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Northern Territory Rugby Union, Home of the Mosquitos
|Ballina "Sea Horses" Rugby Union Club|
|North Brisbane Rugby Union Club||Yamba Rugby Union Club - "the Buccaneers"|
|Rugby Gold Coast (Union)||Kempsey Rugby Union Club "the Cannonballs"|
|The Gold Coast Eagles Rugby Club||Port Macquarie Rugby Union Club "the Pirates"|
|The Newcastle and Hunter Valley Rugby Union||The Rugby Club Sydney for graciously hosting our presentation evening.|
|Footscray Rugby Union Club||Box Hill RFC|
|Victorian Rugby Football Union|
|Eddie Jones - World Cup winning International Coach|
|George Gregan - Former National player (World Cup Winner and World Record Holder for International caps)|
|John Eales - Former National player and captain (Record breaking 2 time RWC winner (1991 & 1999), one as captain (1999)|
|Nick Farr-Jones - Former National player and captain (World Cup winning captain 1991)|
"Sometimes there is just too much bush" - Jodie Burton 27 July 2011
Finally we had made it to Australia, our new home, and after 21,000km and 14 months we had arrived. For a few moments at least, it felt that we had finally completed something, ignoring the 9,000km that still stood between us and Eden Park via both Melbourne and Dunedin, just formalities we hoped. We watched the sun rise from the DHL office as Steve Kent, who had left home at 4am to help us, put the kettle on and took us through the customs and quarantine paperwork to clear our items before the weekend. With no sleep and no transport available, there is no way we could have achieved any of this without his enthusiasm and help. Big thanks to Steve up in Darwin.
We knew we were going to enjoy our stay in the Territory, not because we could finally speak the language after so many months in Asia, but because our host Andre Thomas was a rugby man from head to toe and had a heart of gold. As a youngster, he was part of the Junior All Blacks squad and played for mid Canterbury regionals, in later years travelled around to play rugby in England, Wales and Australia.
Currently based up in Darwin, when not playing for the Northern Territory Rep Side (The Mosquitos), he is playing and coaching at his club Souths (South Darwin Rugby Football Club).
Not only was Andre keen to hear stories of rugby development across the world, but he wanted to get involved and share ideas on how to launch the project. Together, over a few beers and a mammoth steak cooked to perfection by his fantastic girlfriend Maryse, we talked through options and pieced together some ideas on how to slowly build up our project. Quite inadvertently, he described the brother-sister club relationship idea as 'buddy clubs', and at last I had a name. Project "Buddy Up" - creating Buddy Clubs across the world. It was finally something I could deliver to Australia as we travelled. Top work Andre!
Over the course of the weekend Andre managed to introduce us to practically everyone in the rugby scene across the territory, and without his help there is no way we could have achieved this in such a short time. One man in particular was Andrew Crozier, a new face in the Territory, but one with a high pedigree in rugby union. Andrew is a Level III certified referee and has come to head up the Northern Territory Rugby Union following his post with the ACT Brumbies.
Andrew is a young, fresh faced appointment in an area of clear rugby potential. We have no doubt that the Territory will see some exciting new developments occur in the rugby world over the coming seasons.
Colossal Cattle Trucks, Decaying Kangaroos and too many Rats in the Tent.
You can think what you like about the joys of leaving civilisation, camping out in the bush and cooking your dinner over burner embers as the sunset washes the sky in a red glow. That stuff all happens at the end of the day, and when you're cycling for 9 hours day in, day out, there is seldom any opportunity to kick back and enjoy any of these pleasures. Pommie whinging aside, it really wasn't that bad. We had prepped ourselves mentally for all sorts of struggles, but in reality, even despite some torrid headwinds reducing us to 8kph on the flat, we still plodded on with relatively little ill effects, day after day. It was arduous to say the least, but for a stretch of 3,600km with seemingly little life, there weren't half a lot of old folk on caravan holidays! It was nothing like the endure of 'outback' China in winter, and as expected, we were once again to pay testamony to that experience, in comparison Australia is as easy as riding a bike.
Despite the desolation of inland Australia we were regularly looked after, one couple in particular gave us company on at least 5 separate occasions. As I sat inside their caravan munching on sausage and egg, I watched DVDs of US dramas and thought to myself 'this ain't so tough'. Those nights aside though, monotony was the biggest enemy, and seldom would you sleep for more than a couple of hours at a time, with the frustration at being so many days away from a good shower, and a meal that didn't leave you adnormally flatulant like our 2 minute value-noodles. It was too cold for the poor snakes and spiders, but some nights, plagues of field mice would hound you until sunrise, and on a few nights, the company were much larger rats, chewing away at your pannier straps and cutting holes in your tent.
The 10 dollar a day shared budget didn't lead to much amusement, and having to cycle with 15 days food at a time meant very, very heavy bikes. Most water tanks had enough water to get you a day or so down the road, but occasionally you'd have to pretend that there weren't tadpoles swimming around as you gulped it down.
Now that it is over, it's easy to look back and say it was ok, but at 34 consecutive days over 100km+ it was a tad too long to recommend to a friend and we're glad to see the back of it. Now bring on 2,000km of hilly coastline !
The week recovery in Brisbane literally evaporated, in part due to the great company we had catching up with old Aussie pal Chris "the Rusty Fraggle" Halsall, and being hosted by best buddies Sam and King in flashy Westend. We miss you guys and if you can dig out your cold weather gear please come and visit us in Melbourne soon!
Outside of the quite constant pleasantries we did manage to pursue project 'Buddy Up'. Our first visit took us up to North Brisbane Rugby Club where we met with a hugely diverse group of guys, a self professed 'old school' club playing in an increasingly competitive and professional environment. Norths have produced several Queensland Reds and Wallabies over the years, and currently have one of their recent players playing Top 14 for Biarritz in France.
Like most Brisbane leage rugby clubs, 'Norths' field several sides on a Friday and Saturday. It isn't uncommon to see 6 grade fixtures back to back throughout a Saturday, and some sides reportedly manage to fulfill 8 XV matches - this was my kind of rugby! Their coaching staff include ex Wallaby Chris Roach and the current Greece national coach Michael Bishop, both of whom are eager to hear more about 'Buddy Up' and getting us off to a great start on East Coast rugby. Big thanks to Dave Barber for introducing us around his club, and again to Steve (his brother) who is still pulling strings all over the world for us from Jakarta!
A quick ABC radio chat later and we were off to 99 Bikes to get our running repairs done before hitting the road. Jodie had been slowly sawing through something technical (and unmemorable) since her bearings disintegrated back in Lao PDR, and it was at last time to face facts and get some work done, still an extra 6,500km with no bearings is a fine effort. Well done that girl......
Cycling the East Coast was not all as we had hoped but perhaps we are guilty of spending too many afternoon's infront of 'Home and Away'. The Pacific Highway itself hugs the coastline frustratingly close but not within actual, or even realistic sight of the sea and sand. Trying to make up the usual 100km per day, there isn't time even to make a 3-4km detour (each way) to get down to the beach..... sob sob. Having said that, our disappointment was short lived, and if we had known of the rugby communities that waited for us on the coast, we would have pushed even harder across the outback.
Our story started with the Gold Coast Eagles, and our fantastic host family Austin, Janet and their little muppet, Alex (Muppet being the term used for the Eagles minis section - or so Austin has led me to believe). As always, we really must throw some extra thankyou's at these guys, not only for organising everything for us that evening, but for following up on every promise along the way. It is due to guys like Austin that we can continue to believe in the project.
Although it was only a juniors training night, our timing was good, and on hand to perform a bit of scrum coaching was Grant Anderson, the new General Manager of the local union, Rugby Gold Coast,
Raised on the Gold Coast, Grant has a seriously substantial rugby cv. He started his professional career with the Queensland Reds before throwing in the sun for the snow of Edinburgh. He then migrated slowly south, playing for the Newcastle Falcons and London Wasps before finally seeing sense and returning to the Gold Coast. Not a bad holiday in the UK, especially when he can now display a Heineken Cup and Guiness Premiership winners medal with his time at Wasps. Personally I would have sacrificed both these medals just to have played in the same side as Josh Lewsey and Chris Latham in my career, and I told him as much. He thought this was quite amusing actually, and perhaps just a little bit gay too........... sorry Grant, but they really ARE my fullback heroes!
One night, one training, one newspaper interview, one social in the rugby club, shower, bed. OK I lied about taking a shower, but the schedule has been intense and in the early hours of the following morning we were back on the road, this time with a 135km target to reach the Ballina Sea Horses and with it, our arrival into New South Wales rugby.
President Al Barrett pulled into the carpark to greet us just moments after we had collapsed beside his clubhouse. It was seniors training night, and although I was impressed by the turnout, he assured me that many of the seconds and thirds were saving themselves for the drinks after instead. Another coincedental guest in town that evening was 2008/2011 Waratahs Coach, Chris Hickie, who started his coaching career at the Sea Horses in the early 90s and took the backs for some extra drills late into the evening. Chatting to Chris before training was a nice bonus, but it also served to highlight that despite the new age of professionalism in rugby, the concern for grassroots development is still strong amongst some of rugby's elite. While probably biased and largely irrelevant, I should also point out that this happens worldwide, like my home club Footscray RFC for example where Phil Greening was coaching both at Footscray RFC and London Welsh RFC in 2010.
Al fed us up with a fantastic steak at their pub next door, and after a comfy night's sleep in the Ballina Club House, we were ready for action again. Next stop, Yamba 'Buccaneers' RFC.
Accountant turned Sugar Cane farmer Doug Anderson was our kind host on this occasion and arranged a meeting place for us at his farm shed. In reality this was more glamourous than it sounded, and turned out not only to contain his tractors, but disclosed his personal 'weakness', a collection of classic race cars too.
Doug is one of 5 co-founders of the Yamba Rugby Union Club, when they decided to break away from Rugby League in the mid 1970s. Now he is the only lasting Yamba resident, and while no longer playing, he is putting his accountancy skills into good use as the club Treasurer. Although Doug's fantastic selection of wines played a part, I like to think it was the lure of the local rugby derby the following afternoon that persuaded us to stick around, and what a day it would turn out to be.
"Why sometimes you shouldn't build bridges"
It was the weekend of the big local derby, the Yamba 'Buccaneers' vs Iluka 'Cossacks'. Many years ago, the Iluka squad had been a 3rd grade side within the Yamba Buccaneers, but after a period of apparent repression and social inadequacy, they decided to cross the waters and setup independently on the less preferential 'North shore'. Exiled into what the locals refer to as 'Siberia', they became known as the Cossacks, and still to this day vow to silence those 'Noncing Posh Southerners' whenever the tribes clash.
Morning came, and as the sun rose, we stared out over the Yamba Bay in wonder of what barbaric hordes awaited us on the far side. Droplets of resentment splashed against the bows of yachts and a spray of bitterness blew up off from the gentle waters to wet our cheeks. The waves glimmered red with the innocent reflections of the sunrise, but instead I imagined a shoreline teaming with the burning effigies of Yamba rugby players, as delirious Cossacks danced in frantic circles wielding huge axes above their heads. Perhaps one too many coffees that morning.......
Although only 1km apart, the two grounds are separated by a 50km road journey, leading inland to the West and across the only bridge. This time it was Yamba's turn to make the journey.
"Why do they resent you guys so much?" I asked one of the Yamba players, as we docked up our beautiful speedboat on the Iluka shores. The exhilarating journey had taken only 2 minutes, and the entire team had been able to traverse the waters in four of their boats.
"Ah look, don't ask me!" he answered, "they see us as the rich guys on the posh South shore, but I think it's a load of garbage"
As a teammate helped secure our boat, he smiled and passed up a makeshift floating Cheeseboard, and a bag containing a selection of French cheeses.
"For the after-game bath" he explained, "Now do me a favour, would you pass me those bottles of Merlot, they're under the seat"
We arrived at the battlefield to a gathering crowd and the team kitted up. Iluka numbers swelled, and soon it felt that the entire township had come to witness the encounter. The pitchside seating had filled and the BBQ tent was in full operation as crowds of locals sat on their 'ute's swigging crates of VB. Finally a young referee took to the field followed by the two teams and the wait was over. The ceremonious handshaking between the teams convinced me of nothing, it was all on the line and this was to be much more than just another rugby game.
Perhaps due to struggling player numbers, or quite possibly malnutrition on the poorer north shore, the Cossack side gave away huge concessions in both size and bodyweight, particularly in the pack. In sharp contrast was the unit of gym chisled Yamba players, who proudly displayed the results of their protein enriched diet and personal training plans. The early breakdowns went Yamba's way and after just a few phases it looked as if Yamba would wear the home side down .Ten minutes into the game and Iluka's character began to shine through. Although smaller, they showed relentless commitment to contest possession and not once shone away from a tackle, surprising perhaps even their own fans by unexpectedly maintaining discipline throughout. When considered that 90% of the squad are serving life bans from their own rugby pub, this was a particularly creditable display.
Iluka conceded a couple of tries midway through the first half, but on each occasion had forced Yamba to run through numerous phases to achieve the space. It was a big effort from both teams, and although only competing in the village league, skill levels, organisation and structure was good. At half time Yamba led 4 tries to 0, and despite a resilient second half effort from the Cossacks they increased on their lead to finish up winning comfortably 54-0. Despite the result, Iluka managed to hold their heads up high and ought to be praised for being a true grassroots rugby community. Big thumbs up to our Buccaneers too, they played the part of 'posh Southerners' well, and although they were destroyed in the traditional aftermatch 'boat-race', the real boat journey home before sunset was the perfect way to find a screen for the tri-nations encounter that evening. With a great day of rugby over, and the Yamba v Iluka experience finished for another season, I pondered over a morale from the story. Perhaps it's this? That although you should never burn your bridges, very occasionally, it's better not to have built them.
The pleasures of Yamba were followed with a rather random evening sleeping at a Gurdwara (Sikh temple), followed by an equally enjoyable stay with Gary and Sue from the Kempsey Rugby Union Club. They invited us to spend an evening at their home, and in the morning organised another local newspaper to spread the word on our journey.
Gary is the co-founder and a life member of Kempsey Rugby Club, aka the Kempsey Cannonballs, as well as organiser of the annual Crescent Head 7s. We were taken down to Crescent Head to their ground for a quick tour, but sadly, their former clubhouse (a wooden house wheeled there from the town) had been burned down by vandals a few years ago and the new clubhouse is still in the process of development. Nevertheless, Crescent Head is a pretty fine spot for a February visit for the 7s and we are hoping to get back there as soon as possible to visit our new friends.
In the pouring rain, we finally got ourselves down to Port Macquarie, home to the Port Macquarie Pirates. As we stood under the clubhouse rood waiting for our club captain Glen 'Wilbur' Fletcher, little did we know that it was to lead to our most unexpected rugby story to date.
First a quick thank you to Wilbur for coming to meet us down at the club and for the personal tour out of usual office hours! Comically, Wilbur only actually began playing rugby at the tender age of 36. However, he insisted that as a young fit guy playing for the veterans he found himself targeted in a very one sided affair of being hit hard, and not being allowed to hit back. He therefore dropped out of veterans to play seniors rugby and was subsequently appointed as club captain after his very first season. Port Macquarie are another club interested in progressing the 'Buddy Up' project and so hopefully we'll have more interaction with other Pirates later down the line.
As we stood waiting in the rain a tall but older, athletic man strolled towards us. I thought this would be our Pirate, but oddly he was holding a tennis racket instead.
"Hi guys, do you speak English?" he asked.
"I saw you pushing your bikes across the field from the tennis courts and wanted to check that you were ok. My wife and I have just come back from 10 weeks camping in Spain and I know how good it is to have a bed and shower. If you like, you'd be very welcome to come stay at ours"
"That sounds pretty fantastic" we both said, staring up at the thick rain clouds above.
We quickly explained the project and agreed that after the appointment with our Pirates, that we would make our way down the coast to his house. It was a further 8km but as we suspected, it was very much worth the journey.
Despite the awful weather, the hills, the inconsistant roads and all the hassles with 'wild' or 'urban' camping, if you knew that you'd meet people like Peter Lumsdaine and his wife Kate, you'd get on the road every day of your life. We rested for a full day in Port Macquarie with the couple, and as luck would have it, they were quite partial to the game themselves.
Although now in his 60s, Pete has remained extremely fit and active, and it certainly wasn't difficult to imagine his impact at back row. He had been captain of the 1st XV at Manly Rugby Union Club in Sydney, and his father had collected many newspaper articles and photos from his playing days. We sat for hours absorbed by his stories of matches and players that occured around Sydney in the 70s. Back before the professional franchised tournaments National players like Greg Davies (ex Wallaby captain) and Ken Catchpole (Wallaby scrumhalf) would ply their trade at club level inbetween tours and other fixtures. This aspect of amateur rugby has now sadly been lost, but the stories live on. He even had an international experience himself when he was selected alongside Wallabies and All Blacks to play France under the banner of 'South West Pacific XV'.
Apologetically, I'm going to save some of the funnier stories for the book, but I'll throw a name out there for any older Australian readers, anyone remember Ray Price aka "Mr Perpetual Motion"? Ray was an International Rugby Union and Rugby League player who Pete played against several times stating that the man used to run through 6 walls just to make a tackle. Even after finishing rugby he went on to battle through and survive bowel cancer. To this day he still professes that Ray was the 'hardest man ever to have lived' . I didn't mention Chuck Norris........
If you want to share some of your stories please e-mail us firstname.lastname@example.org
Lastly, massive apologies to the Newcastle and Hunter Valley Rugby Union for freeing up time to meet us, only for us to get delayed by weather and old age (as I turned twenty-ten)
Our actual stop in Sydney exceeded all expectations, and that was just meeting with our fantastic host family, Jim and Charlie Buchannan, with twin girls Ellie, Pippa (9 years old) and rugby fanatic 7 year old Jake. I could write a book on Charlie and her family alone, and that wouldn't even touch on her distinguished rugby family tree, so for now, Jodie and I will continue to thank the heavens and pinch ourselves each morning to make sure that staying here is real. It doesn't feel like it......
Our rugby fun began when we had our own small audience at the Sydney Rugby Club to make our first formal presentation of the trip. The Sydney Rugby Club is a particularly important rugby venue, in that it has been in operation for around 100 years, and was the actual venue where the Rugby World Cup was conceived. Big thanks to Karin and Peter for inviting us along and we hope to return following the tournament.
Thursday brought about an even bigger opportunity, a chat on the Sports Show "Rugby Club". Sat besides 3 former Wallabies, it was difficult to keep straight faced as the group of Aussies enjoyed the quite relaxed environment of the final 5 minutes - they had been working hard discussing the announcement of the RWC 2011 Wallby squad. Some surprisingly ommisions, appointments, but what looks to be a very strong and dynamic force. We had good fun, and despite the audience of around 1.5 million that night, they made us feel very relaxed. Thanks to those guys for having us on and hopefully we will indeed get the chance for a follow up when we finish in Auckland.
The following morning we made our way to the ARU headquarters in the pouring rain. The scheduled meeting, a full 15 minutes with former Wallaby captin John Eales. We were looking forward to getting our first 2 time Rugby World Cup winner onto the "World in Union" scroll and hoorah we did just that. John was not only a true gentlemen, but had even agree to bring me a spare pair of his very own trousers to wear at our afternoon rugby lunch. They are big 'pants' to fill indeed. What a champion!
There was just chance to swing passed Nick Farr-Jones (World Cup winning captain in 1991) for another signing before finally arriving at the DHL rugby debate. Our panelists on that afternoon were Jake White (World Cup winning coach with the Sprinboks 2007), Stu Wilson (All Black legend with over 100 tries) and Peter Fitzsimmons (former Wallaby and now leading rugby author and journalist). The results were as expected, hilarious, extremely biased, and hugely uncomplimentary of us Poms..... boy do we kop it down here !!
Next we headed down to Victoria to find out why everyone down there is so rugby mad. We thought the easiest way would be to put out a tweet:
"In town to talk about rugby, meet inside the MCG Friday night 7:30pm"
To my astonishment over 85,000 Victorians piled in through their doors eager to share their opinion, but we got chatting to our new international rugby mate 'Sambo' and struggled to get round to the other 84,999. We would have felt pretty bad about this, but by sheer coincedence that night, our rugby guests were entertained by 36 men swanning around the pitch in tight shorts and sleeveless vests. Who'd have thought?
As always, our city break was crammed full of jobs, rugby appointments, and the odd social beverage. Melbourne was no exception, and it also marked the end of our 6,000km Australian cycle.
There were many highlights for us, although seeing our mates from London - Kristy (Australia) and Freeway (North of England) was the first time the size of our journey had really sunk in. As we sat in an Irish pub, we caught up with another friend from home, Alwyn, and it was as if we had never left.
On the rugby front we had the ideal opportunity to get around a few faces at the Victorian Rugby Union Grand Final Day, in which 12 separate clubs were competing for the various male and female grade finals. It was a great afternoon over at Box Hill RFC, who kindly hosted us for the day and opened up their bar with an invisible tab. I must remember to settle that when we find work back in Melbourne.
Meeting Andre from Footscray was another big moment as we had first made contact with him when the rugby cycle had been a journey from my Kent Rugby Club - Footscray, to the Melbourne Rugby Club - Footscray. Clearly the idea had developed somewhat since that time, but he's been a great guide to us over the 16 month journey this far. Great to meet you Andre and we'll see you guys when we get back.
The overall day was one of genuine skill, competitiveness but more importantly - 'atmosphere' as 100s of fans stood by enjoying the occasion. Congratulations to Melbourne RFC on winning the 1st grade Grand Final and to Boxhill for co-ordinating the day.
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View our route plan in more detail here