A number of highly-respected Aboriginal identities have been buoyed by plans to re-start national and grassroots rugby league competitions in the coming months, but a proud New South Wales country team remains cautious, with community safety from the deadly coronavirus paramount for our people.
With the NRL's 2020 season appearing to now be set for a return in late May and this year's hosts of the Koori Knockout hosts planning to continue with the 50th anniversary of the much loved tournament, one of the sporting code’s biggest advocates says he is feeling invigorated after struggling without the game he loves.
'I really struggled'
Dean Widders lives and breathes Rugby League.
During his professional career Dean played more than 200 elite matches for the Roosters, Parramatta, Souths and Super League club Castleford. He also won Koori Knockouts with both his beloved Narwan Eels and the Redfern All Blacks, who he also helped win four straight South Sydney District titles.
Now retired from playing, the 40-year-old is the National Rugby League’s Indigenous Pathways Manager and the coach of the South Sydney Rabbitohs Women’s team. He told NITV News that he draws great strength from the game.
“It keeps me occupied, motivated, gives me inspiration, it’s where I get my fun, being around the girls and having a laugh, it’s where I do my strategic thinking and challenge myself, so I have needed that to boost myself week in and week out, socialising, things in common mates family, it’s so much more than the game to me,” he said.
“It represents so many different aspects of my life and to have it all taken away, I have really struggled. It’s been a challenging time.”
The COVID-19 pandemic brought a halt to season 2020’s proceedings one month ago with the NRL and NSWRL postponing major competitions and community football. Self-isolation and social restrictions have altered everyone’s day-to-day activities.
For Dean, whose life is deeply intertwined with the game, there was a compounding effect.
“I really struggled. I went four weeks straight where I virtually never left the house, I really struggled with different things. I just felt drained, I didn’t have any energy , and that’s usually something that I find in all the different challenges that I have or all the interactions that I have with different people, I find energy from that, and to have it taken away has left me really drained,” he said.
“I got in a bad rut where I couldn’t find any ways to escape it.”
Mr Widders said on occasion he was turning down opportunities to exercise with friends due to how he felt. There has been some “really dark and tough” moments but the plans for the sport to return soon has provided a boost.
“I am slowly starting to get back on top of it and I am starting to feel like myself again.”
An empty field of dreams
This year is the 95th anniversary of the Moree Boomerangs. The fiercely proud Aboriginal Rugby League club is the heart and soul of the communities in the Northern New South Wales town, which has a population of approximately 13,000 people, with an estimated sixty per cent Aboriginal.
The first-grade team are back-to-back Group 19 champions, but they won’t be defending their title in 2020. All grades have been withdrawn from the competition due to the coronavirus. Coach Chris Binge, who is also on the board, said the decision was heartbreaking but necessary.
“It's a gut wrenching feeling and that feeling hasn't gone away. Football for us is a lifestyle out here and it's become part of, you know, the Moree makeup. When we're not playing footy out here, mate, we aren't in good spaces … I’m worried about the general wellbeing from our players, their families, right back through to our elders and then more importantly the overall community,” he said.
“Ninety-six to ninety-eight per cent of our player base is Aboriginal. And the same with our supporter base … so we've had to look at things a bit differently because of the Covid issue, because health and wellbeing is first and foremost and, you know, we've got a lot of vulnerable people.”
Despite the possibility that football may return on July 18 as per the New South Wales Rugby League strategy, Mr Binge said that doesn’t change the situation for the Boomerangs. With many club legends and dedicated supporters in their older years he says he won’t put any of them at risk.
“The last thing we would need as a club, which would be more devastating for us than sitting out this season would be to lose people in our community at great numbers should there be an outbreak. We haven't got the health facilities out here that could cope with a capacity of what would be needed.” he said.
But there’s good news coming. The refurbishment of a brand-new playing ground, affectionately named ‘Rangs Park’ and club house is set to be completed in the next two months. Mr Binge says the state-of-the-art facilities will be a game-changer for the community and their team, with hopes that one day a National Rugby League match could even be hosted.
Mr Binge is audibly tearful when he tells a recent story where he took some older club legends for a tour of the new setup.
"That day was special. That was, you know, dream come true. These old blokes were just ... the tears started to roll down our eyes because, and even telling you about it now, I'm starting to get a bit choked up about it because you could see how much it meant," he said.
"This is where we can sit and watch this game, watch our boys and watch our young blokes do what they do for our club ... You could see how much it meant to these guys and how much it's going to mean to our club, and how much it's going to mean to the community ... phew."
In the meantime, the Boomerangs can use it to prepare for the Koori Knockout, which is still planned to take place on the October long weekend.
The Black Cockatoos home to roost
The New South Wales South Coast has had a lot to contend with in the past five months. Devastating bushfires blazed from before Christmas, then there was the February floods, and the COVID-19 pandemic followed.
One positive for the region’s Aboriginal communities is that their team, The Black Cockatoos, are the defending Knockout champions. The group claimed an emotional tournament win in 2019 to honour James Wellington, who passed away in 2018.
James’ brother and captain of the team, Ben, is currently planning this year’s event, which will be held at the Bomaderry Sporting Complex & Artie Smith Oval, with the committee. It will be the 50th anniversary of the statewide carnival.
He says while some things are "still up in the air", they are in discussions with the New South Wales Rugby League to ensure everything is set in stone once the tournament is sanctioned.
“We're still working towards getting the grounds ready, still hands on deck. We're still building towards it but there are a lot of hurdles that need to be jumped,” he told NITV News.
“Hopefully we'll have everything finalised by June the 30th. We've been in talks with them bodies (NSWRL & NRL), everything will be in place so if we do get the go ahead it will be ready to go.”
While safety is the focus, Ben is hopeful that everything can run smoothly and help to bring the area some much needed relief, after what has been a tough start to the year.
“With the fires and the floods and now this virus, having a positive at the end of that, to bring everyone together, to come out and watch footy and be with your family and friends and having something.” He said.
Hope, inspiration and motivation
With some new-found energy at the chance of footy returning, Dean Widders reiterated that Rugby League means so much more than just a spectacle.
“I feel that, it’s not just about getting the games and the entertainment on, people need it. They need it for the way they feel, their mindset,” he said.
“For our mob, being isolated and being separated always mean negative stuff starts to come into our communities. A lot of that negative behaviour has come in and people are dealing with it in negative ways like alcohol, drugs, and seeing those things as the answers for these times," he said.
"It is really challenging, but to have Rugby League and sport come back in where it draws those communities together and connects people back up, it’s going to be a huge boost.”
The game is about hope, inspiration, motivation and competitiveness, said Dean, and brings so many things that can help get the best out of yourself every week.
“I think that’s the important thing that we are missing at the moment, it’s not just watching the competition, having a drink and seeing footballers play on a Friday night … it’s the way it gets us feeling to enable us to go and do positive things in our lives,” he said.
“And that’s what we all want back.”
Jodan Perry is the host of NITV's flagship Rugby League program 'Over the Black Dot' which airs every Tuesday at 930pm. Dean Widders is a regular contributor to the show.