The decline of the Wilcannia Tigers ran parallel to that of their small town, suggesting that the game of rugby league was the heart and soul of the small Darling River settlement.
Sitting in his dining room, Maxwell Helmers casts his eye over a photo of the general store he ran with his wife Genevieve.
“That was the best shop in New South Wales”, says Maxwell, with a hint of sadness and frustration. It doesn’t take long to understand just how much he loved the town of Wilcannia.
As he begins to divulge countless tales about his love affair with the game of rugby league, you find yourself at standing on the sideline at what was once a breeding ground for local heroes. This is Bourke Park.
Helmers can still see it. Down behind the in-goal is club legend Max Smith standing by his ute, telling his players to push it all the way around the oval five times a night at training. Club founder Ron Cochrane is cutting down the Menindee attack as quick as lightning. In the carpark, you’ve got a bunch of knockabout characters assembling for the annual team photo.
All priceless memories, brought by a club that has been dead for nearly a decade. After the entire competition went under in 1998, the Wilcannia Tigers played one more season in in a revitalised competition in 2007 before they bit the dust.
The people of Wilcannia have switched their allegiances to the Boomerangs after losing their beloved Tigers. First confronted with heading to the footy to watch a different team, they are now unsure if they can even to tune in to the game’s greatest showpiece in State of Origin on television. It is the sad story of not just a club, but an entire region that was once a rugby league heartland.
That said, it wasn’t always a rugby league heartland. Helmers played a big role in changing the sporting landscape west of the divide.
“I was driving down to her mother’s place,” said Helmers, gesturing towards Genevieve in the kitchen.
“There was two kids in a schoolyard kicking a football. I was down there for a while, and when I came back they were still there, kicking a football.
“I stopped and looked at them, and I thought ‘those blokes are not Australian Rules players’, because as far as I was concerned the only football in Broken Hill was Australian Rules. I’d never heard of rugby league out there.”
The ball didn’t have that traditional Aussie Rules shape. It looked a little bit more familiar. Then the penny dropped.
“I stopped the car and I was looking at them. Sitting there watching them I thought ‘They’re rugby league fellas!’”
The seed was planted for the foundation of a stunning community-driven initiative.
“A few weeks went by, and I saw this bloke in the pub – I said g’day to him. He was a schoolteacher, I knew who he was, but he started talking about rugby league and I was very interested.”
The man was Ron Cochrane, a likeable larrikin with a footballing prowess that had seen him picked ahead of rugby league legend Ken Irvine in college.
Within a matter of weeks the club was established and took part in its first trial game, looking resplendent in their black and gold jumpers. In the early months of 1964, the Wilcannia Tigers were born.
Helmers will never forget how much Cochrane’s idea of a football team to represent the small town meant to the community, as he nods to the heavens in respect to his old friend.
“He was the bloke that inspired the whole community to get it going. He was the man.
“It was solely a sport created by the community, and a club created by the community in Wilcannia. No government money was introduced to it – it all came out of the community.”
Scheduled to compete in the region’s first official competition in 1965, Helmers and co. were faced with an unfamiliar conundrum – they had to prepare a ground for the team to play on. In a region renowned for its stifling conditions, preparing a luscious green surface was to be a difficult task. But a community effort raised over £6,000, and the work would begin.
“We had a lot of trouble getting the grass established because of the dry climate. We had to get an agronomist from Bourke to come and tell us what we were doing wrong and how to fix it. I had most of the say in that, because I had a bit of farmland experience. That’s the big part I had when it started, to get the oval turfed.
“[We] bought sprays, and spent thousands of pounds on building an oval. They carted six hundred yards of topsoil from afar – sand from sand hills – and put it on the oval. They had to dig out acacia bushes here, there, and everywhere.
“There was four or five people that spent hundreds of hours working on the oval. Sometimes I’d go over there at midnight and turn the water off, or change the sprays.
“I could have been down at the pub, I could have been anywhere, but that’s what we used to do. Get up at six o’clock in the morning and change the sprays again.
“A lot of people used to go [to Bourke Park] and say it was the best turfed football oval west of the divide. I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but that’s what some people were saying,” says the premiership-winning coach, with a distinct tone of pride in his voice.
It was on that same field that the dreams of the townspeople were realised, when their Tigers roared to seventeen senior premierships in as many seasons in a dynasty unparalleled in the region.
Year after year, the town’s tiny population of under one thousand would flock to see the likes of Helmers and Smith, before the names of Jack Edwards and Thomas Dutton were etched into local rugby league folklore.
Mention Edwards’ name to Helmers, and the Tigers Life Member insists that had he been born in Sydney, he would have worn the green and gold of Australia.
“He was in Artie Beetson’s category,” beamed Helmers – a fair rap given he has seen many a footballer come and go in his seventy-seven years.
“He could do anything with the ball, but he didn’t know how good he was. He didn’t really know what his value was.
“I said to him once, ‘You listen to me Jack, just sit in my pocket for a while, and I can get you a trial in Sydney, but you’ve got to get fit. I’ll get you a trial in Sydney, and [you can] hold your hand out and they’ll drop 30,000 dollars in it.’ He thought I was mad.
“A couple of blokes said to me, ‘I don’t know why you’re mucking around with that Jack Edwards! You’ll never make a footballer out of him.’ I said ‘We’ve got no props. We’ve got to get some from somewhere. If we haven’t got them, we’ve got to make them.’”
Needless to say, Edwards developed into one of the competition’s most devastating players. A few weeks down the track in Menindee, the ball-playing backrower turned in one of the best individual performances in Tigers’ history.
“The two blokes that were criticising me were running up and down the sideline saying ‘Did you see Jack Edwards?! Did you see him?’ I said ‘Yeah I saw him. I didn’t expect any less of him,’” laughed Helmers.
“He was clever. He’d be the cleverest bloke I’ve seen in the bush. He had the ball on a string.”
If ever there was a youngster in Wilcannia that looked like going off the rails, Helmers looked to provide an opportunity in the best way he knew how. “Throw some football boots on and come down to training”, he would bellow.
“I was coaching one year. I put this fourteen-year-old kid at halfback. He might have been fifteen. They said ‘He’s only a kid’. I said ‘Look, if you don’t give them the opportunity now, come back in two years’ time and you’ll find him over at the club hotel in the gutter, drunk.’
“People said ‘They’ll belt him, they’ll cream him, and they’ll bust him!’”
With a wry smile, Helmers’ typical dry response was “They’ll never catch him”.
And they never did. When he was on the field, Thomas Dutton was magical. The Tigers forward pack provided the rhythm, but the melody that Dutton would produce was footy at its finest.
Sadly, players like Dutton and Edwards were among a host of gifted footballers that never kicked on after falling out of football and into bad habits.
“There’s a lot of Aboriginal kids out there that have got talent to burn, just like Jack Edwards. Just have a look at rugby league. They [Indigenous players] are some of the best footballers in the world. They just need an opportunity.
“That was a great club,” said Helmers, his voice now not so much emphatic as whimpering with disappointment. One detects quickly the change in body language.
“Great entertainment, and great for the community. Great for the young people. It was a fantastic club, but it’s gone now. The downturn of the rural industry, and taking the roadworks away, that’s when it fell down. People started to leave because of a lack of opportunity.”
The club was the heart and soul of Wilcannia, and the decline of the Tigers ran parallel to that of the town.
“The Government never ever gave the Tigers Football Club one cent. They applied for things, they applied for this and that, but never [received anything]. They didn’t foster the game when they should have.
“The whole Western Division has sort of fallen down. Even Broken Hill has fallen down. The mines are up and down, the rural industry is buggered.”
Winding back to the golden era of the Wilcannia Tigers, the Darling River was flowing, with its banks lined by busy warehouses. Business would come from all over, pouring money into the bustling town.
Shearing sheds were filled with men that would forego seeing their families for weeks on end in a bid to provide for them.
Now, it is sadly a town riddled with domestic violence cases and health issues. The startling average life expectancy for an Aboriginal man in Wilcannia is just over 35 years.
The Tigers were never the beneficiaries of any Government funding in years gone by. And now, the New South Wales State Government’s Tackling Domestic Violence program has had its funding taken away. A five year program that stood down any Outback Rugby League (the current competition in the region) player who committed an act of domestic violence is now without the backing of the powers that be.
In Helmers’ words, the Government didn’t foster the game when they should have, and now have withdrawn funding from a domestic violence program with the issue prevalent in today’s society.
So, has anything changed in Helmers’ eyes?
A former club player, coach, sponsor, and vice-president that had a profound role in establishing rugby league in Wilcannia sits before me in his dining room, with disappointment etched onto his face.
For this man, it is a question that needs no answer.