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Redfern thrives on the opportunity and challenge

Most weekends, you'll find Neil Redfern pacing up and down the sidelines of the local Northern Districts fixtures with a camera in hand, hastily snapping all the action.

But photographing up a storm is one of the last tasks on the chairman's weekly list of duties as he wraps up the week of service, usually totalling around 40 hours- plus helping out his local area.

His immense contribution to the Northern Districts Rugby League has earned the 70-year-old this year's Queensland Rugby League Shell V-Power Volunteer of the Year title, honouring his lifelong dedication to the greatest game of all.

Redfern's rugby league journey began in the late 1980s, expecting to just help out his son's team... little did he know at the time he'd still be involved 34 years later.

"I started as an under 7s team manager back in Group 7 New South Wales in 1987," Redfern said.

"I initially thought that was as far as my skillset could deliver but the local club wanted me to become the secretary the next year and at the time I said… 'well, I don’t really know too much about it but I’m willing to sit and learn'.

"They also suggested I serve on the district league committee… a pretty easy job with only one or two meetings a year and 20 years later, I ended up retiring as the chairman of the league down there.

"I was chairman from about 2000 till about 2012. I was also on the management committee since 1990. I also served on the NSW Country Rugby League board during that time.

"My wife and I then came to Queensland. We were going to go on a four-wheel-drive trip around Australia and got to Bundaberg and that was as far as that went and ended up settling here.

"I took up a job and then started to head out to games on the weekend because I was missing the action. I took the cameras out there and 12 months later, I’m onboard the Northern Districts committee and then from 2015 onwards, I’ve been chairman of the league there too."

The Northern Districts Rugby League committee.
The Northern Districts Rugby League committee.

Not exactly sure of how many hours he spends each week in his role as chairman, Redfern's typical week at the helm begins bright and early on Monday morning, wrapping up the weekend of action.

"I wouldn’t like to keep a meter on the hours I spend in the role," Redfern joked.

"My week will usually start post the weekend’s games on the Monday morning. We do a feel-good video of all our games, so I edit the videos on the Monday and roll out a three to four minute clip of highlights from the previous games and get them off the local media.

"We’ll then go through the normal formalities of any match reviews and incidents that need to be addressed and get them out in a timely manner; chase up any other details that need to be finished from the previous week.

"Mostly preparation then for everything ready for game day on the weekend, especially given we do our live scoring religiously each week.

"We are a small community competition so there are no big grandstands for people to sit in. They usually pull up with their utes or their fold-out chairs and sit and watch the games and they enjoy themselves. So we also have to deal with challenges like that when we setup each week.

"But in between that, I capture a lot of action shots between the games and if I’m not timely with the action shots, the players are on to me because some of them have the greatest egos and love to see themselves captured each week... probably more if they scored tries."

Asked what inspires the Northern Districts life member to remain heavily involved week-in, week-out, Redfern said it came down to the challenge and the countless opportunities the sport had given him to make a difference.

"I like to challenge myself... a lot of it has to do with that," Redfern said.

"But from the beginning, I was approached by my son when he wanted to play and when I first came along and saw what junior league was all about, it inspired me right from the get go because I grew up in a little coal mining village in the centre of England where if your sporting skills weren’t good enough to make the first XI soccer team, you were very quickly dismissed out of sight.

"So for a bloke who didn’t have a great deal of skills, I could see there was an open opportunity for kids of all shapes, sizes and ages to get involved and have a bit of fun.

"This just inspired me to make a contribution and over the years, I’ve had a lot of good mentors to give me good advice and I’ve learned a lot over the years.

"I do find it challenging and it’s enormously exhausting but there’s a whole number of reasons why I love being involved and still get out each week."

An action shot captured by Redfern - Avondale v Gin Gin.
An action shot captured by Redfern - Avondale v Gin Gin.

One of his biggest achievements has been changing the culture of his local area, collaborating the associated clubs to unite together and think collectively.

"When I first came on board, like many other leagues, it was very much a tribal scene. It sort of reflected like you were watching a movie about medieval days and they sat around with their spears and were at each other," Redfern said.

"But that’s something that has changed now. They work together as a think tank and see the only way they’re going to get themselves going forward is through their own innovation, so that’s been inspiring to see.

"I also want to always encourage clubs to be a bit more challenging of themselves.

"Whatever event it is, whether it’s just their home game or whether they’ve got a function like a presentation night, they should challenge themselves and always look to make improvements year on year.

"Spice it up along the way... more thinking of things than just boasting how they can win next week’s game.

"It’s just as important at how we look at their club in a professional outlook than just winning a game of football."

As a proud advocate of encouraging the younger generation to become involved in volunteering, Redfern feels the key to enticing them long-term is not trying to overload the understudies who may beam full of enthusiasm initially.

"Volunteering has probably become a little bit more daunting for younger people because their lives have become a lot more time poor than years ago when people my age got involved in sport," Redfern said.

"It’s a case of taking them onboard and learning at a pace you’re comfortable with.

"It’s not everyone’s cup of tea to be in the executive roles, but the one thing that’s quite obvious is there’s a lot of young people out there with a different set of skills than we had years ago and their contribution could be quite valued in different ways.

"Whatever small part that might be, there is somebody that could do a bit of work and be more creative in the social media side or just assisting the club in some form.

"Take them onboard in whatever way they want to make their contribution… don’t try and sign them up to be the next president or secretary straight away because that’s the thing now that a lot feel the fear of taking on roles like that.

"A lot of clubs in regional Queensland have a lot of people that are in the senior age capacity and it’s daunting for a younger person to think they’ve got to challenge in that role.

"Don’t throw them under the bus as soon as they show a little bit of interest because you’ll chase them away quite quickly.

"There’s a job and an opportunity for everybody to contribute in some way and do their bit and I can happily say that every little bit lightens the load."

Redfern with Bundaberg Rugby League executive members at the QRL Administration Conference in 2019.
Redfern with Bundaberg Rugby League executive members at the QRL Administration Conference in 2019.

As this year's Shell V-Power Volunteer of the Year, Redfern receives a $1000 Shell V-Power fuel voucher and Viva Energy consumer executive general manager Megan Foster said they were proud to partner with QRL to acknowledge the hard work volunteers did to fuel rugby league in the state.

“Viva Energy, through the Shell V-Power brand, is proud to fuel QRL’s Volunteer of the Year Award, acknowledging the wonderful contribution these people make to rugby league in Queensland,” Foster said.

“Many of Shell’s core business values are around promoting teamwork, professionalism and pride in what we do, and Neil’s contribution to the sport epitomises these principles.

“The dedication he has shown to both Northern Districts and the greater rugby league community through his countless hours of devotion as local league chairman is exemplary and an inspiration to all of us.

“We want to congratulate Neil on the honour and thank him for his contribution to the local community, while also thanking every volunteer who continues to put their hand up week-in, week-out to fuel rugby league in Queensland.”

Redfern is also Queensland's nomination in the NRL Community Award's Volunteer of the Year category, which will be announced later next month.