"I'll never forget it": Sydney smoke a reminder of fire danger for Hanigan

Super Rugby
Beth Newman Profile
by Beth Newman

Sydney was covered in smoke on Tuesday but you wouldn’t hear Waratahs forward Ned Hanigan complaining about the air quality.

The Waratahs trained in air 11 times the normal level considered “hazardous” and the remnants of bushfire smoke hung low in the air across the metro area.

For Hanigan, though, it was somewhat of a reminder of the challenges many Australians were facing that far surmounted Sydney’s this week.

“We sit here, people in Sydney, I'm guilty of it as well but we're parked up breathing smoke, it's smoke that's just floated through the air,” he said.

“Can you imagine being 100 metres from it, just covered in soot? I know particularly on Tuesday the air quality was terrible but we're like hundreds of kilometres from it. Imagine the people there, it's on their doorstep."

Hanigan had his own brush with a brutal bushfire four years ago during Christmas with his family, gathering at his uncle’s house in NSW’s central west, when suddenly his family were pulled into action.

“I'll never forget it,” he says.

“My mum and my cousin were walking in the garden and there was about four or five of us just sitting on the veranda and they come running back in just screaming 'Fire" and we were just like 'what' and as they got a bit closer to we knew what they were saying and all hands on deck.

"I don't intentionally look for perspective on things but I think that's probably where having been at the forefront of a fire before, knowing just how bad it can be when you're only 20,30,50 metres from it that's perspective where you think this smoke is actually not all that bad.

"I'm still able to go home and sleep in a bed - we've got people who are just losing their homes and have to go and stay with friends.

"There's a fair bit of perspective to look at when you try to put yourself in the situation of the people that are actually losing stuff.

"I can understand breathing in smoke's no good but people are worse off and they're only just a couple of hundred kilometres down the road."

This year’s bushfires, which have raged up and down the NSW coast and in parts of the ACT and Queensland, haven’t edged too close to Hanigan’s hometown of Coonamble but some of his teammates were on high alert.

Winger Alex Newsome hails from Glen Innes and his family’s house was perilously close to being struck by the blazes before the danger moved further south.

The bushfires have come amid f one of Ausralia's most devastating droughts, something Hanigan knows about as much as anyone, but he said intimate knowledge of the disasters wasn’t a prerequisite to understanding the suffering of people in the country.

“I don't think you need a first hand experience to realise just how catastrophic it is,” he said.

“If you just picture yourself living in your home and then it's just no longer there, it's a hard thing to grasp and I think it makes you feel incredibly empathetic to those people that come to their knees.

“It's a hard thing to swallow. What we can do as people in these situations is just let them know that we're thinking of them.

“There's different ways of doing that you can donate, you can get out and help make firebreaks around different joints, you can do heaps of different things.

“The heroes over the last couple of months, definitely those in the wider metropolitan Sydney area and beyond, like Glen Innes, Port Macquarie and down the south now, those people are the heroes because they keep going full tilt to try and stop the flames.”

Slim Dusty

A post shared by Ned Hanigan (@shedhanigan) on

While Hanigan's trips home become less frequent as preseason ramps up the 24-year-old works to help out regional Australians wherever he can.

“It's taken bit of a back step with preseason but the thing that I'll keep doing is the "get talking" tour and it's something that the Positive Rugby Foundation at the Waratahs have teamed up with Batyr and Macquarie Bank and they go to bush communities that go to rugby programs and talk about mental health and the drought.

“With the NSW Country Eagles in the NRC, we tried to affiliate ourselves with a few charities and things.

“Hopefully as time goes on we can still keep doing stuff - I think to make so that country people that are doing a bit tough...it's good to let them know that we're still thinking of them and it's just small gestures.

One small gesture that might have come at the right time is the Waratahs’ nomadic 2020 draw that includes a match in Tamworth against the Bulls.

Hanigan expects people from all around to flock to the fixture, the first Super Rugby match in the NSW town.

“Tamworth will show up but the people that are around, I'm talking like 400 km away, people will show up,” he said.

“They don’t have the opportunity to to do that much and there will be people coming from Coonamble, which is 300 km away, they’re going to do it, they’ll drive for sure.

“I think it’s just good for the community and good for the message that we’re about representing the entire state.”

The Waratahs open their 2020 season against the Crusaders on Saturday February 1. Click here to buy season memberships.