Great day out at “The Lake”

by Bob Utber

Lake Cullulleraine is “dead centre” between Renmark in South Australia and Mildura 58 kilometres either way on the Sturt Highway with virtually nothing in between.  The township of “the Lake” has a permanent population of 78 with itinerant workers living on the Lake’s shores taking the population to over the 100 mark.

Normally on my way to Adelaide for the footy I pass through The Lake and settle for the long run mindful of the orange-brown desert country and a half full lake.  With recent rains the paddocks are verdant green, the bird life abounds and the Lake is full. It truly is a wonderful oasis and to top it off they are playing the finals here, at the historical home of the League and not in the big smoke of Mildura. Patrons will be travelling a minimum of 130 to be at the ground.

The Mildura Rural City Council, knowing the importance of local history have recently spent thousands of dollars on a new irrigation system through the two grounds that make up the sporting complex. Yes, there are two full size grounds and 14 lawn tennis courts and a big plus of a natural hill dotted with scented gums that enables patrons to have a grandstand view from their cars.

League President Graham Robertson said “we play out here because it is the home of the Millewa and you could not find a better ground anywhere.  People make a day out and don’t mind travelling the 58 kilometres”.  The grass was lush and the penetrometer reading would have been pretty low although these horses don’t have the leg speed to worry about that.

I travelled to the Lake on Sunday to witness the preliminary final between Bambill and Cardross in the Millewa League. I wanted to know what makes the League, founded in 1928, continue to defy the odds. Despite the doom and gloom on the land, water and irrigation problems, sons and daughters moving to Adelaide or Melbourne and the “x” generation more interested in doing “other things”. How come this minor league in the middle of no where continues to attract people to their games?

According to League President, blocky Graham Robertson, the answer is simple.  “When you finish playing football in the big Leagues you come and play in the Millewa.  It is as simple as that” he said with a wry grin.  I asked him how many players have made the really big time the AFL or the SANFL. The answer “none”.

“In recent times the introduction of netball (there are five grades) has seen a significant increase in the number of people involved in the competition. Why we even outnumber the Sunraysia League attendances at some of our games” he said proudly.

The last time I attended the Millewa there was no kicking backwards, handball was minimal and long bombs prevailed. I revelled in the day- getting the ball forward was the only objective.  I am glad to say it is still the game.  The only changes seem to have been that the runners wear fluoro and the team managers hold the team board high above everyone so no one can read it during the minor breaks. I took particular notice of the Boardman but not many of the players did.  They seemed more interested in talking to mates and in some cases having a quick drag.

Mind you there have been some subtle ground changes.  No longer do you get just tea and coffee, pies and hot dogs. Bazza’s coffee and donut caravan is a treat.  The donuts are made on site and you have your choice of all the varieties of coffee.  Bazza, a one eyed Collingwood supporter, has been run off his feet since he got to the ground at 11am and didn’t know how many cups of coffee he had served. Suffice to say he didn’t have much time to talk to me as to why Geelong plus Mackie would beat the Pies on Friday night.

There were even gluten free ice-creams at another caravan stall. The old canteen retained its glory of “what do you want love”. The barbie had 10 kilo of sausages and close to 200 steaks to get rid of and the cooks said “no worries” when I enquired what would be left over.

Having spent the last two years at Adelaide Crows pre-game warm ups it was good to see that the old ritual still prevailed at The Lake. Players ready to go half an hour before the game standing outside the sheds having a fag with mates, playing with kids, kicking Daicos goals and glorying at their efforts.  One player Brett Haase of Bambill had kick to kick drills with what looked like his son for nigh on 20 minutes in front of the canteen.

Haase could be seen as the face of the Millewa, balding with grey hair, slightly stooped and looking like he had been playing for 40 years.  But wait there was more. Up until this game he had kicked 95 goals for the year and he looked set to make the ton during the game but was clubbed from behind in the third term and finished the day with 2 goals. He still has dazzling speed over the first 10 yards and is a fine mark.  Next week’s big one should see him reach the ton.

The Millewa is all about equal opportunity and one of the tree field umpires was a mum, yes a mum. Hayley Breewell is a pocket dynamo and reads the game beautifully and no answering back from the boys either. She would stand about 4foot 11 inches in the old scale and did a great job along with her partners Gerry Vuick and Alan Brown.  Umpires assistant Frank (no surname just Frank) told me the average age of the umpiring fraternity was well over 40 and Hayley was an exception.  “We give plenty of young blokes (I guess that means girls also) the opportunity to start in our league but then they leave to go to Uni or work in the big smoke. What can you do about it?”  The dilemma of being in the outback.

Bambill kicked 6 goals to 1 in the first term and were never challenged. They ran out easy winners by 25 points. Cardross outscored the Saints in the second half but could not make up the deficit.

Final scores:

Bambill 10 – 10 -70              defeated       Cardross  6 – 9 – 45

Goal of the day from Andrew Ross (Bambill) in the first term was a beauty on the run from 65 yards out.

Mark of the day from Cardross’s Jacob Harris who was also best on ground with a sustained running effort throughout.

It was a great day’s footy as we new it and if you can make The Lake on Saturday September 18th for the big one between Bambill and Gol Gol it will be well worth the effort.

About Bob Utber

At 80 years of age Citrus Bob is doing what he wanted to do as a 14 year-old living on the farm at Lang Lang. Talking, writing, watching sport. Now into his third book on sports history he lives in Mildura with his very considerate wife (Jenny ) and a groodle named "Chloe On Flinders". How good is that.


  1. Great story, Bob. If it wasn’t for the small matter of a game at the MCG between the Dogs and the Saints on Saturday night, I’d head up there for the GF!

    Who’s favoured to win?

  2. What nostalgia. A goal on the run from 65 yards out.

    As the Coodabeens would say “Bring it back”

  3. Rocket Rod Gillett says

    Bewdy Bob!

    As I understand the Millewa league clubs only field one team – is that right?
    I reckon its a great formula.

    I can’t understand why the VCFL are making leagues merge and then ending up with 17 or 18 teams in a comp.
    Inevitably a few will fold because of travel and inability to compete when they could have stayed local and just had one team. Its not about the “standard of play” – its about playing the game.

    The old Coreen league in southern NSW could have stayed alive with a team from each club – instead clubs were dispersed to the Hume League (now 17 clubs) and the Picola league – two divisions with 18 clubs!

  4. Pamela Sherpa says

    Wonderful Bob. Footy as it should be – nice and simple and a good day out.

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