you Damon … you were one of the only country boys in the Queensland under 17 team … in Perth (1985?) … competitive against South Australia (beaten by a couple of goals) … WA had the Magnificent 7 … McKenna, Lewis, Sumich … those blokes … i think … i have been chatting with Baz on facebook …
    What I liked about Yeppoon on the weekend was that it really was a “family club” … and they played very good footy … some of those boys could follow in your footsteps Damon and play at state league level

  6. Murray Bird says:

    The umpiring on Saturday was also very good!

  7. Muhammed bin Rocket says:

    Glad they’ve found better umpires than me – had a bit of fun running around the sun in Rocky in the early 90s. Tribunal hearings were always interesting, and I always seemed to have an appointment booked…

  8. Gee whiz, Muzz, you can unearth some character umpires in Queensland!

    First, you told us about the Swine in Footy Town and now Poppa Smurf!

    And good on you for paying tribute to John Broad.As an Alderman, he did an outstanding job getting grounds for footy.

    I used to train with the Wandal Bulls at Glenmore, now I see they have become Glenmore.

    The Cockerill boys, Mick and Ian are both ex-Yeppoon Swans. Mick has been a soccer reporter and commentator in Sydney for many years now, but started his reporting rounds on the Swans in the Edelsten Error. And Ian was the Swans PR flak, before going to Men’s Health as deputy editor.

  9. Kevin Arthurson says:

    Kevin Arthurson here! Former Junior League Secretary from 1983-87. I remember Young Quigley as our best young player. John Broad was a legend and deserves a gong from Mr Turnbull or Donald Trump? The hours John put in were amazing. All for Aussie Rules.
    I started up a club at St Brendan’s College, a mainly boarding school then. Believe it or not we won the u/17 Premiership in our first year defeating Brothers, a strong outfit. We struggled along after that because League and Union had first dibs on the kids. We got the others. Some good, most strugglers but hard at the ball. I left at the end of 1987 to return to Melbourne to teach but those days are days I cherish!
    Aussie Rules lasted 3 years at the College after my exit, before the Principal assumed control of our oval. It became of course another League field sadly.
    I get back to Yeppoon regularly as it is God’s Own Country.

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