Rugby's Ashes tying two towns together

Stu Walmsley.
by Stu Walmsley

School teacher Geoff McMillan was feeling light of heart when he fashioned an urn to encase the remains of a Narromine pub door but, 33 years later, the fate of this unusual trophy is no laughing matter.

The bush rugby version of ‘The Ashes’ was settled on Saturday as the Narromine Gorillas defeated the Trangie Tigers 16-7 in an absolute slugfest to win the coveted prize for the first time.

The urn, which contains what’s left of an old sliding door which led to the gents in the Narromine Hotel, is a curious byproduct of the creation of rugby in the western NSW cotton and grain town.

In 1984 Trangie offered a $500 grant to a group of its Narromine-based players to help start a rugby club in what was always a traditional league centre, and the door burning ‘ceremony’ occurred at the initial committee meeting.

“They were doing renovations at the pub at the time, the door had been removed, so we burned it,” inaugural president Ian Morgan said, matter-of-factly.

“It was a bit of fun at the time, but it’s come to mean a lot to both clubs.”

Trangie and Narromine shake hands before kick off on Saturday at Cale Oval, Narromine. Photo; RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyThese strong emotions were clearly evident at full time on Saturday at Cale Oval.

Ground announcer and former Gorilla Andy Thorburn declared the return of The Ashes over the mic and then added; ‘I’ve waited 25 bloody years to say that’.

Ex-players rushed the field to briefly hold the precious booty and pose for photographs, before Trangie life member Mal Carpenter officially handed over the urn to Narromine president and captain-coach Craig Campbell.

Trangie life member Mal Carpenter presents Narromine captain-coach Craig Campbell with The Ashes at full time. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyThe Ashes was settled on aggregate over the two regular season meetings between the teams and Trangie had a mountain to climb after losing the round five clash at home, 47-3.

They led Saturday’s return leg early after a try to centre George Keys, but were gradually worn down by the Gorillas, narrowly losing a brutal encounter fitting of the occasion.

Narromine scrumhalf and local agronomist Ryan Pratten, a veteran of the club’s remarkable 2009 premiership in Central West Rugby’s top flight Blowes Cup, expressed his jubilation between bites of a traditional post-match ‘rissole in white bread’.

“That’s the big one, mate. It’s a brilliant feeling, the highlight of the year for me,” he said.

“We did it the hard way but got the result, and it’s going to be a good night.”

Ex Narromine players (left to right) Scott Richardson, James Rae, Anthony Tuck, Don Crosby and Graeme Powell rush to get their hands on The Ashes at full time. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyPratten, in his 13th season with the Gorillas, is also one of few members of the current squad fully aware of the storied history between the two clubs.

 “Look, we’re rivals, but Trangie’s the brother club. Trangie loves Narromine and Narromine loves Trangie,” he said, perhaps a bit tongue (or rissole) in cheek.

Narromine scrum half Ryan Pratten during Saturday’s clash. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyBut these brother clubs had been forced into a lengthy estrangement.

This season is the first in which The Ashes have been contested since 1994, a family reunion a long time coming for towns separated by only 35 kilometres of the Mitchell Highway.

As the first-born, Trangie dominated the initial decade of this sibling rivalry, retaining The Ashes for 10 consecutive seasons between 1984 and 1994. 

Agriculture was booming and, as a result, so was Western Plains rugby.

The Tigers, representing a town of around 1000 people, boasted three grades when they defeated Coonabarabran in 1989 to win the old Western Plains premiership.

The development of irrigation farming was in full flow, tertiary-trained recruits flooded into town to work at the Agricultural Research Centre and Mal Carpenter’s business Agriland was nicknamed Rugbyland, reflecting his recruitment policy.

A young fan at the first leg of The Ashes on May 20 in Trangie. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyBut a title drought followed which would have ruined any farmer.

The Tigers didn’t taste success again until 2016, defeating Molong Magpies 24-7 to win the Central West Rugby Union GrainCorp Northern Division grand final.

Meanwhile, the little brother had grown up, and Narromine was quite successfully plying its trade in the ‘big town comp’.

Up against the likes of traditional NSW Country powerhouses Orange Emus, Bathurst Bulldogs and Dubbo Roos, they were not only competitive, but won that famed premiership in 2009 and took out second grade in 2007.

Trangie fell on hard times and folded between 2001 and 2008, but the death of club president Paul Corcoran in a cropdusting accident near Nyngan led to the re-birth of rugby in the town.

“The spirit of the club was still there, we had maintained a committee, but that tragedy was the stimulation to get our rugby club going again,” Mal Carpenter, who was Corcoran’s father-in-law, said.

“On the day of the funeral (life member) Kevin Flinn went around and mustered everybody and said; ‘we want to get Trangie rugby going, make it a commemorative year next year’. 

“They did that, and we’ve continued on every since."

Travelling Trangie fans at Cale Oval on Saturday. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyInstead of returning to Western Plains, the Tigers saw a sustainable future in the one-grade Central West competition, but it wasn’t until they were reunited there with Narromine in 2017 that The Ashes were dusted off after a 23-season hiatus.

 And when the Gorillas took to Trangie Recreation Oval on May 20, former Tigers premiership captain Jim Wade was waiting.

The man who led Trangie to its first ever grand final win, a 10-4 triumph over Warren in 1973, largely drowned out the enthusiastic crowd of several hundred with his vociferous heckling.

Notorious Trangie supporter and former premiership captain Jim Wade during the first leg. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyIt was generally as unimaginative as it was unrelenting but, one of his demands; that the Gorillas ‘bugger off back to the Blowes Cup’, raised the pressing issue of where Narromine’s future actually lies.

They remain undefeated after stepping down to the one-team competition, but the vagaries of second-division bush rugby have created some problems for new captain-coach Craig Campbell.

A player shortage led to Coonabarabran folding mid-season, and a subsequent forfeit from Coolah meant the Gorillas hadn’t played for three weeks going into Saturday’s showdown.

They still boast the services of ex-NSW Country Cockatoo Luke Brown, former Shute Shield star Lachie McCutcheon and several 2009 premiership players, but none are getting any younger.

Former Shute Shield star and current Gorilla Lachie McCutcheon in action at Trangie on May 20. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyThe best crowds for several seasons turned out to witness both legs of The Ashes and, as he carried the urn off Cale Oval, Campbell admitted being caught between striving to play at a higher level and keeping it in the family.

“Some part of me says ‘yes’ (to leaving the competition); we’ve got a lot of numbers, but plenty of our guys are over 30 and there were a lot of injuries today,” he said.

“If we had to field two teams next week, we couldn’t do it.”

The scene at Cale Oval late in the second leg of The Ashes on Saturday. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyDiscussions over the 2018 structure of Central West Rugby include a proposal for a ‘mid tier’ competition; towns such as Mudgee, Parkes, Cowra and possibly Narromine competing in first and second grade.

“But we wouldn’t play Trangie, for instance. They’re right there, and that’d be disappointing,” Campbell said. “

You wouldn’t get this crowd for a game against Mudgee or Parkes.”

Narromine captain-coach Craig Campbell leads his team off the field after the 47-3 triumph in Trangie.Post-match discussions back at the Narromine Hotel centred mainly around the outcome of the boat race (won narrowly by Trangie), and then shifted to the future of the rivalry.

“Trangie will win it again, it will go around,” said Ian Morgan.

“There was definitely a lot of resentment when Narromine dropped back, and I understand why. It’s a small-town competition, and Narromine is a small town, but it’s 3500 people whereas Trangie is only 1000.

“But it’s created this great atmosphere in the two towns and has been fantastic for the promotion of rugby; playing again for The Ashes.”

The future of The Ashes; brothers Hamish and Tommy Leader after the first leg in Trangie. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyThis was a sentiment shared by several impartial observers; that it’s not particularly relevant who holds the urn, but that it simply continues to exist.

Sure, it’s a lot of fun, but there are also bigger issues at play, something not lost on Morgan who has spent decades in rural communities working as a seed trader and either playing or refereeing local rugby.

“The people who turn up and make the effort to keep these clubs going are actually saving lives,” he said, in reference to the troubling rate of rural suicide in country NSW.

“Sitting on a tractor all week or not being able to plant a crop because it’s so dry is incredibly frustrating; you’ve got a lot of money riding on it and you need something like this is as a release.

Narromine's Andrew Gibson and Trangie's John Ellis after the first leg of The Ashes in Trangie. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart Walmsley“It’s such a great outlet for young people.

"They might train once or twice a week, but at the end of the day they’re mixing with their peers and, while they mightn’t say they feel lousy, just that mixing can relieve a lot of tension.

“It is really really important that the ARU supports rugby at the grass roots level so that we can all contribute to saving lives.

“Because, at the end of the day, that’s what it’s really about.”

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