Bush Beat: The fighting spirit that has kept Braidwood Rugby alive after 130 years

Stu Walmsley.
by Stu Walmsley

It appears to be tradition for most Braidwood Redbacks match reports to begin with "on a cold, windy afternoon at The Recreation Ground."

The irony is, for most of rugby season, The Recreation Ground rarely experiences any other kind of afternoon - but the weather is always a talking point in country towns - and the Braidwood Times clearly knows its readership.

There’s been a newspaper in this Southern Tablelands community, an hour’s drive east of Canberra, since the Braidwood Dispatch and Mining Journal started documenting local events in 1888 - and there’s been rugby played at ‘The Rec Ground’ for almost as long.

In that era, clubs from towns like Braidwood, Queanbeyan, Goulburn, Captains Flat and Majors Creek played on a challenge basis for the Chidgey Cup, which the Goulburn Evening Penny Post referred to as; ‘a very handsome specimen of the silversmith’s art’. 

Challenges and regular ‘friendlies’ continued into the 20th Century until 1906 when the sitting member for Queanbeyan, Colonel Ryrie MLA, donated a trophy for competition among clubs in the electorate. Oddly, teams could only challenge for the Ryrie Cup on Wednesdays between July 25 and the second week in October, and any maintaining a perfect record for three seasons became the permanent holder.

Braidwood had two clubs at the time, and Pirates were successful in winning the Ryrie Cup on what was no doubt a cold, windy Wednesday afternoon in August 8, 1906. Then, in August this year, almost exactly 112 years later - the Braidwood Times was forced to change its opening paragraph.

Night rugby had arrived at The Rec Ground for the first time after the completion of new floodlights, and Ben Howard’s clutch sideline conversion after the siren secured a sensational 31-30 triumph over arch-rival Bateman’s Bay in the last match of the season.

Neither club figured in the finals of the 2018 South Coast Monaro 2nd Division, eventually won by Taralga Tigers in an epic decider against Bungendore Mudchooks, but Braidwood’s late-season flurry is just one sign the club could be about to emerge from a long era of inconsistency.

With a population of 1650, Braidwood is roughly half way between Canberra and the NSW south coast, and most from the nation’s capital know it as their regular pit stop along the Kings Highway. This time of year Wallace Street is lined with SUVs packed with pool noodles and boogie boards, while their occupants wander the town in search of a pie and a pee.

The central business district consists mainly of cafes, specialty shops, country larders and purveyors of antiques and old wares. It’s quaint, but solid. Well-maintained colonial-style architecture is still prevalent, much of it constructed using local granite, and Braidwood was the first entire town to be listed on the NSW Heritage Register.

It feels more like through-rism than tourism, but what was once a summer-only phenomenon is now reasonably consistent year round, and many of the small business owners are themselves tree changers transplanted from Sydney or Canberra.

What’s lacking, from the Redback perspective, is potential players. The land around Braidwood is prime grazing country, but outside agriculture there’s few long-term employment prospects for young people, and you can’t see most teenagers for dust once they complete year 12 at Braidwood Central School.

“That’s the fate of country rugby, you’re pulling on a small resource, a small population and we’re in No Man’s Land here,” says George Sherriff, a cattle farmer who played scrum half in Braidwood’s 1997 premiership and coached the seniors in 2017.

“Blokes are either working down the coast or over in Canberra - and there’s only so many farmer’s sons and publican’s sons you can depend on.”

The town’s proximity to the nation’s capital is both a blessing and a curse. It suffers from the drain of young people and skilled workers, but many Braidwood families balance rural life with employment in Canberra, and the regular influx of visitors is the lifeblood of hospitality and retail businesses.

The very existence of the rugby club has often depended on the support of those businesses and the willingness of former locals to commute from Canberra but, as recently as 2016, the Redbacks weren’t able to muster a side for the South Coast Monaro season.

The family of Australian Men's Sevens skipper Lewis Holland is the perfect case in point.

Holland’s father Mark was a Braidwood player and committee member for more than a decade and, as a direct result of his experience with the Redbacks, sent his four sons to St Edmund's College - a well-known Canberra rugby nursery.

‘Eddies’ holds an unofficial affiliation with Queanbeyan, and all three of Lewis’s siblings play for the Whites. Jake, a former Australian Schoolboy, featured in the 2018 second-grade grand final win over Tuggeranong and Wyll was selected in the Brumbies under 19 squad for last year’s national championships.

Unfortunately for the Redbacks, the only time the Holland boys have pulled on a scarlet and black jersey at The Rec Ground was in October 2012 for a scratch match at Braidwood’s presentation day between the senior team and the club’s old boys; the Daddy Long Legs.

The Hollands certainly aren’t the only Braidwood talent within touching distance - up to a dozen locals play in Canberra’s premier grades, and depth is a problem incoming head coach Anthony Hayes acknowledges just comes with the territory.

“Those guys are playing in the premier competition, so that’s a direct pathway into the Brumbies, so for visibility they feel they need to be playing there,” says Hayes, a native Canberran who shared Australian Schoolboy honours in 1987 with the likes of Tim Horan, Andrew Friend and Darren Junee.

“But I’d love to see those guys come back out here to Braidwood, and I’m sure their parents would too, and play their rugby here in their community.

“It is semi professional in some of those (Canberra) clubs and that does attract a different quality of player, but this is your home. The blood, sweat and tears. Build your local club. Be seen here, and be a voice. I don’t think you necessarily need to be playing in that premier comp to progress.”

Attracting the best talent certainly wasn’t a problem in the playing days of club patron John Maddrell.

The spritely 88-year-old featured in Braidwood’s first premiership in the 1950s, a team coached by grazier Ron Rankin, who won seven caps as full back for the Wallabies in the 1940s and became one of Australia’s most decorated airmen while serving with the RAAF in World War II.

Maddrell’s elder brother Garry, who injured his knee playing first grade rugby league for Manly in 1947, also found himself back on the family property at Braidwood after the war.

League was the code of choice for Braidwood’s footballers in that era but, unhappy with the administration of Group 8, Rankin and Garry Maddrell engineered a defection to the Goulburn District Rugby Union and the team were crowned undefeated premiers in 1953.

They were yet to lose a game mid-way through 1954 when the Goulburn competition folded and, for the first time, Braidwood saw its future in the nation’s capital, still only a town of around 25,000 public servants, academics, politicians and military personnel.

“Back then there was Civic and Turner and Parliament House and that was about the strength of it - such a small place - and now it’s just unbelievable,” says John Maddrell, a hard-tackling open-side flanker in his day.

“We played against mainly the sides from the RAAF base and Duntroon (Royal Military College), but also some of the present-day clubs, like East Canberra.”

But acceptance into the new competition wasn’t a foregone conclusion and the Dispatch and Mining Journal recounts a September 1954 dinner at Braidwood’s Royal Hotel, organised by Garry Maddrell, to foster a ‘co-operative and friendly atmosphere with the governing body in Canberra’.

After countless toasts and other formalities, Braidwood’s ex-president Pat Coffey told the function: ‘I have heard it said in Canberra that Braidwood is not up to Canberra standard. I won’t have that. The team’s fine record confirms this. The team is as good as any in Canberra’.

The delegates from the ACTRU must have enjoyed the country hospitality - Braidwood’s wish was granted - and they were more than competitive in the 1955 Canberra competition.

“Rugby still has a good following here and they get good support from the town but I remember the crowds in our day, they were huge … and barracking - unbelievable," John Maddrell says.

“There were a couple in particular, Albert Backhouse and Jimmy Clarke, they were in just as good a condition as we were because they followed the play up and down the sideline encouraging us and giving the opposition hell.”

A knee cartilage problem forced John Maddrell to retire at the end of that season and, without he and others lobbying for the 15-a-side game, Braidwood rejoined Group 8 rugby league to play against Canberra, Yass, Captains Flat, Crookwell, Goulburn and Queanbeyan.

It was almost 40 years until The Recreation Ground would host another competitive rugby union match, and once again Braidwood looked to the ACTRU, but the goalposts had shifted considerably.

Canberra was now an established city of 300,000, powerhouse clubs like Tuggeranong, Wests and Royals boasted up to five grades, and the region’s growing influence in the game was about to be recognised with the formation of the ACT Brumbies Super Rugby franchise. 

The Redbacks, as they were now known after a September 1993 re-formation meeting, were built around a core of players who had been trekking down the Kings Highway to play for Bateman’s Bay in the Far South Coast competition. 

So strong was the Braidwood influence at the Boars an inter club ‘town of origin’ match was held at the end of every season, and five eighth Michael Toirkens remembers some coastal grunts of disapproval when the Redbacks were established.

“I think there were a few unhappy people down in the Bay when we left to start our own team, because all of a sudden they’d lost this feed from up in the mountains,” says Toirkens.

In the 1994 club newsletter ‘The Redback Rag’ secretary Darren Rowley wrote; ‘Goodbye Clyde Mountain, or so it will seem. The twice a week dash down the mountain’s finally come to an end and now we can play rugby for our own town’.

Braidwood’s first foray in four decades was in the ACT Monaro competition against the likes of Yass, Goulburn, RMC, Hall, the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) and lower grade teams from the Canberra clubs. 

Reports from The Tallaganda Times record the Redbacks opening the season with a tight 8-3 win over Hall and, in August, they secured the minor premiership with a 63-0 thumping of Goulburn Dirty Reds. Toirkens starred with a hat-trick of tries and George Sherriff chimed in with a double, but Braidwood bowed out in the semi finals.

The following year, having transferred to the Canberra Cup, the Redbacks again claimed the minor premiership and triumphed over Royals in a dour grand final. Two Toirkens penalties secured a 6-0 victory, but desperate defence from the bench was required to hold out the Canberrans after Ben Sweeney, Colin Hewitt and Ross Lavis all succumbed to serious leg injuries before half time. Prop Dhugald McDowall reportedly played out most the match with a badly broken nose.

With a more inexperienced squad in 1996 Braidwood opted to return to Far South Coast, but another premiership followed the next season; a satisfying 27-10 triumph over arch rival Bateman’s Bay.

A photograph shows captain Toirkens holding the shield aloft in front of the Redback faithful at The Rec Ground but, as is often the case in one-team towns, such a triumph can be the catalyst for a crisis. Having committed to winning a title, old heads retire, commuting players retreat and non-sporting priorities take precedence, and the Redbacks couldn’t muster a team in 1998.

But, in its absence, the town is often reminded how much it values the club - something summed up by Kathy Toirkens, the team’s photographer and wife of Redback stalwart Michael. 

“I think it’s really about connection, but the connections are not just experienced by those who lace up the boots,” says Toirkens, the 1999 club person of the year and director of Braidwood Preschool. “Connections are also created for partners, children, parents and for ex-players, 'could've been' players and blow-ins to town.

“Post-match analysis is a topic of conversation at the supermarket or the cattle sale. People buy the local paper to see the match report and photos, or they go online (especially Braidwoodians who no longer live in town) to find out; ‘how’d the Redbacks go this week?’.”
 
But sometimes, you’ve got to know when to fold ‘em, and that point came for Michael Toirkens in 1999. Wife Kathy recounts the heartbreaking scene at The Rec Ground after that year’s grand final when, having resurrected the club and taken on the role as captain coach, Michael sat slumped on the sideline in a neck brace with his head in his hands, struggling to deal with a cruel loss to the old friend and foe, Bateman’s Bay.

“I just couldn’t do it any more,” says Michael, who finally hung up the boots. That was, until the Daddy Long Legs were formed in 2011, and the temptation to once again ‘run around slowly’ with old mates was just too great.

Thankfully, others stepped up in his absence and Steve Northcott, chef and co-owner of the ticklishly-named Pheasant Plucker’s Inn, was Braidwood’s rock from 2000. He held the positions of captain, coach and president and the club’s most capped player received a satisfying reward in 2007, skippering the Redbacks to a boilover 9-7 grand final victory over the previously undefeated Broulee Dolphins.

But the sporadic existence of many South Coast clubs since the turn of the Century led to the region’s merger with Monaro and, since that most recent title, rugby’s presence in Braidwood has also been irregular.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t make it unique among towns of its size in country NSW and Queensland, but more positive is the symbiosis Braidwood boasts between union and league. 

Far from the acrimonious relationship the two codes hold at the elite level, the Redbacks and Braidwood Bears have shared players, sponsors and watering holes, and the union club formally congratulated their counterparts on a ‘fine year of rugby league’ in an August 1994 edition of The Tallaganda Times.

Redback veteran Tommy Watson played his first senior football for the Bears in the George Tooke Shield, a second division league competition which covers a similar geographical area to Monaro Rugby, until he was ‘accidentally’ poached by the rah rahs in 2010.

“I busted my knee playing for the Bears in 2008 and had two years off, but I went for a jog around town one night, and stumbled across the Redbacks training,” says Watson.

“They only had six or seven blokes at training… when I got home an hour-and-a-half later I was in trouble; ‘where have you been?’ I said; ‘the boys were a bit short at footy, oh, by the way, I’m playing this weekend’.

“I went and played league again for the Bears in 2016 when the Redbacks folded, but they hadn’t played for five years. Then the same thing happened to them (the Bears), they had a team for one year, and then folded again.”

Watson also recalls a rare period in the town’s history from 2005 when it supported two rugby codes, and a soccer club, in a popular cohabitation at The Rec Ground.

“There were quite a few years there where we had both teams; the league played directly before union, and you’d get a really big crowd, everyone would stay for both games,” he says. “I think it was 2010, the Redbacks played before the Bears, we had just beaten Bombala 5-0 and Stevie Northcott choked on his beer during the players’ player presentation and passed out on the sideline.”

But missed seasons and half-empty team buses are something Anthony Hayes and his assistant coaches Nick Kemp and Brendan Sly are determined to resign to the past. 

“I came down and helped Nick (Kemp) out this year a few times and felt I’d really like to contribute to Braidwood rugby,” says Hayes, who has coached for 15 years in Canberra at Gungahlin, Wests and Uni Norths. “I really liked what I saw, the atmosphere that’s around the club and seeing these young blokes putting in the effort, and I felt I might be able to bring a different perspective.”

Nick Kemp is one half of a combination known around the club as ‘the two Nicks’. Kemp moved to Braidwood in 2016 and with Nick Pengelly, a former teammate at Norths in Canberra, was instrumental in the latest Redback resurrection.

“My mate (Pengelly) and I decided we didn’t want to live in a town without rugby, so we got together with a few local fellas, and got it going again,” says Kemp, who also spent 20 years involved in RAAF rugby.

“It’s the lifeblood of the town, the young fellas just love getting out there together and the morale in the squad is fantastic - they’re on the up and up if we can hold it together next year and hold some of the talent in - they’ll go pretty well.”

Also integral in bringing senior rugby back to Braidwood in 2017 was the explosion in popularity of women’s sevens, and Sherriff came back to coach the club’s ‘Black Widows’ when Brumbies Rugby Development put out a call for teams to play in a Super 7s Series at the end of 2016.

The club quickly rallied to find sponsors, several players commuted from Canberra to participate and Lewis Holland and Australian Women’s Sevens playmaker Charlotte Caslick provided some star power at training and on game day.

“We wouldn’t have had a blokes team on the paddock in 2017 if it hadn’t been for the girls,” says Sherriff. “You had blokes scratching their heads about whether to play, but when they watched the success of our women’s team at the end of the year (2016), I think it definitely had an impact.

“They were just inspirational to watch. They weren’t big, but played with no fear, and it pulled a big crowd in Braidwood when we had our round of the comp.

“Their enthusiasm was infectious and people got really excited about rugby, there was a real buzz around town, it was fantastic.”

Unfortunately the Black Widows weren’t able to muster a team in 2018, but some (like the senior team’s strapper Laura King) still train with the men, and many school-age players introduced to the game in Braidwood are running out for clubs in Canberra after relocating for work or study.

Arming young people with the sporting and social skills rugby provides as they travel through life is one of the main motivating factors keeping Sherriff involved in the game.

“There’s a lot of people doing it tough in the bush, and sport’s got such a large part to play in helping that,” says Sherriff, who is currently studying mental health at TAFE College. “You don’t have to live out back of Bourke on a station for the isolation to be there, but things like sport are really important in bringing the community together to counter that.”

Kemp echoes this sentiment, and says coaching in the bush is as much about social work as it is rugby knowledge, but the growing diversity of the Redbacks is a big step in the right direction.

“We’re definitely trying to make the club more family oriented, and continuing to build women’s and junior rugby is a big part of that, and also recognising the sacrifice everyone is making to play, ” he says.

It’s hoped The Rec Ground’s new floodlights may reduce the necessity for the regular Friday-night pilgrimage many Braidwood parents make to Goulburn for their children to play junior rugby, and there will also now be a winter touch football competition, as well as more night games for the Redbacks.

After a few false starts, it also appears production will resume at the Dargues Gold Mine at Majors Creek, 13km south of Braidwood. The operator, Diversified Minerals, claims up to 120 jobs will be created during construction, dropping to 100 during operation, in a significant economic boost for the area.

The company has pledged to favour local contractors and has already come on board as a sponsor for the Redbacks, part of the club’s concerted effort to get its off-field house in order in the hope of capitalising on the positive results at the end of 2018.

Hayes is one valuable signing committed to the regular commute past the tortured-looking snow gums which line the Kings Highway, a reminder of the chilly conditions awaiting him at The Rec Ground, but the warmth of an experience at the club’s presentation dinner in September seems like it will take some time to fade.

“I asked Nick Pengelly; ‘what do I wear?’ In Canberra, it’s a black tie affair, but in Braidwood it was jeans, my RMs, and a shirt, and we had a wholesome feed - not a little bit of something on your plate - a real country feed,” he says of the meal, which was incidentally prepared by Lewis Holland’s mother Vanessa.

“We had a few beers, some laughs, and a bloody great night.

“The values of rugby were there, and you don’t have to be dressed up in a penguin suit to reflect that.”