Sunset Tigers Junior Rugby League Football Club was founded in Mount Isa 2012 by two teachers from Sunset State School, Joey Campbell and myself. The Sunset area is an economically and socially disadvantaged, predominantly indigenous suburb on the Northern fringe of Mount Isa, in Queensland’s Northwest.  Sunset State School has a student population of approximately 300 students, 85% of who identify as being aboriginal.

We noticed that whilst almost all the local boys loved Rugby League, and would play almost anywhere including on the streets, which were often dangerous and strewn with broken bottles, almost none played for a club. For a variety of economic and social reasons the majority of the local indigenous boys were unwilling or unable to sign up with one of the existing junior rugby clubs and Joey Campbell and myself identified an opportunity to not only expose these youngsters to the wonderful benefits of playing Rugby League, but perhaps use footy as a tool to help them with their education and general health and well-being.

Some of the initial aims we had for setting up Sunset Tigers included;

-          Increasing participation in organised sports for the mainly poor and indigenous youths in the Sunset area.

-          Improving connections between Sunset State School and the wider school community. The majority of the indigenous families at the school were reluctant to engage with the school or with teachers. We believed that we could engage them and forge closer links with them through sport.

-          Improve attendance at school by linking participation in the Sunset Tigers sports club to attendance at school

Sunset Tigers has benefited immensely from its close relationship with Sunset State School. Around 95% of current registered players are either currently attending Sunset SS or were former students of Sunset SS who have subsequently moved on the local high school.

Establishment

The idea to start Sunset Tigers was first put forward by NRL GDO Scott Kyle, who like us recognised that there were many disadvantaged children in the Sunset area that loved playing Rugby league, but were not registered players. Scott Kyle recognised that both myself and Joey Campbell were passionate about footy and suggested we enter a team in the MIRL Junior competition. This got the ball rolling and Sunset Tigers was founded in 2012, with just one team of under 11s players and a total player list of just 18.

From the outset Sunset Tigers has always been completely cost free for all participating players. Given the severe disadvantage experienced by the vast majority of families in our surrounding area it was never going to work any other way. We felt that the only way to ensure participation and equity was to offer free registration from the outset. This was achieved through the generous support of Sunset SS, who allocated a portion of their Sports budget and offered to subsidise 100% of the registration costs of all Sunset SS enrolled students.

We were also very lucky to receive some financial support from charitable NGO Centacare, who offered us generous assistance from the beginning with the proviso that participation in our club would be free. We were also very grateful to receive a $2000 seeding grant from the QRL in late 2012. By meeting all registration costs we now have facilitated the involvement of the disadvantaged children in our suburb who would otherwise never have played club footy.

As well as offering free registration, we also supply all gear including shorts, socks and mouthguards free of charge. We supply boots to players on a needs basis; these are signed out at the beginning of each game and then returned.

One of the biggest issues for our disadvantaged children was access to transport. Our young players couldn’t actually get to the football ground here in Mount Isa because parents didn’t own a car or couldn’t drive. We resolved this issue by running the Tiger’s Bus, Sunset SS’s mini-bus. Club President Bryon Burke has driven our bus since the beginning, collecting students in the morning from a central pick up point and then returning them home after the end of games. As we have expanded in numbers we have had to increase the number of bus runs we do to and from the football grounds each week. Providing transport has been vitally important because it has allowed players that had no access to transport the opportunity to play Rugby League.

Challenges

Starting a junior Rugby League club from scratch was a difficult task. Especially for a group of people who had no experience in the administrative side of grass roots Rugby League and had never been office bearers for a junior club or league. We had plenty of experience in the coaching and administration of school sports, but ‘club land’ was very much foreign to us.

We asked lots of questions and were quickly pointed in the right direction. We learned where to go to order apparel, find compliance and affiliation paperwork and organise insurance.

We soon learned that part and parcel with being a junior club is working collaboratively with the other league and other clubs and also working through the local politics which exists in every league. In an attempt to gain acceptance and respect from the other clubs I subsequently volunteered to become President of the MIRL. Not only did I feel I could offer something to the local league but I also wanted to prove to the other clubs that Sunset Tigers was prepared to assist the league in a meaningful way.

 

Growth

Please find the growth in Sunset Tiger’s player numbers below;

 

2012

2014

Number of Rugby League teams

 

1

4

 

Registered junior players

 

18

103

As shown in the table above, Sunset Tigers has experienced significant and sustained growth since first affiliating with the Mount Isa Rugby League in 2012. There has been a dramatic growth in player numbers. Importantly of the 103 registered Rugby League players at Sunset Tigers in 2014, only two players had previously registered for a junior club, which shows that we have brought new juniors to the game and provided the opportunity for many players who would otherwise have never played the game.

We have also become a multi-sport club, this year registering two netball teams and 22 players with the Mount Isa Amateur Netball Association alongside our four Rugby League clubs. Our plan is to expand to 5 Rugby League clubs in 2015, with the addition of an under 15s team.

Positive Outcomes

By working closely alongside our sister organisation Sunset SS, we were able to ensure that our club did more than just provide opportunities for disadvantaged children to play football. We aimed to make a genuine difference in the lives of all the junior players who participated in our program by using it as a tool to help boost school attendance.

We tied the cost free participation with our club to students attending school.  Truancy is a major problem within indigenous communities such as Sunset and we felt that we could use our club and Rugby League as tools to help address this problem. As part of the trade-off for completely free participation with our club, 90% attendance rate is required to play for Sunset Tigers. Every week the Secretary of the club receives a print out of student attendance and students who are close or below the required threshold are spoken to and sent warning letters. We have found all our players want to be involved with the Tigers and most have dramatically improved their attendance. They love Rugby League and greatly look forward to each weekend’s game. The threat of withdrawal from our program has worked almost every time as an incentive to get our players to attend school.

Since 2011 attendance rates at Sunset State School have improved by a staggering 13.2%. We believe a huge part of this improvement is the involvement with so many students with the Sunset Tigers.

 

2011

2013

Improvement

School attendance rate (all students)

78.6%

89%

+13.2%

In the first two years of Sunset tigers’ existence all our volunteers were teachers from Sunset SS. However our long term goal has always been to incorporate parents into these roles. Long term if the club is to be sustainable I believe that it is vital for the volunteer base to be predominantly local and predominantly parent based.  As shown in the table below, the number of accredited volunteers at our club has grown significantly. Most pleasing has been the growth in parent volunteers.

 

2012

2014

Sunset Tigers school staff volunteers (coaches or officials)

2

13

Sunset Tigers parent volunteers (coaches or officials)

0

5

 

Positive outcomes that we have experienced at Sunset Tigers in just three years include;

-          520% growth in player numbers

-          800% growth in accredited volunteer numbers

-          Greatly improved school attendance (all players must maintain a school attendance rate of 90% to play)

-          Improved self-esteem for players and families

-          Improved links between many of our disadvantaged/indigenous families and their school

-          Improved links between many of our disadvantaged/indigenous families and the wider Mount Isa community

We have also noticed greatly improved health incomes for our young players. Sadly, solvent and substance abuse is rife amongst many of the indigenous youths in Mount Isa. We have seen first hand many of our players reduce or stop this destructive behaviour altogether because they now have something positive to look forward to and be part of. They also know that drugs and alcohol will impact their ability to train and their performance during games. Youths who used to walk the streets on Saturday nights are now putting themselves to be early because they know they have footy on Sunday and they don’t want to miss the Tigers bus.

Most importantly, we have given the local community something to be proud of. The name Sunset used to be synonymous with bad news stories in the local newspaper. It used to be synonymous with crime, poverty, street brawls and social dysfunction. Increasingly the name Sunset is now linked with the Tigers footy club. We are giving locals in the area something to be proud of and something to call their own. Win, lose or draw we are seeing families come down to the footy on Sunday morning, often wearing their Tigers supporter shirts or replica jerseys, supporting their children and leaving with smiles on their faces.

Future Outlook

The future outlook for Sunset Tigers is extremely positive. The growth we have experienced over the past three years has been immense and we have plans to increase our teams not only in Rugby League, but across other sports including netball.  Thanks to our relationship with our local school, and increased linkages with the local community, I believe we are in an excellent position to become the largest junior Rugby League club in Mount Isa within the next 3-5 years.