Courtesy of the Courier Mail
Story: Grantlee Kieza
Photo: Peter Wallis - click here for more Bamaga photos
THE players arrived on two of Johnathan Thurston’s turbo-props from the cloud-shrouded green hills of Cairns, but most of the fans came to Bamaga’s big day of rugby league in dusty four-wheel drives and in dilapidated dinghies they left bobbing off the jetty.
Hundreds of them hit town for the big footy clash at the indigenous community on the tip of Cape York, having driven for hours past the giant red ant hills and wild horses dotting the road from Weipa, while others braved the waters of the Torres Strait because they didn’t have the money for the ferry.
Two Queensland Rugby League sides, Norths Devils, from Brisbane, and the Northern Pride, from Cairns, moved their Intrust Super Cup match to Bamaga yesterday to transfuse the big match atmosphere of city rugby league into an isolated community with footy in its blood.
Sunday Northern Pride was not so much a team in the far north as a state of mind in a remote indigenous community.
The QRL teams played their Round 24 fixture as part of a huge rugby league carnival at Yusia Ginau Oval, an ancient battlefield 960km north west of Cairns.
In the curtain-raiser, one of the local sides, the Northern Brumbies, had to wear the jerseys of their women’s team because there wasn’t enough money to pay for two sets of kit. But they still ran out winners against the Cape Cluster.
Just before kick-off in the main game, the Pride and Devils players walked among the crowd of more than 1000 — Bamaga has a population of only 784 — handing out posters and stickers.
Some of the young fans wore Broncos and Cowboys jerseys, at least one had a superman cape and all had huge smiles on their faces.
Eleven-year-old local Xavier Neliman and his mates sat transfixed by the game but despite the success of players with Torres Strait heritage such as Sam Thaiday, Ben Barba and Wendell Sailor, he said his favourite team was Manly and the best player in the world was Daly Cherry-Evans.
Most of the players from Bamaga and nearby indigenous communities, Badu Island, Thursday Island, Umagico, New Mapoon and Injinoo are already saving up for the Murri Carnival in Redcliffe in October, with each team needing about $30,000 to travel to Brisbane.
That’s a lot of crayfish that need to be caught and raffle tickets that have to be sold.
Richard McLean, Bamaga’s sports and recreation co-ordinator, said Sunday’s game was an enormous boost for local rugby league.
“It’s just so encouraging for the local players to see teams from the big cities come here,” he said.
“We are so remote that a lot of the kids rarely get to see top-grade players and there is not a lot of money to fund the game.
“We have one of the best football ovals north of Cairns but it takes a lot just to maintain it, let alone pay for equipment.
“Any time that the Government cuts funding for indigenous services, sport in these small communities suffers. Sport in Bamaga is so vital for the good of the whole town.”
Also among the crowd yesterday was a member of the Prime Minister’s department ahead of Tony Abbott’s visit to the community this week.
Funding for local rugby league will be one of the topics raised by community leaders, though at least one protester in the crowd raised a sign warning Bamaga to be wary of the Government’s promises.
Yesterday’s game was the first Intrust Super Cup match played in Bamaga in four years but the QRL’s head of football, Neil Wharton, said the region represented “untapped talent”.
“Whenever we can provide an opportunity to demonstrate the game in remote areas we should take it,” Wharton said.
“It was a big logistical exercise to stage this game in Bamaga but we see it as vital to promoting rugby league and encouraging young players to pursue every opportunity they can.
“It’s also an opportunity for our QRL players to see remote areas and realise how lucky they are to have the chance to play in the big cities in a major competition.”
David Maiden, a premiership-winning coach with the Pride and now manager of major competitions for the QRL, said because of the remoteness of Bamaga “there are a lot of quality players from around that area who don’t go anywhere”.
“We are happy to take the game to outlying areas when we can because it is a good economic driver for them,” he said, “and it gives local people a way to connect with teams they might otherwise only see on television.”
Yesterday’s game was supported by Skytrans, an airline in which Cowboys skipper Johnathan Thurston is a shareholder.
The Maroons and Test great said it was important “that our remote communities have the opportunity to experience first-hand the excitement a Queensland derby can provide”.
And the excitement yesterday was infectious. The shrill, female ground announcer was kept busy bellowing “You kids, get off the ground — yes you, and you over there, get off. Yes you. Now!!. Unless you’re a player, or an official or a ‘coacher’ stay off the playing area. Yes YOU!!!. Behind the fence!”.
All day she fought a losing battle as her voice got more croaky. Twice the game had to be paused when a dog ran out to join in the gang tackles.
The Pride eventually ran down the Devils 26-10 and all day the stalls did a great trade in fish burgers, steak burgers, rum balls and sago puddings.
After a full day of footy the fans eventually climbed back into their four-wheel drives and their dinghies, and the players climbed back on board Thurston’s aeroplanes and headed for Cairns and Brisbane.
As the sun set across the hot and humid top end, nothing could erase the smiles from the young kids in a faraway corner of Australia who had just watched the biggest game of their lives.