Grassroots rugby at its most remote
As the crow flies, Cobar is more than 700 kilometres from Sydney, buried away in far north-western New South Wales.
The region’s barren, desert-like landscape is dominated by the enormous Endeavor underground mine, found 47 kilometres to the north of Cobar. It’s the mine’s zinc, lead and silver that support Cobar’s community of 3,800.
On winter weekends, you’ll find most of the town’s folk flocking to one of the few green patches in town – the Ailsa Fitzsimmons Memorial Oval – to support their local heroes, the Cobar Camels.
Making up the numbers
Arguably one of the most unique rugby clubs in Australia, if not the world, the Camels face some fairly unique challenges.
The distances the club regularly needs to travel to play its opponents in the Western Plains zone is an obvious one, but the ‘fly in, fly out’ nature of working in mining towns like Cobar is proving to be as much of a problem for recruiting rugby players
In 2008, the struggle to find players was so great that the Camels could barely field a team. At the same time, former Fijian international rugby player, Netava Tagi, was finishing up with Randwick. It was then that fate thankfully intervened.
“There was an opportunity to play for the Camels and they provided me with work,” says Tagi, who took a call from the club before taking up the role of player-coach.
“I asked what sort of work and they said, ‘In the mine’. I was over the moon.”
The crisis continued to take care of itself as players from rugby league, AFL and soccer began turning out for the Camels. At one point, the club even recruited a former Canadian Ice hockey player as a prop forward.
“I was looking for an adventurous place to play rugby,” says English import and prop forward, John Hammond. “I saw a photo of the pitch. It was bang in the middle of the desert. So I thought, yeah, that’s for me.”
Building the future
The club’s fortunes further improved when they appointed South African John “The Outlaw” Barnes as its new head coach.
An experienced athlete, “The Outlaw” hails from a strong rugby pedigree and spent the past 30 years playing first grade and provincial rugby – among a few other things.
“I was a trainer for the South African Army’s special forces,” says Barnes, who also doubles as the Camels’ strength and conditioning coach. “At one time, I wrestled professionally under the name ‘Outlaw’.”
With the club winning just one game last season, and only two first grade premierships in its history – 1976 and 1996 – “The Outlaw” is determined to turn the Camels’ record around.
“We are in a building phase, and, with the group of players currently committed to the club, a bright and positive 2017 is on the horizon,” Barnes says.
Speaking of horizons, you’ll be hard pressed finding another sports team that’s as well-versed at driving over them as the Camels.
“Our biggest challenge is the distance we have to travel,” says former club President and Cobar supporter, Jarrod Marsden. “We’ve got 130 kilometres to our closest away game, and about 480 to our furthest away game, so we cover some territory.”
At one point, the club was subsidising the player’s travel expenses, which could cost the club as much as $20,000 a year. That’s when they did what any other club might do in their situation: They bought a team bus.
“She’s a bit of a weapon”, says Marsden, “but we love it”.
It costs more than determination to keep the team moving, however. It takes much-needed money.
That’s why AGL partnered with NSW Rugby from 2016-17. By allowing customers to nominate a rugby club to receive a donation of up to $150 from AGL, more than $45,000 was donated to grassroots clubs – helping to keep those buses running.
As for the Camels, they’ve settled on the age-old method for keeping people entertained on long voyages: singing – loud and out of tune.
“On the way back after the game, I’ve never seen a club that can sing songs for four hours, but the Camels can,” says Netava Tagi.