Rugby's battle in the bush symbolic of code's problems

On the walls of The Ration Shed hang the words to the song of the Cherbourg Hornets. The rugby league team are one of the jewels of the country town, just as proud of the way they play their football as they are of any stirring victory or noble defeat.

Keep the ball in motion, like a rolling ocean. Up here, three hours from Brisbane in this largely Indigenous community, sport should be a thing of beauty; never static, always fluid, more instinctive than instructional.

Family names like Renouf, Sandow and Costello are the stuff of local legend. As Cherbourg grew from a segregated Aboriginal settlement and cast off its troubled past, in which its inhabitants were at times treated like little more than slave labour, sport has been a beacon and a healer.

But sport wasn't the primary reason the Queensland Reds were visiting the town during the week, although it was clearly a source of pride as Arnold Murray showed Wallaby prop James Slipper around The Ration Shed, which now serves as a museum and place of record.

Murray was sent to the wooden building as a boy, taken from his family and crammed into a dormitory, where he would be subject to beatings and abuse at the hands of the state. Now, he returns regularly as Cherbourg's mayor.

His story would amaze and intrigue Slipper, whose day in the South Burnett would be an awakening. He would visit local schools, hand out backpacks to recognise good attendance and speak with Janita Langdon, whose artwork will adorn the Reds jersey for their Indigenous round.

"It was an amazing trip, one that I've been pretty lucky to do," he said. "Cherbourg has opened my eyes to a lot and seeing the schools, being involved, it was a great experience.

"It's a big thrill. The boys really do enjoy the indigenous round but for me, it's touched home since being out in this community, seeing where Janita grew up and being shown around the town, learning the history. It makes it meaningful. A fair bit has gone on here."

Queensland Rugby doesn't visit the region as many as 10 times a year as a recruitment tool. Their Indigenous Programme identifies future leaders and academic potential, offering mentoring and guidance from Years 6 to 10, as well as opening further educational opportunities. Almost all of the participants have never played a game of rugby in their life.

Yet the presence of the Reds in the bush can't help but open a discussion about the challenges the code faces in parts of even traditional rugby states. While there are good news stories - junior numbers in the nearby Darling Downs region are growing and two new clubs have popped up in Cairns - around this area, the game has less faded than vanished completely.

No schools offer the sport - not through any "anti-rugby" stance, simply through lack of interest. There are no clubs, players or coaches.

Even Kurtley Beale, Australian rugby's most visible Indigenous star, could walk down the streets as a relative unknown, such has been the lack of cut-through for the game.

"There's no rugby. As an ex-player and coach and administrator, referee, it's a bit disappointing. I'm just happy to see kids get involved in sport," says Stuart Fuller, principal of Cherbourg State School and a rugby man to the core.

"I'm not sure how they do it. When I was a kid [growing up in the bush], all I saw of Union was on the back page of the paper if there was a Test match on. Free-to-air is very important. It's difficult to play if you can't see it and replicate it.

"If it's supposedly played by doctors, lawyers and accountants, well not that many come out of this community. It's difficult out here."

In this context, the comments of Waratahs CEO Andrew Hore, where he just encouraged kids to go to good schools, play rugby, move to England, get a banker for a mate and earn millions, don't just ring of outdated stereotypes, they sound absurd.

If the desire to break new ground outside of its traditional stomping grounds remains a driver for rugby, then so does the search for elusive Indigenous players. The code has laboured badly in this scrap, with AFL and league dominating the Indigenous ranks and reaping the rewards.

Simply having a presence in towns like Cherbourg and Woorabinda seems to be a smart place to start. If rugby stands accused of too often preaching to the converted, then areas like these truly put it out of its comfort zone. Many would say it's exactly where the sport needs to be.

"Rugby would excel out here. I've played with Indigenous players as a kid and throughout my career and there is something about them as athletes ??? I don't know what they've got but it's a natural instinct to play the game," Slipper says.

"They're just gifted athletes. If we got rugby back out here, that would be great. But there's a good way to go.

"The key here is we didn't really come out here and put this program on to better our spot in rugby. What the Reds have done well is had an eye on the youth in these rural areas. Rugby is secondary to that. You can use sport as a driver ??? it's a way in to something good."

Stephen Page, one of the leaders of the Reds' Indigenous program, says it could end up being a case of "rugby by osmosis". Page has a teaching background first and a rugby background second.

"The game really is an added bonus. We have students that have never played rugby before and now they do, off at schools in Toowoomba and Brisbane. That's a happy by-product.

"I started with attendance programs with the little kids and that was their first taste. Now they're playing the game. We are out there. We see it a different way through this program, looking out for potential leaders."

Ever so slowly, the message may be starting to get through. After years of work with aspirational students in Woorabinda, an appetite has started to develop. There, like Cherbourg, Sevens appears as the obvious vehicle towards a love of the game.

"In Woorabinda, they've asked me to come out and get a Sevens program together. The U16s boys team and a men's team want to enter in some of our tournaments," Page says.

"That's a way in and some of those players are going to just destroy those competitions."

The story Rugby's battle in the bush symbolic of code's problems first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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