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Toowoomba Clydesdales take out the 2021 XXXX 47th Battalion.

For Col Speed, Toowoomba was the place he had to return to.

For Brittney Smith, it’s a weekly destination – the place she will travel hundreds of kilometres and hours upon hours to in a bid to make her dream a reality.

For Cory McGrady and Xavier Manley, it is home.

It is the town in which they were born and bred, the town where they discovered rugby league, the town they will represent once again this weekend when they don their jerseys for the XXXX 47th Battalion.

McGrady and Manley know what it means to play for Toowoomba in the prestigious carnival.

They’ve been there and done that before.

Toowoomba Clydesdales take out the 2021 XXXX 47th Battalion.
Toowoomba Clydesdales take out the 2021 XXXX 47th Battalion.

They know the joy of success, the pain of heartbreak and what it means to be the pride of the Central region.

This year the Toowoomba Clydesdales men’s side – under the tutelage of coach Speed for the first time – will vie for their third straight championship.

They will aim to once again go into the state semi-final and final, but this time they hope to go one better and take out the XXXX League Championship.

Smith is also gunning for a XXXX 47th Battalion victory this year, in her debut for the women’s Clydesdales team.

This is what it means to all of them to represent Toowoomba.

A place you cannot leave

When Speed is asked how he felt when he was handed the reins of the Toowoomba Clydesdales for 2022, you can immediately hear the change in his voice – a tenderness comes to the surface as he starts to talk about his parents, Marion and Alex Speed.

TRL chairman Joe Hannant, sponsor Chris Hillman, player Austin Jennings, and Toowoomba coach Col Speed. Photo: Mitch Sargent
TRL chairman Joe Hannant, sponsor Chris Hillman, player Austin Jennings, and Toowoomba coach Col Speed. Photo: Mitch Sargent

“When I first got the news that my application was accepted, the first two people that I thought of were my late parents,” he said.

“It’s a pinnacle of what I wanted to do with coaching. To be able to coach the best players in the Toowoomba region, with all the support and everything my parents did for me… that’s who I thought of.

“I thought of what they did to help me get here. I thought of all those people out west… this shows if you work hard enough, you can achieve your goals and dreams.

“I’ve gone from a country boy from a town of 200 people to be the Toowoomba coach. I’ll take it with both hands and run with it.”

Speed was born and raised in the small country town of Thargomindah, in the southwest corner of the state.

He played rugby league growing up, often travelling up to four or five hours for a game, before he moved to Toowoomba in his early 20s.

From there, he played league for 10 years and then made the jump into coaching.

Coaching has taken him to numerous places – from Grafton and Coffs Harbour in NSW up to the Mackay Cutters, where he was assistant coach to Anthony Seibold in 2012.

The desire existed to always return to Central Queensland however and after 13 years away, that became reality in 2021 when he signed on as coach of the Newtown Lions in the Toowoomba A grade competition.

He then watched on last year as the Toowoomba Clydesdales claimed the XXXX 47th Battalion title and then went on to beat Mackay in the state semi-final, before losing 46-26 to Brisbane in the XXXX League Championship.

He wasn’t part of the team back then, but as a Toowoomba and Central Queensland man through and through, it’s not a loss he’s forgotten quickly.

The 2022 Toowoomba team. Photo: Mitch Sargent
The 2022 Toowoomba team. Photo: Mitch Sargent

“If you’re within the region and a passionate rugby league fanatic like myself or have played football in this area, it’s going to hurt,” he said.

“You’re going to feel it.

“The boys haven’t forgotten that loss. You can relate it to losing a grand final.

“Being a spectator on that day and watching that game… it’s a driving ambition.”

An obviously passionate and proud man, Speed is now passing down that respect and understanding of what it means to represent Toowoomba – not just in the XXXX 47th Battalion, but beyond as well.

“They’re representing their families and the players that wore the jersey before,” he said.

“It’s a case of being able to showcase the talent in the region.”

A place to realise dreams

The talent of the region comes from far and wide.

For Brittney Smith, it’s a 664-kilometre round trip – four hours from her hometown of Roma to Toowoomba, and four hours back.

Eight hours of driving for a one and a half hour training session with the Toowoomba Clydesdales women’s team.

But for Smith, it’s just part and parcel of chasing her rugby league dreams.

Like the men, the women’s team are seeking consecutive titles.

They last year claimed their maiden XXXX 47th Battalion, playing as the Western Mustangs.

In 2022, they will be known as the Toowoomba Clydesdales for the first time and Smith is along for the ride, ready to press her case for eventual promotions to the BMD Premiership and the NRLW.

Brittney Smith in action. Photo: Andrew O'Brien
Brittney Smith in action. Photo: Andrew O'Brien

While the women’s competition doesn’t yet develop into a state championship like the men’s, Smith knows there is a massive opportunity in front of her.

“I have this big dream of playing in the South East or even in the NRLW,” she said.

“I have a long way to go but this is where it starts. If you can’t commit here, then when you get to the higher grades, will you be ready to make those sacrifices?

“I missed out on so much as a young girl with footy… it was hard to play rugby league where I’m from and it was a lot of pressure on my parents to travel so I missed out.

“But now I’m literally greedy. I am so selfish when it comes to my footy. Dad is like, ‘you’re mad, why do you drive down there?’, but it’s really what I want to do.

“To me, it’s a big thing to come from a small town out west and go to Toowoomba. The talent there is insane.

“A lot of small towns out west miss out on that opportunity so to jump into that competition and to be up there with the talent, that to me is something.

“Being in Toowoomba is going to help me develop as a rugby league player and keep up with that talent. You can only develop if that’s in front of you.”

The 2021 47th Battalion women's champions, the Western Mustangs.
The 2021 47th Battalion women's champions, the Western Mustangs.

Smith also plays with the Toowoomba Valleys Roosters in the local competition so was already used to the travel when Clydesdales coach Dom Haak approached her to play in the XXXX 47th Battalion.

The 22-year-old does a lot of solo training at home in Roma, where she works as an assistant in nursing aged care at Westhaven.

She said her work has been incredibly supportive of her blossoming rugby league career and she has been able to schedule her shifts around her training requirements for the XXXX 47th Battalion.

Her partner has also made a number of trips to Toowoomba with her to make sure she is safe on the roads, especially after a gruelling training session.

While Smith admits it’s a tough slog to do what she does for rugby league, she also knows she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I just get up and do it,” she said.

“I try to be positive about everything. Those games at the end of every week with Toowoomba Valleys, I get super excited to run on with those girls. Those games are my motivation.

“Just the fact I get to play footy is enough. I love it. It does get super hard doing everything by yourself but you have to keep telling yourself why you want to do it.”

Toowoomba: The pride of the region

Cory McGrady and Xavier Manley are no strangers to the XXXX 47th Battalion.

McGrady is representing Toowoomba for the fourth time, Manley for the fifth.

The stalwarts know better than most what it means to represent not just their hometown, but the entire Central Queensland region – what it means to wear the emblem, to turn up for your teammates, to dig deep, to never say die.

For Manley, it is this gritty attitude that makes the Toowoomba team such a special side to play for and a trait that was on display not only in the 2021 XXXX 47th Battalion but also in the state championship semi-final against Mackay.

Xavier Manley in last year's XXXX League Championship. Photo: Vanessa Hafner
Xavier Manley in last year's XXXX League Championship. Photo: Vanessa Hafner

“It’s a massive privilege and honour, especially when it’s a really strong competition we play in Toowoomba,” he said.

“It’s regarded as one of the strongest comps in grassroots footy.

“We really had to fight in (last year’s) 47th Battalion… it was pretty gritty the way we did it. In the (state championship) semi-final we had a number of players out with injury but against all the odds, we managed to get that win in the last minute.

“We had one person left on the bench for the final 20 minutes of the game. We never throw the towel in.”

Toowoomba claimed last year’s semi-final over Mackay in the dying seconds, with Chris Woodbridge intercepting to claim a 28-24 victory.

That is where their XXXX League Championship success ended but both Manley and McGrady are proud of what their side achieved – and now they know what to expect in 2022.

Cory McGrady at last year's 47th Battalion.
Cory McGrady at last year's 47th Battalion.

“It really surprised me the quality of footy,” McGrady said.

“It gets harder and harder each step you take. When we played Mackay up in Mackay, it was a pretty tough game. The one down in Brisbane was obviously tough.

“We were pretty happy we went all the way but unfortunately we lost at the main goal.

“When you lose you want to come back bigger and stronger. The side that they’ve picked this year is pretty strong. Hopefully we can go all the way but we will worry about the Battalion first.”

Toowoomba’s men’s team will kick off their XXXX 47th Battalion campaign against Central Highlands first thing at 9.30am on Saturday morning, while the women’s team will follow immediately afterwards on Marley Brown Oval, also against Central Highlands.

Manley – who was skipper last year and is vice-captain with McGrady leading the way this year – said they are doing everything they can to pass on those past experiences to the new look squad, to get them to understand the history, the importance of the Battalion and also how it feels to fall at the final hurdle.

He said there is no doubt they are on the same page.

Now, it’s time to play for Toowoomba.

“We want to go all the way this year, there’s no doubt about that,” Manley said.

“We need to win the first two games on Saturday and go from there. But we know what our end goal is.

“We’re definitely not there just to compete. We’re there to win it.”

Acknowledgement of Country

Queensland Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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