The sport of Rugby Union has a long history on the Mid North Coast and has enjoyed mixed fortunes. We speak about Rugby to Phil Wilkins, Club Member of the Forster Tuncurry Dolphins
Tell us about the history of Rugby in the Manning-Great Lakes area?
Cedar cutting gangs working about the Great Lakes and Manning Valley in the late 1800s were among the early sportsmen to escape the perilous existence of timber-felling to venture into a lawless weekend rivalry in hobnailed boots called Rugby Union.
Rugby remained a social occasion for young bucks, restricted to village games with organised competition barely existent. The game’s stature was not enhanced by the decision to pay players to turn to Rugby League in 1907.
By the 1970s, Rugby Union was better organised on the Mid North Coast, with Taree, Port Macquarie, Gloucester and Kempsey forming a competition. The Taree Bulldogs claimed the first official grand final in 1976.
The more densely populated township of Port Macquarie won successive M.N.C. premierships from 1978 until 1981, after which Old Bar club struck a blow for more localised clubs, capturing the title in 1982.
Formed in 1973, Coffs Harbour club initially played in the Far North Coast Zone. However, the town’s locality and the distances teams were required to travel led the club to join the Mid North Coast Zone in 1990.
Friction flared up within the M.N.C. concerning the distance factor, with officials planning a breakaway until it was decided in 2007 to divide the zone into two sections, providing the Lower M.N.C. with its own competition, now with seven senior clubs: Manning River, Old Bar, Forster-Tuncurry, Gloucester, Wallamba, Harrington and Myall Lakes.
What is the name of the Rugby District the Manning Valley and Great Lakes falls into?
The Manning Valley and Great Lakes regions are included in the Lower Mid North Coast Rugby premiership, colloquially known as the Southern Shield.
Rugby has a great tradition of ‘Old School Tie’, so that there is a competition in the local high schools for Rugby … why isn’t the ARU lobbying schools to have it included?
The Combined High Schools Association conducts healthy and active Rugby Union competitions in Sydney and some country regions, with positions in their three representative teams highly prized for annual games against teams from private school organisations, the G.P.S. and the C.A.S, once the traditional breeding grounds of senior rugby.
Immigration has dramatically changed the game, with Polynesian and Melanesian students now a dominant force in the game. Schoolboy Rugby in the country is seriously in need of greater investment in finance and manpower. The Australian Rugby Union must utilise its resources dramatically to compete with Rugby League, soccer and Australian Rules at junior levels.
How many teams are in the competition, and how many divisions do they field?
Seven clubs are involved in the L.M.N.C. competition this winter; the Myall Lakes Mudcrabs in Hawks Nest is a new addition. Each club will field one senior team, but despite the need for juniors, there will be no Colts competition. There will be two rounds of home and away games, 12 games in all, to determine the four leading sides for the semi-finals.
The big grudge match was once between the Clams and Dolphins … is this still the case, or is there now a greater rivalry brewing between other teams?
For years, the major grudge match in the Lower M.N.C. was between the Manning River Ratz and Forster-Tuncurry Dolphins, while Port Pirates and Coffs Harbour became deadly rivals in the zone’s north. The win by the Hastings Valley Vikings in 2010 helped alter that northern tradition.
While the Ratz are regaining profile in the development of the Lower M.N.C., the Old Bar Clams and Dolphins have developed their own special rivalry, having shared the last four grand finals with two wins apiece.
The Dolphins have dominated the finals berths for a few years now … who do you expect to see in this year’s final?
The convincing manner in which Old Bar accounted for Forster-Tuncurry in last year’s grand final indicates the Clams are the team to beat again this year. They have a new coach in Chris Marchant, their splendid acquisition from the Central Coast and last year’s grand final man-of-the-match.
Forster is at the cross-roads, while Wallamba loom as a major threat. The new Myall Lakes Mudcrabs are the dark horses.
The black jersey of the Mid North Coast was a jumper worn with great pride. How does the M.N.C. rate its chances at this year’s Country Week?
The M.N.C. Axemen are undergoing barren times in representative Rugby. They had a poor carnival last year, although their Under-19 representative team under coach Mark Hudson performed well. Prior to that, last position in the Richardson Shield deposited M.N.C. on the bottom rung of N.S.W. Country.
Playing the N.S.W. Country Carnival in March is anathema to a coastal zone, with cricket and surf lifesaving depleting representative teams. Country Week for MNC Zone senior and Under-19 teams was abandoned this year.
The Zone’s board decided to organise coaches and managers and stage a triangular series between the three major regions this winter and prepare for a return to Country Week next year.
Is the Mid North Coast still fielding a team for the U 20s Country week?
An Under-20 competition is the stairway to a Wallaby future. It should be installed on a compulsory basis for M.N.C. rugby to be represented at all future N.S.W. Country Championships. No team will represent the zone this year.
Mark Ella worked closely with the community in Port Macquarie. Did his presence inspire a greater awareness of the local competition?
A great Australian player, Mark Ella was one of three brothers to play Test Rugby, living and working in the M.N.C. zone. He kept a low profile, rarely exerting his influence in administration. It is a basic fact that Rugby League and Australian Rules and, to a lesser extent, soccer, attract Aboriginal footballers due to their professional nature. The Ellas were exceptions. Rarely does Rugby retain them.
Which up-and-coming players should we be keeping an eye on?
Gloucester’s Tom Middlebrook and Old Bar’s Mark Drury were two of the zone’s finest young players, but will play for metropolitan clubs this winter, as are Forster’s Max Elmes and Sean Hassett. From Wallamba, hooker Jeremy Segol developed encouragingly last season, as well as Old Bar winger, Joel Minett.
The Loring brothers, Drew and Jake, switched from Rugby League and played well for Forster.
The best of all the young players was Manning River’s centre, Kurt Lewis. He has signed a contract with the Rugby League premiership-winning Tuncurry Hawks and appears lost to Rugby Union. He is fast and elusive and a match-winner – all too hard to find.
For more information about the Forster Tuncurry Dolphins, contact:
firstname.lastname@example.org – 0427 545 306