Off Season Odyssey – Part 20: Empty Bars and Back Pocket Legends


Empty Bars and Back Pocket Legends.




The hotel hangs over a winding road that cuts down into town. Above its door is a sign that says Top Pub, simple and honest. I’ve been on the road for ten hours and slouch over my beer as if it’s a lead-lined magnet.

   “How far to Gypsy Point?” I ask the barman.

   “Two hours. Three in that thing,” he says, looking at my ute through the window. “Where are you coming from?”

   “Gypsy Point,” I tell him.

   “I don’t get it?” says ol’ mate sitting at the bar, the only other person in there.

   “I was in the desert with no charge on my phone, so I Googled directions to Gypsy Point, where I have some tree-lopping lined up, spent two days driving. I spent two more hours doing laps, looking for their house. Turns out there is a Gypsy Point in Nowra, NSW, as well as the one I’m meant to be at in NE Victoria.”

   “Nowra?!” ol’ mate laughs. “That’s six hours north, near Sydney!”

   “Seven in that thing!” chuckles the barman.

   I just grin, give them a shrug.

   “I’ve seen some good coast along the way,” I tell them.


   The barman’s name is Ron. He’s about fifty, short and stocky. He has the straight-up grin of a back-pocket that makes a person like a person.

   “We have both codes in town. This is the Rugby pub,” he says. “The Aussie Rules one is down in the harbour.”

   ‘Which game’s doing better?” I ask.

   “Well, being N.S.W it was always Rugby, but footy’s much healthier, now, I reckon. The kids are into it. Things like Aus-Kick are making a difference,” he tells me.

   This is where everybody has gone. To the coast. The flip-side of the heartbreak of the bush and desert. Sport is healthy here, everything is. Australia’s a dry land. A rich land, these days. Many people aren’t chained to the land anymore. It’s all about water. It feels good to be somewhere that’s thriving.

   Ron travelled with work -dairy and caravan parks, mostly- from Melbourne’s West, to Phillip Island, where he played the bulk of his footy, to the Outback, to here, just north of Eden.

   “I clocked-up 300-plus games, mostly in the Twos. I just couldn’t train with the sort of jobs I had,” he tells me. “Yeah, back pocket,” he confirms my suspicions.

   I swear, you can spot them!

   We laugh about it. He loved the position.

   “No bullshit, straight lines. Have a drink and take the piss out of the seniors when you were done playing.”

   It’s close to 9, the kitchen’s well closed. I ask him where the nearest grub is?

   “Beside ya, matie,” he says.

   I turn, and ol’ mate is grinning at me, all easy. He owns the pizza shop across the road, and can hear the doorbell from the bar, or something, so strolls in after the rush for a few froffies.

   I love that shit, always.

   “The tastiest pizza you could buy,” Ron tells me.

   He finishes his grog and cruises back over the road to make my order.

   I ask Ron for his best footy story, which, as it turns out, is the best footy story. Ever. To me, anyway.


   “I was playing seniors. Our teammate, Chopper had died. Chopper had a, y’know, a big personality.”

   “Most Choppers do,” I told him.

   “We were in the bottom half, no hope of making the finals, the other mob were second. We’d spent the whole week in Chopper’s back yard, around the bonfire. Most of us were still drunk when we played. There was no way we should have beaten a team that good, no way. But we rolled ‘em!”

   “What was that night like?” I ask.

   Ron says nothing, but his eyes burn with pride, as if talking for him.

   “It wasn’t even the win that was the best part of it. Saturday morning we left a bloke to keep the fire going, and headed. It was just the walking to the game. A group of Chopper’s mates, through the back streets, down the main drag, to the oval…”

   It must have been 25 years ago, but telling it still chokes Ron up. He wipes the smallest bit of soot from the corner of his eye, then goes back to being a happy, tough person.


   Good on him. He seems like the best bloke! The sort you want to be mates with.


   I ask him for a kick, but he can’t leave the pub, so, fuck it, we make do inside, stabbing the ball over the bar, taking speckies over the smokes machine. The owner comes in. He’s a good, serious bloke, knows the importance of sport in a country town, and the local hotel’s roll in it. His pub sponsors everything form that thick-necked stuff, to hockey, to netball and soccer.

   He looks a bit puzzled.

   “I’ll pay for the brakeage,” I tell him, and before long he’s lobbing the ball up so we can test out Ron’s back-pocket credentials.

   I go to lead and run into the drink dispensers. Ron doesn’t have the height to spoil, and when he tries for a run-up, the kegs stop him.

   Still, like any good back-pocket, he whacks my ribs enough to make me earn them.

   Then ol’ mate strolls back in for another beer with my pizza. He’s 200% League and doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. In the Rugby pub and everything! He won’t join in, but laughs and cheers us, as, behind the bar, we go for another grab, for backman’s pride, in a coastal pub not really anywhere, late on a dead Tuesday.

   I could stay here forever, but the road is calling. I grab my pizza, some travellers to wash it down, and bail into the night, Chopper’s story tucked in my memory.

   It will stay with me, always.


   I take a bite as I pull out onto the street. Ron was right. The grub’s goddamn delicious.








  1. pamela sherpa says

    What a classic Matt. Do you have a box of Almanacs in the ute? I hope you’re leaving a copy in all these pubs you visit.

  2. One of your best Matt.

  3. Perfect.You have no idea how good it sounds to be able to walk into a pub and have a beer, (and a kick!)

  4. I recognise that pub, Matty.
    Had a beer or three in there on the odd occasion,
    but never a kick-to-kick !!

  5. Rocket Nguyen says

    Footy is winning the hearts and minds of the kids in NSW…

    Temora won its first premiership for 52 years last Saturday in the Wagga-based Farrer League

    The town used to be a rugby league powerhouse but officials issued an ultimatum to the youth of the town to play one or the other – so they chose the Australian game. Young Breust at Hawthorn is a product of Temora.

    Silly edict because for most towns in the Riverina kids play both codes. Not just because they each need players but because the kids enjoy playing both.

  6. Yeah, Rocket, I’m Aussie Rules, through-and-through, but am sorta bleeding for the Rugby people who are just as passionate about their code in towns like that. Seems to be slipping away a bit in places.

    What a stupid rule! We are so over-regulated!

  7. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Thanks Matt I have met people who love footy but your love of it is amazing can’t remember ever having a kick to kick in a pub . I reckon you will get on brillianly with
    Rodney Maynard , when you meet . What a stupid regulation to bring in surely we should be encouraging kids to play sport the more the better !
    Enjoyable read as always Matt

  8. Matt Zurbo says

    Thanks yet again, Malcolm! Your comments make me homesick for the open road again.

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