Footy kicking on in Coffs Harbour

by “Rocket” Rod Gillet

The Sydney Swans defeated last year’s AFL runner-up St Kilda in a NAB Challenge match at the BCU Stadium in Coffs Harbour by 31 points last Saturday night. Almost 5000 attended the fixture on a unseasonably cool night on the north coast of NSW.

One of those in attendance was my mother, Val, who after living in Coffs for almost 40 years still does not the difference between rugby league and union. And doesn’t want to know! She just loves the footy. And she particularly likes the Swans and the Saints; like so many footy people in NSW she made the transition to the red and whites, eventually.

When we started the Coffs footy club back in 1977 we had no players, no ground, and no competition to play in. That might seem like a deal stopper right there. But enthusiasm and perseverance are wonderful traits and together with unbridled passion for the game these primary obstacles were eventually overcome.

The first match in Coffs Harbour was played on the racecourse between a Coffs team made up of a dozen locals, a couple of blokes from Port Macquarie  and the uni boys staying in the Gillett family holiday flats and a team from the University of New England team in Armidale over 200 kms away.

“The match attracted about 50 spectators, and despite the heavy conditions, was enjoyed by everyone there according to the report in the Coffs Harbour Advocate (15 March 1977). The University side won the match 13-2 (80) to Coffs Harbour’s 4-13 (37).

It didn’t seem possible at the time that AFL matches would ever be played in Coffs Harbour. It was such a rugby-league orientated district with dual international Phil Hawthorne coaching Coffs and the Cleal brothers running riot (both on and off the park) for neighbouring Sawtell. The Coffs rugby union club had only been formed a few years earlier in 1971.

But the sporting landscape has changed in Coffs like it has in so many other places in NSW and footy is now firmly established in all the major towns.

Mum recently sent me a copy of the Coffs local newspaper. There was a full-page article entitled “Looking to the future” which featured an interview with Paul Roos on the new Sydney Swans Academy and the establishment of a local arm on the north coast based in Coffs Harbour.

On a full-page next to this was an article titled “CRL loses fight for juniors” in which stalwart rugby league officials bemoaned the decline in playing numbers and support at the junior level, “…in the face of relentless encroachment by AFL apostles spreading their gospel”. An official is quoted as saying, “… at some schools around Coffs, the kids play all the footy codes except ours”. This would have been unimaginable thirty years ago when the kids only played one code, rugby league.

Rugby league is in decline in many country areas with not just clubs folding but also competitions. In recent years both Group 13 and Group 17 in southern NSW have folded in while further north Group 5 and Group 19 were forced to merge.

Meanwhile, a member of the most famous family in rugby league, Ned Mortimer, is the latest code-converter. Twenty year old Ned has recently been signed as a mature aged top-up rookie by GWS after announcing a return to play for Collingullie in the Riverina Football League this season after playing rugby league for the past two seasons with South City (a merger of Wagga Magpies and Turvey Park) in Group 9. As a junior, Mortimer, like so many Riverina sportsman over the years, played footy on Saturdays and rugby league on Sundays.

Ned is the son of Chris, who along with brothers Steve and Peter, played in Canterbury-Bankstown premiership teams in the 1980s, alongside former Turvey Park team-mate Greg Brentnall (who played on permits with South Melbourne), Steve and Chris both played for NSW and Australia, while Peter represented NSW.

The Danihers, the Quades, and the Carrolls are all famous Riverina  names associated with the AFL. Perhaps the Mortimer family name will assume the same status in both codes.


  1. johnharms says


    Nice to hear from you.

    What are the Coffs colours? Does ‘banana’ get a run somewhere in their sensibility, team song etc

    INteresting about the Mortimer lad, on top of the Jack lad.

    The point you make about the rugby league official and schools resonates. I reckon it is the same in Qld where rugby league has worked on the assumption that it will be forever the dominant code, as if it is so entrenched in the culture and the sporting culture. That’s a dangerous assumption in the contemporary sporting domain, although it will remain so for a while yet. The rugby league people must start to make any programs they have far mroe visible.

  2. Tony Robb says

    Yes Rocket.It an interesting time. One might guess that they might get more consistent numbers at Coffs than at Rootie Hill. Auskcik has infiltrated NSW school on masse and League has nothing that is comparable that doesnt involve your kids having the shit knocked out of him by an islander. I had a night on the drink with Peter Mortimer years ago at the 21st birthday of Sonny Morrow’s ( or Tigers and Gullie fame ) daughter. He was a great fellow to talk to. As you mentioned in another note. Dad coached Greg Brentnall on Saturdays and he played League on the Sunday. He could,played with South Melboune but went to Cantabury because of the Mortimer connection. I never used to watch much league but tended to watch the Dogs becuase of GB. I remember him revolutionising the crosss fild kick hitting the opposite winger lace up from 50 metres with precise drop punts. He was the fist to use them in League.

  3. George Jones-Kennedy says

    As always Rocket a fine piece.

    A couple of pieces of additional information to share with readers.

    Firstly, the Rabbitohs played the Gold Coast Titans in Coffs at the International Stadium recently and got just over 6000 punters to the game. As you know Souths’ owner Russell Crowe lives in the district and also strongly supports the Orara Valley Axemen in Group 2.

    And secondly, it is worth recalling that the Denhert brothers provided the saplings that were used as goal-posts for the first match of Aussie Rules at the racecourse. Phil played a lot of games for North Coffs while Noel went to South Coffs

    Alas still no Woopi team in the North Coast AFL so I don’t go along to the local footy.

    Your old adversary,
    Chicken George

  4. El Rocket says

    Thanks for the comments.

    #1 Darky – the Coffs rugby league team wear red and yellow and were known as the “Banana Benders” – now they are the Comets. The original Coffs footy team eventually found a home in the uni-based New England league in Armidale. Success was spectacular – after winning a premiership in 1979 they formed two teams for the following season – Norths (continued to wear the North Melbourne strip worn by Coffs) and Souths (adopted South Melbourne colours – this was pre-Sydney). They both left the Armidale comp to start the North Coast AFL with new teams from Port Macquarie, Grafton, Urunga, and Woolgoolga (known locally as Woopi)

    #2 TR – Rugby league has got a real problem with the juniors. As you point out the big islander kids are carving them up and not making much fun for the others. My mate, Ab (the concreter from Wagga Wagga) experienced this first hand with his boy playing both league and union in north-west Sydney. Young Tom switched to footy and now plays for Pennant Hills in the Under 18 comp.
    GB is a ripper bloke as I’m sure are the Mortimers – I think everyone in Wagga followed Canterbury when they were there. You’re right, he was the first one to use the drop punt – now all the league and union players kick using it.

    #3 – Chicken George – still no Woopi. Everybody must be still getting over all the premierships you won. Never known a club to celebrate like the Woopi Blues – as I recall the 1983 premiership team had 26 kegs of beer, a bullock, 3 sheep and dozens of chickens (hence your nickname!) and a large number of exotic plants donated by sponsors and supporters.

  5. walter slamer says

    I, for one, hope the AFL recognize, at some future point, the sterling work of Rodney “Rocket” Gillet in pioneering footy in new territories. The revelations contained in this article now stand alongside his work blazing a trail for the game in, at last count, Berlin, Abu Dhabi, South Korea and Glebe. Onya Rocket!

    Good to hear of Ab, whose sister was linked up with an ex-goalkeeper of the Finnish national football team back in the 80s. We used to swing by their house in Surry Hills, on the way to the SCG to see the Swans regularly beat all comers by 10 goals or so when Capper, Diesel etc were in their pomp!

Leave a Comment