Almanac Rugby League – Tigers, Tigers, burning bright

During the footy season, Thursday on The Almanac is as close as we get to rugby league day. We’re featuring a series of stories which were the product of an attempt to produce a collection of rugby league yarns along the lines of the very successful Malarkey Publications, Australian football-focussed book, Footy Town. Today’s offering comes from Ian Hauser, a co-ordinating editor here at the Almanac and life-long rugby league fan. His story follows on from last week’s offering about the NSW Country Rugby League’s Group 9 competition based in the Riverina.

 

We all know that sport is a special glue that binds country towns together. Local sport provides the meeting place, the opportunity for involvement, the focus for identity, the expression of community and even, for some, the reason for living. To see all of this at its very best, you only had to be in Gundagai on the last day of the footy season in 2015.

 

Although a goodly range of sports are played in this small centre of about 2500, Gundagai is essentially a one sport town where rugby league dominates the scene. Local Norma Peterson says that “Gundagai lives, breathes and sleeps rugby league”. She should know, she’s been here for over seventy years.

 

The Gundagai Tigers play in the NSW Country Rugby League’s Group 9 competition. They boast First Grade premierships in 1946, 1963 and 1983 and quite a few successes in lower grades as well. But since 1983 they’ve made the Big One nine times and come away empty handed on each occasion. Ask any local and they’ll give you the fine details of how they lost some of them fair and square but were robbed on more than one occasion in those attempts. The hurt is deep in their souls.

 

I’ve followed this comp in recent years since my son has lived in the local area. There was a chance he might move back north to Queensland earlier in the year (2015) but, as early as May, he said that he wanted to stay on until at least September because he felt that something special was happening with the Tigers this season.

 

And so it came to pass that, come Grand Final day, the Tigers were represented in three of the five grades available. There might even have been a fourth team there but for some administration dramas in the Under 16s. The ladies’ League Tag team, the Tigerettes, were to meet Wagga Brothers who were on a 74-game winning streak with four successive premierships to their name; the Reserves in the Burmeister Shield were looking for their second successive title against Albury Thunder; the Firsts were opposed to the Junee Diesels, themselves looking to break a 29-year premiership drought.

 

Sunday September 13 dawned clear and crisp with the promise of brilliant sunshine, a lush field at McDonald’s Park, Wagga Wagga, and the prospect of five great games of rugby league on a warm Spring day. Tiger fans drove the eighty-something kilometres in their hundreds and hundreds past highway signs calling for Gundagai success and derailment of the Diesels. Roadside guideposts were festooned with black and gold ribbons.

 

Without meaning any disrespect to the Tiger-less Under 16 and Under 18 grades, it was always going to be a day all about the final three matches. Ladies’ League Tag has a very healthy following in Group 9, and deservedly so. Played over two twenty minute halves, it’s non-stop action as the wrestle and slowing down of the ruck is removed from the game. Instead, it’s rapid play-the-ball with speedy running and quick passing demanding high levels of fitness just to keep up.

 

At the start of the League Tag season, the Tigerettes set themselves the goal of beating Brothers at least once this year but lost the only clash during the regular season. In the semi-finals, only the match’s single try to Brothers separated them. Early on in today’s decider, Brothers were slick and slippery and deservedly took a lead of 8-0 into half-time. The Tigerettes were game and honest but didn’t appear to have the structure and skills to match their opponents. Coach Paul Dean and Manager Kylie Tout told their girls that, as the challengers, they had nothing to lose and needed to show energy and confidence to take the game up to Brothers in the second half by spreading the ball wider and running hard.

 

They did just that and caused some uncertainty to develop in the Brothers defence where a few chinks began to show. A converted try got Gundagai back to 8-6 before a penalty goal had it all square with six minutes on the clock. Another last minute penalty gave the Tigerettes a final shot at goal and a win for the ages but it was unsuccessful. The resultant draw meant golden point extra time. High drama indeed! Was this the moment of destiny for the Tigerettes or was it simply the latest challenge that would be put to bed by Brothers?

 

And then it happened. Two minutes into extra time, a spread to the left side by Gundagai saw a well-timed pass from Chelsea Tout put Linley Jones through a small gap allowing her to street the defence and score the most famous try in local League Tag in the past five years. Pandemonium for the Tigerettes, devastation for Brothers! Even to an outsider, it was a special moment to witness and to feel the utter exultation of the underdogs and their supporters.

 

One down, two to go.

 

In Reserve Grade, Gundagai and Albury have waged a strong, mutually respectful battle for supremacy in recent seasons. They met in last year’s Grand Final when the Tigers got up late by just six points. In three meetings to date this year, Albury held a two-one advantage including a golden point win in the Qualifying Semi-final. It might be Reserve Grade but all indications suggested this tussle would be huge. To say that the opening sets were very willing is an understatement. It was hard but fair play for the opening quarter of the match before a charge by Fijian Pita Pio gave the Tigers the lead. The Thunder replied ten minutes later after a long, probing run by fullback Curtly Jenkinson. The scores stayed locked at 6-6 until half-time.

 

The second half was all the Tigers with five unanswered tries. After a surging try to backrower Jake Smart, the Tigers simply wore down the Albury pack before spreading the ball wide where clever Rhys Smart, big-striding Dylan Cole, slick winger Brent Elliott and, on the bell, benchman Joe Naulawavu all crossed for tries. The final scoreline read 32-6. It was a great reward for Captain/Coach Mark Eccleston, a reluctant coach at season’s start, a humble and self-effacing man who was all class in his gracious acknowledgement of the worthy but vanquished opposition. Eccleston then dedicated his team’s win to Matthew Cole, a team member tragically killed in an accident early in the season.

 

Two down and one to go, the BIG ONE!

 

To outsiders, all the signs based on the season’s results showed that there could only be one winner, the Tigers. Gundagai had beaten Junee on all three occasions so far this year including a real hiding in the major semi-final. But Grand Finals are funny things and an oblong ball can have a life of its own. Nine Grand Final losses over thirty-odd years can also do strange things to the mind. Throw in a few conspiracy theories regarding some of those losses and you have the makings of a very nervous football club.

 

Gundagai got the best start possible with a try after 90 seconds following a Junee fumble. This was followed up with a near miss three minutes later. In fact, the Tigers dominated the opening fifteen minutes and all looked well in the world. Then a long break against the run of play by Junee’s fullback, Daniel Foley, led to a Junee try which, when converted, saw the underdogs take the lead. Energised by this success, the Diesels were in again a few minutes later from a simple scrumbase move. All of a sudden, the favourites were eight points down. The predominantly Tigers crowd was very quiet indeed! A dour struggle ensued before Gundagai got one back a few minutes before half-time to go into the sheds trailing by two points.

 

The Tigers regained the lead after 10 minutes of the second half when Captain/Coach Cameron Woo scored after great lead-up work by tough hooker James Luff. The Tiger rake copped a real belting and had to leave the field for treatment to a busted mouth but showed plenty of courage to return to the field later on. Scores were all tied up again several minutes later when Junee, after a succession of penalties, crossed wide out on the left but missed the conversion. 16-16 with twenty minutes to go. A Tigers try was disallowed for a forward pass on the touch judge’s call. “Not another conspiracy?” the paranoid asked. Both sides attempted field goals but were unsuccessful.

 

Then, with six minutes on the clock, a fumble by Junee gave the Tigers possession from a scrum just twenty metres out. A great step by Fijian winger Maika Sivo left the defence stranded. His triumphant swan dive and the subsequent conversion gave the Tigers a 22-16 lead. Solid Gundagai defence limited field position for Junee. With just one minute to go, Junee won a scrum deep in their own territory and, with eighty metres to go, attempted a desperate spread wide to the left where a fumble allowed Gundagai’s Phil Latu to scoop up the ball and run in unopposed. Final score 28-16. (1)

 

It’s hard to know if the predominant feeling was elation at the win or just sheer relief that the losing streak in Grand Finals was over at last. Whatever, Tiger fans engulfed their heroes on the field to celebrate the end of a curse. Talking with several long-time supporters immediately after the game, I got the feeling that happiness and relief were intertwined with immense pride and a sense of justification for their unfailing faith in their beloved Tigers.

 

Three premierships out of three finals contested! Everyone hoped for it but no-one, no-one expected this. Truly a moment to savour. Sunday 13th September 2015, the Tigers’ day, a day that, in all probability, will never be matched in the club’s history.

 

And so it was back to the Services Club in Gundagai to celebrate. Not surprisingly, it was a packed, boisterous house. When the three teams arrived back in town, the bar was closed temporarily and patrons went to the front entrance to welcome “their girls and boys”. As they and their support teams walked down the main street to the club, a burst of fireworks orchestrated by club Secretary Marty Hay greeted them along with the cheers and adulation of the crowd.

 

Formalities were enthusiastic and humorous yet measured. There was no arrogance or puffed up pride. Instead, this was about a club working together, from the President down, to be the best they could be for their community. And therein lies the other part of the tale.

 

Several consistent themes kept recurring as I spoke to club members and supporters at the post-match celebrations. An acknowledgement of its history is ingrained in the club’s culture. Special guests for the weekend included the last surviving member of the 1946 premiership team, George Ballard, and the two captain/coaches of Gundagai’s premiership teams from 1963 and 1983, John “Bronc” Jones and Royce George respectively. These men are revered figures, genuine legends, not just in the club but also in the whole community.

 

At tonight’s celebrations, these three icons were the first to be brought forward and presented to the crowd and then, as each winning team came forward to be introduced, the players’ first act was to file past, greet and shake hands with these legends. The past and the present came together, the historical chain continues unbroken. Today will go down in Tiger history as the greatest of all for the Gundagai District Rugby League Football Club. 2015 Captain/Coach Cameron Woo has joined the legends and, at the ripe old age of 25, has decades ahead of him in which he can be an inspiration to the youngsters of the community!

 

Respect plays a key role here, too. An influential figure over many years was local newspaper editor Patrick “Scoop” Sullivan. Stories abound of his work and exploits in ensuring that the Tigers survived challenges of all sorts both on and off the field. Now elderly and too ill to attend today’s matches or tonight’s celebrations, his standing in the club was not forgotten. On their return to Gundagai and before proceeding to the Services Club to join the celebrations, representatives from each of the three victorious teams went to ‘Scoop’s’ home to show and share with him their trophies. It’s what you do to honour those who matter. (2)

 

There’s widespread acclaim for club President David Tout and his understated but firm leadership style. He has been able to build on the hard work of recent leaders such as Jamie Turnbull, Mick Wheeler and Steve Rose as they steered the club through good times and bad.  One long-time member told me about the mutual respect that exists between coaches and players. I saw clear evidence of this in the way that Paul Dean (League Tag), Mark Eccleston (Reserves) and Cameron Woo (A Grade) led and addressed their teams, and in the way their players responded to them both on and off the field.

 

Family means a lot in Gundagai. Look at the club’s history and the names keep repeating down the generations. Among current players, the names O’Hehir, Luff and Eccleston are just the latest representatives of their families to play for the Tigers. Look across the grades, including Leaguetag, and you see multiple mentions of Rose, Smart and Tout. There’s even the pairing of Chris Rose (A Grade) and his wife, Lindsay, captain of the Tigerettes! I spoke with Diedrie Bower, a lifelong local, Tiger supporter and proud mother of two of today’s winning Leaguetag girls. She showed me the pendant she specially wore today which features a photo of her father, the late Edward Tout, a member of the 1963 premiership team. Throw in sundry cousins, uncles, nieces and in-laws in a relatively small community and you end up with a fairly tightly knit group with a common commitment. These are Tiger families, families of the Gundagai community.

 

There is a sense of continuity in the club at both administration and player levels which helps to foster club culture. Take a bloke like Steve Rose, one of the town’s genuine characters and father of three players in the senior teams today. A past President of the club, Steve has been a committee man for about 20 years and unashamedly wears his big Tigers heart on his sleeve. Such is his commitment and willingness to help out in whatever way possible that this year he’s not too proud to run the drink bottles and relay messages for the two men’s senior teams.

 

Similarly, some of the players have been in Tigers teams since they were kids back in the juniors. Several of them have shared the heartbreak of multiple Grand Final losses over recent times at senior level. They’re still here and today’s results mean that most of them will be back next year, a few of them postponing ideas they had of retiring after this season. Supporters, too, return “home”, some from huge distances, to support Gundagai come finals time. Today they came from as far as Darwin and Toowoomba as well as from throughout New South Wales to show their ongoing allegiance to and support for their Tigers.

 

Then there’s the Fijian link. A few years ago, locals Kathy and Don Tuckwell had a holiday in Fiji where they saw the local kids playing footy, albeit rugby union. Noting the lack of equipment and facilities, the Tuckwells returned home with hopes of doing something to help provide gear and foster a local competition in Fiji. One thing led to another and soon negotiations were underway to bring some of the young Fijian men to Gundagai to play with the Tigers and gain some work experience to enable them to return home to teach others. There were many complications obtaining the correct visas and permits but, in the end, a few young men came.

 

Described as “grateful, humble and hard-working”, this year’s group made a great impression on both the club and the community. Their workplaces, provided by local volunteer employers, have included farms, shearing sheds, building sites, painting locations and even Hungry Jacks. Today, winger Maika Sivo scored the match winning try for First Grade while front rower Pita Pio opened the scoring in the Reserve Grade and bench player Joe Naulawavu scored the final try to complete the Reserves’ victory. Hopefully, they or others from their villages will be back for season 2016.

 

At the end of a long day, it’s hard for even this outside visitor not to be swept up in the excitement, euphoria and emotion of what has been achieved. There are heaps of great stories about individuals who featured today, several of which are captured in the local newspaper, The Gundagai Independent. Scratch any local and you’ll get a great story about someone or something special to do with the Tigers. But, in the end, what you’ll hear most of all is a celebration of a community encapsulated in the success of their footy team who today created history that will be told and retold for as long as locals have breath.

 

Indeed, something very special did happen in 2015 for the Gundagai Tigers.

 

  1. Maika Sivo has gone on to bigger and better things, now an established NRL player with the Parramatta Eels and the competition’s leading try-scorer in 2019.
  2. In a sad footnote, “Scoop” Sullivan passed away later in September 2015.

 

FOOTNOTE: Since that wonderful 2015 season, the Tigers finished runners-up in 2016 and 2017 before taking out the premiership in 2018 under the coaching of James Smart. In 2019, they bowed out in the Preliminary Final.

 

@blenheimboy2

 

To read more stories in our rugby league series, click here.

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

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Comments

  1. Liam Hauser says

    As a former sports reporter at The Gundagai Independent, I was a little disappointed not to be working at the newspaper anymore when the Tigers had their magic day in 2015. But on the plus side, I was able to attend the grand finals as a supporter and then soak it all up at the Services Club afterwards. Had I still been working at the newspaper, I would have had to go straight home after a day at the football, and work at my laptop while missing the festivities.
    With the Gundagai Tigers winning 3 premierships, Queensland achieving a record-breaking victory in State of Origin game 3, and two Queensland teams contesting the NRL decider, 2015 was certainly a year to remember for this Queenslander who also relished being part of the Gundagai fraternity. I was made to feel like I was “part of the furniture”, so to speak!

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