Not everybody in Maher Cup Country loved rugby league.
In 1956 E.O. Schlunke of Hope Vale, Reefton, published a short story called The Village Hampden. It positions the local rugby league club as the town’s central institution. Although with a social mission, the club had become menacingly authoritarian, controlling everyday community life. Schlunke’s description reminds me of the Barrier Industrial Council of Broken Hill, but in an agrarian setting.
Tom Matheson, a young school teacher, has arrived in the Riverina town of Belluga.
“It was a small town of only a thousand or so people. Normally one wouldn’t expect a town of that size to field a first-grade team that could put up a good showing against towns five to ten times its size, and even hold the group’s challenge cup at times for a significant part of the season” (p.203).
The football club committee had done their homework. They’ve found that Tom had been a useful half-back at teachers’ college. Their hope was that he would play again, or at the very least become a financial member of the club. Now a golfer, and always an obstinate type, he refused both requests. His stand finds no support among the cowering populace. Opposition proves futile. He eventually joins the club rather than being sent to Coventry.
“Everybody in Belluga plays football, thinks football, works football”….”As soon as a new baby is born, before it is even registered with the C.P.S., its parents make it a junior member of the football club. Then, as soon as they are a few years old, we teach them to save their pennies to pay their own subscriptions” (p.211).
Tom takes a interest in farming, befriending a local grazier, McDonald. Old McDonald may be the wealthiest person about, but he’s insecure. The threat of closer settlement, by which large grazing holdings are subdivided into smaller wheat producing farms, has been held over his head. McDonald had donated £1000 to build new club dressing rooms, as insurance.
Tom also takes an interest in McDonald’s daughter Daphne, the most eligible girl in town. However the club has plans that Daphne will marry Johnny Payne, their arch-rival’s champion fullback. Belluga will thus have a winning player at no cost to the club. Daphne has shown interest, but Tom starts getting in the way. I let you guess the ending.
Eric Otto Schlunke was primarily a farmer, his great passion soil conservation. He was also a prolific, folksy, writer whose characters were clearly drawn from daily life. Belluga is based on Barmedman. Schlunke’s Road runs from Reefton just 10 miles to the south to nearby Trungley Hall, where most of the community today still gather at the Zion Lutheran Church.
Barmedman was a village, dwarfed in size by its Maher Cup rivals. But it was never daunted.
Schlunke’s story can be dated to about 1955, when his nephews Clarrie and Noel were members of the ‘Clydesdales’. This was a very good year. Barmedman travelled over to Boorowa and brought back the holy grail. The first defence against Junee produced a score of 72 to 3, the biggest margin ever in Maher Cup football. West Wyalong, Gundagai, Cootamundra and Grenfell all came, and were all thwarted. But arch rivals Temora drove up the straight road past the newly sown wheat fields, through Gidginbung and Reefton, and on to Barmedman. The red and whites, toughed it out, 16-10, and took the Maher Cup home.
Barmedman’s players were mostly local farmers and wheat lumpers. But the club also attracted legendary players to their team, including Australian representatives Dick Vest, Col Donohoe, and Ron Crowe, as well as Keith Gittoes, Tom Kirk and Wally Towers.
Is there any kernel of truth in Schlunke’s story which explains how the village was able to punch above its weight in Maher Cup football for so long? Perhaps there were special conditions operating in the village? One suspects that the club was in a relatively rare and powerful position where lack of size was overcome by an ability to extract extraordinary resources and commitment from the community.
I’d be most interested in your thoughts.
PS. Why Schlunke named his short story The Village Hampden, is a mystery – Hampden is mentioned nowhere.
Barmedman Hotel, with the Queensland Hotel on the same intersection. Image Source: Mattinbgn, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.