It’s the easiest question Malachi Retchford has ever been asked: “If you could pick any job in the world, what would it be?”. I’ve barely finished my sentence before he replies: “Football. Playing football."
At 15, Malachi stands a head above most other boys his age. A broad-shouldered forward who loves to run the ball, he's surprisingly softly spoken. His response to my question is less surprising – most young men, and increasingly women, in Mt Isa have dreamt about being the next home-grown rugby league success story since they were old enough to run and pass.
In outback Queensland, rugby league is a way of life. Young boys grow up hearing their fathers’ stories about the game’s golden era, when Mt Isa was the “toughest footballing town outside Sydney and Brisbane”. Around the 1950s the mining boom hit, and league exploded with it. Thousands would cheer wildly from the grandstands as the town’s best battled it out.
Some would go on to represent their country or, as is often considered an even bigger honour, their great state of Queensland. Local league veterans are treated with the greatest respect, as junior league president Miebaka Dede was quick to realise when he moved to “the Isa”.
“You see some guys who’ve probably played football for 50 years, and they walk through Mt Isa rugby league and everyone stops to talk to them, everyone stops to shake their hand,” he said.
Malachi’s father, Stephen Retchford, is one such player. Steve earned his stripes playing representative footy for Mt Isa from the time he was 12, going on to represent North Queensland and eventually signing a contract with the Newcastle Knights.
Malachi dreams of an NRL signing – preferably with the Rabbitohs, but he’s not too fussed as long as he’s “in there somewhere”.
But making it big isn’t easy in the outback. A 10-hour drive from the nearest NRL club in Townsville, it takes more than talent to have a chance at a professional career. As Malachi's father is quick to point out, you need time, money and commitment. A lucky few are spotted by visiting talent scouts, but even those players are often required to relocate thousands of kilometres from home to train with elite NRL-feeder clubs.
For Malachi’s father, it wasn’t long before the country called him back home – away from Newcastle, and a potential NRL career. But although Steve’s stint in Newcastle didn’t last, the father-of-two has found a different kind of success at home in Mt Isa.
Off the street and onto the footy field
As a coach for the local Brothers rugby league club, Steve has been instrumental in recruiting young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men from outlying communities – particularly those facing issues at school and at home.
“We want to get the young fellas off the street,” he says.
“There’s not much here really – there’s mining and work, work and mining… I’ll tell you now there’s probably 80 percent with drug and alcohol problems, 85 easy.
“We try to steer our kids in the right direction… that’s the only thing we can do."
Homelessness, alcohol and drug abuse - particularly ice - are major issues for young people in Mt Isa, according to local youth worker Alvin Hava.
"We’re talking about primary aged kids here who are falling into that trap," Mr Hava says.
"They could be as young as 5, 6… We get a lot of young people starting to touch base with us around 10 years of age with real issues that have been identified by child safety or the police."
“The world’s out there for them.”
Malachi's father sees rugby league as a gateway to better things – particularly for young indigenous men and women in Mt Isa.
“There is talent there, so if they can get exposed to it, then maybe someone else can see them.
“(There) might be a scholarship out of it, who knows?
“The world’s out there for them.”
Malachi is realistic about the challenges of leaving his home town, but insists he wouldn’t look back if given the opportunity to play professionally.
“I love the old bush,” he admits.
“It’d be pretty tough, but I reckon I’d do it.”
Malachi was part of the Queensland Outback team who travelled more than 30 hours to play at the Sunshine Coast Cultural Exchange Carnival. See the full story on Living Black - 5pm Monday, March 28 on SBS.