“You used to see some good football in Captains Flat,” explains Kevin Radburn. The 77 year old sits alone and gazes out over the patchy, uneven surface of the town’s playing field. “Used to play myself, back when I was in my twenties.”
He lapses into a thoughtful silence.
“This is no joke,” Kevin continues eventually. “Some of the blokes that used to play here eventually got a run in the Sydney competition.” There is another long pause. “This is the first time I’ve seen a game here in thirty or forty years, though.”
It is Round 15 of the George Tooke Shield, the ACT region’s amateur rugby league competition, and the secluded town of Captains Flat is today playing one-off host to a match between the Bungendore Tigers and the Harman Seadogs. It’s a bright, pleasantly warm Saturday afternoon – though the exciting novelty that surrounds the match would be enough to draw a large crowd no matter what the weather conditions.
Large is a relative term in a town with 450 residents, of course – a term that is measured in scores rather than hundreds or thousands. Large is, however, large enough to warrant the presence of local MP Steve Whan, who will be using today’s gathering to announce a $10,000 grant for the town’s school and tennis court. “It’s a really good day for Captains Flat,” the member for Monaro says, overtly looking the part of the football fan in his large Canberra Raiders jacket. “Today’s event has brought a lot of people out,” Whan observes, looking around at the SES sausage sizzle, the Rural Fire Service first aid tent, the jumping castle. “It’s important to show that kind of community spirit.”
At two o’clock, referee Paul Baker blows his whistle to signal the start of the match, and within minutes Bungendore have scored their first try. It seems like an ominous sign of things to come. Sure enough, the Tigers take a convincing lead only a quarter of the way through the game. The Seadogs’ frustration becomes increasingly evident, and when one of their players is kicked after being tackled, a fight breaks out between the teams. There is uproar amidst the spectators. “Fuckin dog!” yells Rhett Blanco, 25. He holds out his hands in disbelief when the Bungendore assailant is permitted to keep playing. “Bullshit! Send him off!” he bellows.
Rhett has been intently pacing the sideline since kickoff, alternately yelling encouragement and tactical advice to the beleaguered Harman team. It turns out that Rhett is a Seadog himself, and would be playing today if not for an unfortunate injury he sustained during pre-season training. “Broke my left shoulder in a trial match about two months ago,” he explains. “It’s put me out of action for the rest of the season.” Still, his passion for the game remains intact. “I might be out of it, but I’m still into it,” he grins. It is clearly red tape, not fear of physical pain, which is keeping Rhett from stepping over the line and into the action.
For Kevin, however, relegation to the sidelines is a simple matter of age – although he, too, has an injury to exhibit. And in a roundabout way, it’s also football related. “See that?” he says, leaning forward and pointing at a scar that runs across his forehead. “Got that when I was working in the mine back in the 1950s.” With its vast iron ore reserves, the Captains Flat mine was once integral to the Australian economy – although such riches were extracted at a price, with the mine claiming its fair share of lives until it closed in 1962. “Had the roof cave in on me once,” Kevin recalls. “That’s how I got the scar. The rocks smashed down onto my helmet – fractured my skull, almost tore off my right ear. Broke my right leg as well.”
Kevin drifted in and out of consciousness during the rescue, and his recollection of the morning is accordingly vague – although one unsettling memory has stuck. “Nobody expected me to live,” he says, a jarring frankness in his voice. “Most of the guys that had the roof collapse on them would die sooner or later. They didn’t rate my chances.” But Kevin had a surprising advantage: rugby league. “I used to be pretty fit in those days from all the football I played,” he says. “So in a way – and this is no joke – football saved my life.” Kevin was eventually evacuated to Canberra, where he remained in hospital for six months while he recovered.
“Let’s smash these guys!” claps one of the Bungendore players. The Tigers have scored yet another try – a drop in the ocean by this point. “Let’s make it embarrassing for them!” the player urges. It’s close to the end of the second half, and the match is arguably already embarrassing enough, with Harman still having failed to score. “They’re killing us today, mate,” Rhett concedes, though still with a grin and a paradoxically upbeat tone. “It’s just not happening for us.” When the final whistle blows a few minutes later, his enthusiasm carries him over the sideline and into the midst of his Harman team mates, a moment he has visibly been longing for over the past 80 minutes. In spite of the defeat, Rhett shakes hands, pats backs, congratulates – he’s one of the team, after all. Out of it but still into it. He’ll be ready to make it embarrassing for Bungendore next year.
In the meanwhile, though, the Tigers revel in their victory. Steve Whan presents them with a commemorative trophy – an aluminium miner’s helmet atop a plaque of polished jarrah, custom designed for the match by a town resident. It is at this point – predictably, perhaps – that Whan elects to make his grant announcement. But with the sun now getting low, and the cold rapidly descending on Captains Flat, the post-game formalities are quickly wrapped up. There is an exodus to the pub, a stream of locals and out-of-towners alike. It will be a healthy night of trade over the bar – a blessing for an establishment that, like so many businesses in Captains Flat, seems to perpetually stare down the barrel of closure. Football may not save the town like it saved Kevin Radburn some fifty years ago, but as today demonstrated – and this is no joke – there is still plenty of life left in Captains Flat.