Cootamundra in the 60s fielded very strong football teams in three codes: Rugby League, Rugby Union and Aussie Rules. Like so many small towns, sport was the done thing. I played rugby league all through my school years, even in my last year at high school I also played with the Cootamundra town side. It was easy as most of my mates played football as well.
We were part of the Murrumbidgee Rugby League, a breakaway group from the Country Rugby League at the time. Many locals were worried for years about the drain of our players to the city and there was very little support from Country Rugby League back to towns like ours who nurtured future champions in Sydney. It was all one way to the city. So Cootamundra, and the local towns formerly known as Group 9, formed the rebel league along with teams from Wagga.
We were warned that playing with the MRL would jeopardise our chances of representative play. Big deal. All I wanted to do was play football with my mates, and besides I knew my limitations. I was only an average player. I was reasonably fast on my feet but I couldn’t sidestep and my ball handling skills were not great. I couldn’t kick the ball very well either. The only thing I could do well was in defence, I was an effective tackler. We tackled around the legs in those days, a shoulder into the guts, arms around the waist; and then slide down the legs. The ball carrier would go down like a ton of bricks.
So it is no surprise that I was a forward, the guys that do all the hard yakka during a game while all those pansies in the backline get all the glory from scoring tries. At the end of the game we’d be covered in dirt and grime whilst the backline boys were still in their freshly ironed shorts and jerseys. Bloody posers!
It is important for you to know this because of what happened next at Kapooka.
You see as part of our training we had lectures about life or something like that, I wasn’t really paying attention. These were delivered by the padres. As part of the deal we had one-on-one sessions with these guys, a sort of counselling session, to see how we were coping with this Army gig.
For some reason that my memory fails to justify, I found myself big noting my football playing ability to the padre. In essence I told him what I described above and I told him how good a tackler I was. “I could stop anyone” I boasted.
The padre stood up. “Do you reckon you could stop me?”
I should have had a rethink then and there. Why would the padre ask me that? I checked him out. He was in his 30s, of stocky build and thinning hair. He was staring at me. I met his eyes and said, “Yeah, I could stop you.”
I don’t have to tell you that he played representative football (Rugby Union) for the Army and he was one of those pansy type backline posers I derided a few minutes earlier.
Me and my big mouth. Maybe this Army caper was making me a little bit too cocky.
Come Saturday, and with borrowed football boots, there I am playing football for the Army. Rugby union is similar to rugby league except as the player is tacked, they release the ball and the forwards form a ruck around him. The ball is contested by sheer weight and grunt of the scrum of forwards. It helps if you have a thick forehead and an oversized neck. I was quite skinny and I paid the price by being mauled, pushed and battered. These guys were crazy.
Tackling in rugby union is the same as in rugby league only it’s different. The backs were pussy cats. As soon as it looked like you were about to tackle them they would collapse. The forwards were a different kettle of fish. They just kept coming at ya. They were hunched over, the ball lost somewhere in their giant hands, their eyes were like slits and they had no necks. I worked out that if I crouched down I’d just grab hold of them as they rampaged by me. I’d hang on as if my life depended upon it and that’s when I learnt another lesson in rugby union. You see in rugby league a tackle around the ankles is equivalent to those posers’ scoring tries. You held the ball carrier’s legs just a little bit longer so you could bask in the applause from the crowd. Not so in rugby union. If you hung on a bit too long in the tackle you suffered the wrath of the marauding forwards I told you about as they formed a scrum over the top of you. There was no escape. They didn’t care what was on the ground, including you as they pummelled your body with their boots searching for the ball. Football boots have sprigs on the soles to help you grip the earth on those wet and soggy days. There are seven sprigs on each boot as evidenced by the marks on my back.
However I did survive the encounter. I don’t think I even touched the ball during the whole game. I was quite dirty and in addition to the welcome to Army Rugby message on my back, my ears were bleeding at the top on the inside edge where they were ground against my skull by those crazy marauding feral forwards. By contrast, the posers in the backline looked like they hadn’t even played, yet they had scored the tries and there they were poncing around with their entourage and hangers on. There is no justice in the world.
After a shower and a change into civies, I ended up at the Sportsmen Club, a clubhouse for the backline to tell their warries about how good they were during the game. There weren’t many recruits there, you could tell by the haircuts. These other guys had short hair on the side of their heads but it was quite long on the top by Army standards. For a moment I thought they must have let some RAAF boys in. Most seemed to be officers, you could tell by the smug supercilious smirk on their faces.
I had a couple of beers and chatted to a few of the chasps, the older officers were interesting but the younger ones were up themselves. I didn’t belong in this group. Sport is a good leveller in the Army but I felt out of place here. I was glad I missed out on officer selection and I couldn’t wait to get back to the boys at 22.
Back at 22 and some of the boys said they watched the game. There was a bit of affirmation from the group.
“You played good Cav.”
“Yeah, you were always there.”
“I don’t think I even touched the ball.”
“Doesn’t matter mate, it’s a team sport. You were there for all the rucks.”
“Yeah right, have you seen my ears and my back?”
So that was my one and only football game in the Army. I promised myself that in future I would keep my big mouth shut and not be so cock sure about myself.
Maybe that’s what the padre wanted to teach me. I remember his name, he was Father Tink.
Reproduced with permission from FUN, FEAR, FRIVOLITY – A tale by an Aussie infantry soldier in the VIETNAM WAR. If you can’t wait, read more of this story now – or wait out while we reproduce it on these pages.
Hi guys. I am a good-looking, opinionated old fart who relishes a spirited debate on any topic regardless of how much I think I know about it.