The Intrust Super Cup arrived in Richmond, north-west Queensland, last weekend as part of Activate! Queensland Country Week in what was no doubt the biggest rugby league event to happen in years.
However, the outback town with a population of 648 people, was put on the rugby league map a short while ago when years of hard work and dedication from local junior Jacob Lillyman saw him earn his NRL debut with the North Queensland Cowboys in Round 22 of the 2003 season.
Even more people found out about the town when he made his State of Origin debut for the Queensland Maroons during the 2006 series, with his mother Thomasine Lillyman saying both achievements resonated with everyone in the area.
“Jacob worked hard, and he played on that field down there (at Charlie Wehlow Oval) – he was a little Richmond Tiger,” Thomasine Lillyman said.
“For one of his Origin games, they made shirts (for them) with their junior clubs, so he’s proudly got one of those.
“When he played his first NRL game, it was massive … but I think he kicked the ball and he wasn’t allowed to, and apparently the coach was not happy – holy god, did he cop it after!
“When he made his Origin debut, that was pretty fantastic.
“Because (the Cowboys) were all in Townsville, I was down there with him the night he got the phone call – I just used to go down every now and then and make sure all the washing was done and all that sort of stuff and there was plenty of food in the fridge – and he got this phone call and it was just … he was just like in shock, ‘mum!’ and I was ‘what, mate, what?’, so it was great.”
Jacob Lillyman – who is now living in Auckland with his partner and their three children after he hung up the boots on a stellar career that included stints with the Warriors and Newcastle Knights – was known as ‘Bull’ during his playing days and played 14 games for Queensland between 2006 and 2017.
While some thought the powerful forward got his nickname from the way he charged into the opposition, his mum said it came much earlier in life from another sport that remains a huge focus for the Lillyman family, rodeo, where Jacob’s sister Nicola Lillyman is a noted name on the circuit.
“The Bull nickname also came when he was young, it’s a nickname he and his father had together,” Lillyman said.
“He thought he was a bit of a bull rider when he was younger – which they made too much hype out of in all honesty – but because the family were in rodeo and his uncle was Darren Brandenburg, who rode Chainsaw.
“But that’s how he got started, all the kids got started in (rodeo), but then league just took off.
“Family has always been involved in league anyway too.”
In Richmond now, you will find Thomasine running the Federal Palace Hotel which this year hosted Queensland Rugby League staff and match officials for the Country Week game between Souths Logan Magpies and Townsville Blackhawks.
“We bought it back in 2008; Jacob was playing for the Cowboys then, and then he went to New Zealand, so we’re still here and he’s over there," Lillyman said.
“My grandparents owned it back in ’35-45, and it’s just always been a favourite pub.”
For Lillyman, having the Country Week match come to town, as well as having players and staff take part in junior clinics was special event for the area that would be remembered for years to come, especially by the kids who attended.
“They will talk about this forever now, they will,” Lillyman said. “You don’t get a team from Brisbane coming up here every five minutes, it’s something pretty special.
“And just to have the Blackhawks team here and on top of that, you have got two under 17 teams (playing the curtain-raiser) which is good as well.
“It’s great to have something this big here and the kids can sit in their own little comfort zone and play with all these guys and get to see everything as well as get to see a really good game.
“We had three kids there this morning, Lillymans, playing tag, two girls and one boy.
“Jacob grew up just like these kids here, he was no different."
While the impact of the visit cannot be overstated, there is no doubting the difficulties that need to be overcome by players in regional and remote areas who have to put in an extra effort to play the game and any support they receive along the way can make a huge difference.
“(To make it to the NRL) he had some great people behind him, Grant Bell was a special one in Townsville, he was the first one who started coming out with the kids clinics," Lillyman said of Jacob's rise to the top.
“Gosh, Jacob would have been six or seven then, and Grant fostered a lot of them, looked after a lot of these kids who went to Townsville, just for the Townsville League you know, just to have someone there.
“He encouraged them all the way along the line to keep the kids involved, and he kept the kids involved, it was great.
“It’s needed out here because of the isolation and the distance they have to travel to play a little game.
"What the parents go through is unbelievable, just to get these little fellas and girls a game of footy.”