Bill Rowlands is no longer standing on the hill watching Cowra Twilight Tens, but one look at this year's victorious coach Col Jeffs tells you how strong his presence remains.
‘The old colt’, as he was known around town, passed away in 2012 - but his legacy lives on through invitational team Greylands and the longest-running Tens competition in Australia - both of which he was integral in creating.
Named after his cattle farm near Woodstock, a tiny village 35km east of Cowra and 300km west of Sydney, Rowlands formed Greylands in 1978.
The team played against the Cowra Moths (coordinated by Bill’s son Tim) every year at Easts in Woollahra or Eastwood’s TG Millner Field on the eve of the Sydney Test.
The two invitational teams pitted stars of Sydney club rugby, including the Ella brothers and Russell Fairfax, against the best talent from the bush, such as Steve Merrick (Singleton) and Dave Carter (Quirindi), father of current Brumbies and Wallabies lock Sam Carter.
A crowd of more than 5000 attended the final fixture in 1998 the night before Australia’s 19-14 Bledisloe Cup triumph over New Zealand.
Jeffs is the common thread between that Greylands and the current-day squad which successfully defended its Twilight Tens title earlier this month.
A regular fixture in those annual clashes of the amateur era, he’s passionate about the same community aspects of rugby ‘the old colt’ wanted to capture in forming the team 40 years ago.
“Billy was like a father to me, and that’s why I feel so passionate about it,” a misty-eyed Jeffs says after Greylands defeated Queanbeyan Whites 24-10 in the final.
“There’s a foundation stone up there in the club with his name on it, his presence is still all through the clubhouse, and he would have been so stoked with that win.”
In fact, the best player on the day is named the tournament’s ‘colt’, in honour or Rowlands, and was another award won by Greylands.
Long-time Cowra clubman and tournament organiser Ben Casey, clearly relishing his stint on the mic at the end of play, presented the trophy to former Norths utility back Jack O’Connor, who has returned to the family farm near Harden and will play for the Red Devils in 2018.
In keeping with one of the game’s more encouraging modern developments, an award for the best female player is now also required.
Wagga Waratahs speedster Holly Stephens, representing women’s champions Temora Marlins, has the honour of being named the tournament’s ‘filly’ for 2018 - won two seasons ago by current NSW Super W lock Inge Visser during her stint in Cowra.
The sight of colts and fillies mingling after the presentation in the shadows of the Bill Rowlands Stand is one that would have no doubt delighted its namesake, and is a scene born out of a Greylands tour to the Hong Kong Sevens in the early 90s.
A 10-a-side exhibition match was played as a prelude to the main draw in 1991 and caught Bill’s eye.
Along with son Tim and fellow touring party members Ash Webster and John O’Connor, they decided to bring the concept back to the bush, and Cowra hosted Australia’s first Tens tournament in 1992 involving mainly club teams from Canberra and Central West NSW.
According to current coordinator Adam Mieklejohn, it has been running ever since, apart from a couple of interventions from Mother Nature in 2005 (drought) and 2012 (flood).
“These days it’s more about coming for a weekend out in the bush and the community aspect,” Mieklejohn says, referring to the shift from club to invitational teams in recent years.
“There’s guys who will be playing first grade in Sydney and also guys who will be playing third grade in Dubbo - but everyone’s here for the same reason - to have some fun with their mates.”
In its early days, various Sydney clubs regularly made the trip for a pre-season hit out in the Lachlan Valley, but Mieklejohn puts the longevity of the Cowra event down to ex-local players in Sydney and Canberra pegging the weekend as a social sojourn back to their home town.
“That’s really been the secret - we had a few lean years when the likes of Randwick, Manly and Easts stopped coming because the Shute Shield got more popular and they changed the start dates. That really affected us, but now we’ve revamped, so it’s probably 75 per cent invitational sides.
“We throw it open to players who want to get together as mates and they can be top ranked in the cup, middle ranked in the plate, or contend for the bowl. They know they’re not going to turn out on the day and get smashed by 50 points.”
Most of the regulars rolled up again in 2018.
Bill Cummins (son of the local abattoir owner) and Jason Date (son of a Cowra doctor) gathered their Riders of Rohan and regaled spectators with Lord Of The Rings quotes while warming up for each match.
Crowd favourites Woodstock Wallys, in trademark red and white hoops, couldn’t quite recapture their tournament-winning form of 2014 and 2015 but GOATS, organised by Cowra junior Alec Corcoran and made up of mainly Randwick players, overcame terrible early form to take out the Plate final over Woy Woy Lions.
The Central Coast club, whose gargoyle mascot maintained a foreboding presence on the half-way line during their matches, were awarded the John Thornett Medal for entering two men’s and a women’s side and were responsible for booking out most of the Cowra Crest Motel.
With so many local players sprinkled through the invitational sides, Cowra entered only their women’s team in the Tens, but the Eagles’ two Central West representatives Chris Miller and Tom Dewhurst played starring roles for Greylands.
Cowra five-eighth Troy Jeffs missed the final after straining a hamstring in the pool matches, but probably did just as much damage pacing the sideline with father and coach Col during the tense victory over Queanbeyan.
Jeffs senior, a former coach of NSW Country and Prairie Wolf Pack in the Canadian Rugby Championship, has taken the helm of first grade in Cowra this year and the club’s pre-season tournament obviously holds a very special place in his heart.
“When we first started (the Tens) there was something like 30 sides involved; but a lot of club sides were actually getting disappointed about the invitational teams and so they stopped coming,” he says.
“But we feel there’s a bigger need today to have an invitational program like this, and now a lot of these sides are now stepping up and saying; ‘yeah, we want to be a part of a better standard’.
“It’s a more sustainable model and it also creates a bond. To me, it’s making rugby better, and also creating a link for when these guys from the bush do go to Sydney and play subbies or representative rugby - they already know a few people through these invitational sides.”
Cowra’s prolonged presence on the pre-season calendar is a remarkable achievement considering it competes against the likes of cashed-up events like Kiama Sevens.
It may be played on the backdrop of Cowra Machinery Centre instead of the South Pacific Ocean, but the town is always booked out on Tens weekend as the winning teams liquidise their newly acquired assets and the city slickers experience a night out in the bush.
Next year Greylands have the opportunity to shoot for an unprecedented three-peat and, if Jeffs has anything to do with it, the team will be back to further honour Cowra’s ‘old colt’.
“The year he died we didn’t make the finals, so we just really want to make sure we keep doing our best for him now,” he says.