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THEY defy age, broken ribs and dangerous workplaces to wear the Panthers’ blue and gold.

One is even playing against medical advice, warning that the next heavy impact could result in a debilitating injury.

Rugby league players in central Queensland are granite tough.

Yet, on the eve of their first Central Highlands grand final in 14 years, the irony facing these miners and graziers from Middlemount is just how fragile they were.

Only five months ago they considered folding, just as neighbouring club Tieri had done three years ago.

“Once you’re out it’s hard to come back,” said 39-year-old hooker Jason Randell.

Randell, one of the Panthers’ spiritual leaders, “chases cows” for a living and has fought determinedly for the survival of the club he first represented 16 years ago.

He was a member of the 2000 premiership team and is clinging to a jersey in the hope of playing next season with his 16-year-old son.

Randell does more than just hang around. He commands a position in the run-on team, and the respect of his teammates.

He is often first at training and just as often last to leave, albeit after a chilled can of mid-strength beer. And it doesn’t bother him that the closest away game is an hour’s drive to Dysart.

“There’s not as many players now, and the 12-hour shifts (in mining) make it hard to keep a side together,” he said.

“You go from playing under-17s to playing against blokes like me who’ve been around a while.

“All those things combine to make it hard.”

Rugby league is thriving in the QRL’s Central Division which stretches from Warwick in the south to Rockhampton in the north, and west to Roma. Participation numbers across the region grew four per cent to 21,399 last year and the women’s competition is strong.

Players have been more scarce in the eight-team Central Highlands competition which has been hit hard by the downturn in the coal industry. 

Miners who would once live in town and represent the Panthers now work seven on-seven off shifts and disappear on their breaks.

And, such is the physical nature of their work, a footy injury can gravely impact their income.

“People don’t want to risk getting hurt or missing work,” said halfback Joel Duffy, a 36-year-old deputy from nearby Grasstree Mine in his comeback season after a short-lived retirement.

Senior participation numbers dipped this year, although that reins in a 28 per cent explosion in 2015.

Brisbane Broncos chief executive Paul White understands more deeply than most the plight of bush footy after playing throughout central and northwest Queensland during his term in the police service.

He played alongside current Panthers Randell, Duffy and Steve Henderson in their 2000 premiership side.

If younger players stepped out of line, as they often would at boozy, bonfire parties held on properties at the edge of town, White would scribble a mental note and drive them like mules at training.

And they loved him for it because his tough love generated respectful young men, a strong club and a community that cherished its Panthers.

“The coal industry was doing well then, there was no fly in, fly out, and the club was pretty strong for a decade,” White recalled.

“Sport, rugby league in particular, was what held the community together.

“We had good crowds and it kept young men occupied. Without those opportunities, a community loses some of its health.”

The Panthers Bar is the town’s social hub every other Saturday night, and beer and rum flow freely to those packed two-deep, ordering their drinks from passionate and selfless volunteers.

But the senior club was a breath away from collapse in April when, on the eve of the Nathan “Shorty” Moffatt Memorial Game against Mackay Norths, they could attract no more than 10 men to training.

They were also coach-less, and withdrawing from the league was a real option.

A rallying cry meant players thought lost to the club were drawn back to Norm Blanche Oval and energised by the memory of one of Middlemount’s favourite sons who was killed in a car accident in 2014.

Former juniors mentor Scott Lonergan then stepped up as coach to assist the senior players who were running the side.

“Shorty’s game tugged at a few heartstrings,” utility Will Davidson said.

Having survived one of its toughest hours, Middlemount faces home side Emerald Tigers in Saturday night’s season climax at McIndoe Park, named after one of the town’s favourite sons, former Queensland State of Origin winger Alan.

Steered by 2009 CHRL best and fairest winner Mitch Wyatte, who is lining up for his third straight grand final after joining Middlemount from Bluff, the Panthers had to win six of their last seven games to reach the decider.