Local Footy: Australian footy looking very healthy on NSW north coast

Australian football is now firmly established on the north coast of NSW. The game, which had humble beginnings but grand ambitions when it was started just over 30 years ago, continues to make headway and has now cemented its place on the sporting landscape.

The game is widely played at all levels and is reported on by all the media outlets – not just at AFL level, but the various local competitions as well. The VFL direct telecasts that commenced in the region in the early 1980s have been extended – there are at least two live games each weekend on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. However, like it happens for footy fans in Sydney and Brisbane, the Friday night match is usually not shown until after 11pm.

I had a chance to see for myself during a recent return to one of my old haunts, Coffs Harbour, for a vacation when I saw a local match and witnessed the progress the game has made all up and down the coast. For someone involved in the start-up of the game in the area it was most gratifying.

To catch up on developments and a few old team-mates I ventured down to the Coffs Hotel on the Friday night for the Coffs Swans meat tray raffle. When I played in the early 1980s the team was called South Coffs – our major rivals were the North Coffs Kangaroos. But an administration upheaval saw Souths out for a season in 1993 and reborn as the Coffs Swans the following year.

All the club stalwarts were there, led by president Steve Shelly (a star rover in the premiership sides of the ’80s, and the last one, in 1999) and Jack Williams (an old school-mate from Kyabram who came to Coffs on a holiday in 1984 and never went back). A few old rivals swung by to have a bet and a drink and a chat about the past. I gladly indulged.

Jim Woodlock, who has just stepped down after serving as president of the local league for over fifteen years (but stayed on as vice-president), also popped in to say hello and catch up over a drink. He is rapt in the progress that the game has made during his tenure, particularly at the junior level.

He told me that Woolgoolga — better known as Woopi — are expected to reform next year; the Woopi Blues played in every grand final from the inception of the league in 1982 until 1993.

He also told that there is a good chance that the Bellingen Bulldogs junior club will develop into a senior club. Despite the district being a rugby league stronghold, the area’s changing demographics — it was settled by hippies in the ’70s and ’80s and sea-changers in recent times — have broadened Bellingen’s sporting preferences.

There are now two competitions on the north coast: the North Coast AFL, which encompasses six clubs from Grafton to Port Macquarie, and the Summerland League, which takes in six clubs from the far north coast, from Tweed Heads to Ballina. Sadly, the Mid North Coast AFL, which was based around Taree, went into recess in 1993 after a promising beginning in 1985. (Sadly, with the league’s demise, so too did the Rod Gillett Medal for the league best-and-fairest become lost to football.)

However, it’s at the junior level that the game is making great strides. While the mid north coast no longer has a senior competition, it has a burgeoning junior league that has four clubs: Port Macquarie, Wauchope, Camden Haven, and the Macleay Valley Eagles based at Gladstone, just out of Kempsey.

This is a significant gain for the code as the Gladstone Oval was previously the home of the now defunct Group 2 rugby league powerhouse, the Smithtown Tigers. Smithtown is situated just over the side of the Macleay River from Gladstone.

The same sort of progress is being made at the junior level at the Coffs Harbour centred North Coast Junior AFL. In addition to the six senior clubs fielding teams in the Under-12s, 14s and 16s, there are teams from the Northern Beaches and Bellingen.

It’s the same scenario further up the coast where the Summerland clubs all have vibrant junior clubs and there are junior clubs at Alstonville, Brunswick Heads and Maclean in 10s, 12s, and 14s. A combined team known as the Storm, based at Bangalow, fields an under-16 team in the Gold Coast Junior AFL. All clubs run the Auskick program.

Jim Woodlock tells me that there has been a 17% growth in numbers playing in junior and youth footy on the north coast this year, mainly in the 10-16 year age brackets.

However, it’s not just at the participation level that the game is going ahead. Three boys from the region made the State under-14 squad, while Hamish Pearce from Coffs Swans played reserves for the Sydney Swans and Nambucca’s Scott Beattie is playing in Geelong’s VFL team.

The case of Hamish Pearce illustrates how footy has become part of the sporting landscape in this part of the world. He is a third-generation player for Coffs Swans; his grandfather, Hal, was one of the original players for the Coffs Harbour club, and a founder of South Coffs, where his father played juniors and seniors and now coaches the under-17 team.

The Coffs Harbour International Stadium is regularly used for representative trials for State teams and this season hosted the Combined High School state championships. Previously, these titles were only ever played in Sydney, the Riverina and Broken Hill.

On the Saturday I went fifty kilometers down the Pacific Highway to Macksville to see my old club play the Nambucca Valley Lions at the Alan Gillett (no relation) sporting complex, which has a rugby league field one side of the change rooms and an oval for footy and cricket the other side.

Australian Test opener Phil Hughes played on both sides – junior cricket on the oval and junior league for the Macksville Sea Eagles on the other side.

I ran into another old Coffs team-mate Greg Boat, who is now the president of the Nambucca Valley club that takes in players from Macksville, Nambucca Heads, and surrounding district. The Lions are struggling in the seniors and reserves, but their under-17 team are set to play finals.

I am surprised but delighted to see an outside broadcast unit from local community radio station 2NVR-FM at the ground to broadcast the game. Yet another example of how footy has become part of the sporting scene on the north coast.

“Souths”, as I continue to call them, win easily but the Lions put up strong resistance before the Swans ran away in the final quarter to record a 50-point victory.

The final scores were Coffs Swans 18.8 (116) d Nambucca Valley 10.6 (66).


  1. George Callum says


    You’ll be disappointed to know that your precious Coffs Swans got beaten in the Under 18 grand final by Nambucca, thrashed actually.
    Sawtell again won the seniors, while Port Macq won the 2nds.
    But you’ll be pleased to know that 2 of your old team-mates were made life members, Stevie Shelley was made a LM of the League and Jacko Williams was honored by the Swans. Both good blokes and both deserved to be made life members.
    Good story, but just like you’re footy reporting when you were hhere, you’re biased towards the Swans. Nah, you do a good job fella.


Leave a Comment