Hughenden Sevens: The remote bush tournament so popular they're turning away teams

by Stu Walmsley

It used to rain occasionally in Outback Queensland, but pretty much all you can bank on these days is that Barcaldine’s Andrew Pearce will shed his clothing before the end of Hughenden Rugby 7s.

“It’s not a one-off event, now it’s becoming a tradition,” Pearce says, referring to his annual streak which this year featured a theatrical torn hamstring and what could loosely be described as a cartwheel.

As the dust settles at Hughenden Show Grounds after the seventh staging of the 7s, all indications are the tradition of the Barcaldine Boars captain, and quite a few other more popular ones, will continue.
Situated 400km south west of Townsville in rugby league heartland, Hughenden seems an unlikely place for a burgeoning Sevens tournament, but the event now almost doubles the town’s population every July and this year attracted 18 teams from as far away as Brisbane.

“This is the first year we’ve had to turn teams away and obviously you don’t like doing that - the more the merrier - but we’ll have a discussion around that and be bigger and better next year,” president Jack Stewart says, before he and his hard-working committee tackled the Sunday clean up.

From an idea spawned at Prairie Races in 2011, the first Hughenden Rugby 7s was staged in mid 2012, right around the time one of the worst droughts in living memory began.

Since then, the town’s population has dwindled from 1800 to under 1000, major employers like rail company Aurizon have scaled back operations and those involved in the area’s main industry, agriculture, are hanging on for dear life.

Part of Queensland’s famed dinosaur tourist trail, residents of this town are determined it won’t go the way of the Muttaburrasaurus immortalised in the main street. Civic pride is as strong as ever, and Hughenden was crowned the state’s tidiest town in 2017 by environmental movement Keep Queensland Beautiful.

The 7s committee is largely made up of a group of friends who grew up around the region, moved away for study or work, but have now returned to start their own families.

Stewart, a fourth generation farmer who runs sheep and cattle on the 46,000ha Dunluce Station north-west of Hughenden, said the tournament plays a key part in keeping the community alive.

“It’s important for the future of this town - in rural Australia we have an ageing population and after six years of drought there’s not really that much exciting for people to come back to,” he says.

“It is tough, I know a lot of people who just threw their hands in the air and sold up, and the population is dwindling. So to have something like this where young people can come and meet and get together - I’m sure a few relationships were probably formed out of our 7s - you need little things like that to make the community attractive and to bring people back.

“I see my future here, I’ll probably be here forever, and you want to have your mates around you to get through the tough times and enjoy the good ones. The 7s is just a great hub for all those people to connect and grow the community.”

The influence of the event certainly extends beyond the rugby community; there isn’t a spare hotel room in town, the crowd are nourished by several local food vendors, stalls raise funds for community organisations and the new local under 16 girls team (Flinders Heat) are running the lines for all the matches.

"When we come together as a committee, we aren’t just planning a rugby 7s tournament, we always have community involvement in mind,” says former president and committee member Sam Fryer, who sported a few war wounds on the Saturday night after captaining the Prairie Dogs again this year.

“We always tender out the cleaning duties, or the catering, and during the day you would have seen lots of stalls supporting all the different committees and clubs in the area - that way it’s not just us that benefits from the day - everyone else is given the opportunity to get involved.”

This year countless local kids could also be seen playing their own scratch matches in the dust wearing Aussie Sevens jerseys, a new fashion trend for which former Australian captain Ed Jenkins was responsible.

Having spotted the unmistakable Jenkins jaw line during wedding celebrations at a Byron Bay bar, a couple of Hughenden locals took it upon themselves to enlighten the recently-retired star about their own little Outback Sevens tradition.

“I had no idea where Hughenden was, and was blown away to find out that a little community like this actually had a Rugby Sevens tournament,” Jenkins says while watching the action with a steak sandwhich.

“Once I knew about it I jumped on board and was keen to get out here and see what it was all about.”

The 32-year-old ran clinics at both local schools, dished out plenty of green-and-gold kit and even managed to keep his lunch down on a helicopter ride up Porcupine Gorge, much to the disappointment of the pilot.

“Country rugby does give a lot to the game, there’a a couple of the current (Australian Mens Sevens) players who are actually from the bush; Lewis Holland and Sam Myers,” he says.

“It’s important to acknowledge the link between country rugby and the national sides, so we need to do all we can to support events like this in remote areas.”

Jenkins’ mission is to try and get an Australian Sevens representative to the tournament each year and he said hearing some players had spent up to 13 hours behind the wheel to get to Hughenden was a fair eye opener for a bloke who grew up by the beach on Sydney.

By comparison, the Barcaldine boys have it easy. Hughenden’s only a three-hour bus drive north west for the Boars but, this year, it took twice that long when the driver was convinced to stop for a ‘wee break’ at the Muttaburra pub.
The Julia Creek Whipettes took a more professional approach, opting for a quiet night on the Friday after their 250km trip up the Flinders Highway.

“For a lot of the girls they’ve totally stepped outside their comfort zone and have never played rugby union before,” says captain Jodi Keough after the Whipettes made their Hughenden debut.

“Our motivation was just to get a great bunch of girls together from Julia Creek, to enjoy having some fun and fitness and try something different.

“As soon as I heard about it, I was like; ‘yes, let’s play’. I used to play, but that was 15 years ago, two knee reconstructions ago and four babies ago.”

Representing the Whipettes are the town’s ambulance officer, the postwoman, the fashion store owner, the primary school teacher and several women based on cattle stations, including 37-year-old Keough.

“It’s been fantastic to get back out there because I’ve mainly lived on cattle stations in recent years and sport hasn’t been a part of my life, but I’ve really missed it.

“I think the opportunities developing for women in sport today is fantastic and I wish, back in my day, that the opportunities were as grand as they are now. But, hey, we’re starting. I feel like I’m a bit closer to 40, but it’s not too late to get out there and have a good go at rugby and try and match it with the boys.”

Match it with the boys they did, and the sideline support for the women’s final between the local Prairie Panthers and Richmond’s Social Honey Vadgers was noticeably more vociferous than during the men’s decider.

“The introduction of a ladies’ competition (in 2013) has massively changed the event,” Fryer says.

“The first year we had it the ladies final had more crowd, bigger cheers than the men. Even here today you can see the crowd all line up on the sideline and love cheering on the ladies.

“It also makes it a family event, you’ve got wives and husbands, mothers and fathers all down there playing footy together, kids on the sideline or being the ball kid, you’ve got the whole family involved.”

In keeping with this statement, mother-in-law Margo Macintosh nursed newborn granddaughter Bella on the sideline while Fryer and wife Emily strutted their stuff on the field, and the 28-year-old won’t be winding back his involvement any time soon.

“Coming back into the area it’s one thing I look on, thinking about the future, and hopefully having my children come along and participate in this event 18 years down the track.

“If no one is giving up their time to coach or put together a community event like Hughenden Rugby 7s or touch footy down at the Show Grounds our kids just won’t the opportunity to participate in these sports.”

During the post-tournament function at the Show Grounds, talk of the drought and the region’s troubles were notably absent, and it becomes apparent what happens off the pitch is probably more important than what happens on it.

“Everyone hears the stories of the drought and how it effects everyone mentally and physically. Just being able to come in for a weekend, get away, switch off - you’re away from the property in a social environment with other people - it’s a massive benefit,” Fryer says.

In a gesture which tells you everything you need to know about the spirit of this event, winners Longreach Razorbacks donated most of their prizemoney to the Flinders Heat under 16 girls, who travel three hours each way to play in the Townsville junior competition every weekend.

There’s no getting around the challenge of distance out here but Prairie Panthers captain Hannah Brown, who travelled 700km from a station near Cloncurry to get to Hughenden, said she didn’t think twice about whether to make the trip.

“It’s mostly about getting together and having a really good time, which we manage to do, whether we win or lose,” she says.

“It gives all the bush kids that don’t get the opportunity to come and play sport any more, because we live too far out of town, the chance to get together for a weekend. It’s really uplifted the community a lot.”

The Sevens model is a perfect fit for towns like Hughenden where running a traditional 15-a-side competition just isn’t practical.

“Week in-week out rugby just isn’t sustainable out here,” Fryer says. “I can’t afford to go away playing rugby every weekend - I’d love to - but unfortunately due to work and the time commitment you can’t afford to.”

Barcaldine’s Pearce was one of the first to emerge as players crawled from their swags and campsites around the Show Grounds on Sunday morning, and there was a good reason he was hastily rousing the Boars for the return journey.

"The only Hughenden 7s trip I’ve missed was when my daughter was born four years ago in Rocky, so I come up here every year and I’ve got to make it back by Sunday afternoon for the birthday party, or I get shot,” he says.

Looking at the state of the Pearce’s troops, another stop at Muttaburra might have been a hard sell anyway.