Want an idea of what the Queanbeyan Whites mean to those within?
Look at my right arm.
Tattooed there a “Q”, drawn less than 24 hours after the Whites advanced to their first John I Dent Cup grand final in six years. A win in the decider, which comes against the Canberra Royals at Viking Park on Saturday, would mark Queanbeyan’s first title since 2010.
There are longer premiership droughts. But the ink still healing on my arm – and the tears welling in my eyes as Jackson Stuart scored to secure a preliminary final win – mean more than a ticket to the grand final.
The Whites saved me.
When depression left me looking for a way out, it was club president Grant Jones who told me the door to the Campese clubhouse was always open. It was coach Sam French, who made a point of welcoming me back in front of the entire playing group at my first session in seven years. Small gestures I may not be here without.
But this story isn’t just about a battler whose rugby career peaked with a fourth grade premiership and a selfie with Nic White in Mooseheads hours after the 2014 presentation night.
It’s about Matt Taylor, who rose from the fringes of first grade to become the leader the Whites needed. It’s about Oliver Efkarpidis, whose engine and turn of pace defies his frame.
It’s about Neori Nadruku, the front-rower you’re convinced could be a Brumby if he wanted to. That’s despite him telling you at the pub he’s happy to play fourth grade, maybe threes at a pinch – all while coaches are telling him that same night he should be packing scrums alongside Zane Hogan in first grade.
It’s about Zane Marolt, once a young man in a giant’s body learning how to play first grade, who has come of age as a dominant ball carrier and an excellent lineout operator en route to a deal with the NSW Waratahs.
It’s about Josh Townsend and Davea Teoteo, who might be the nicest blokes alive off the park but dominant forces on it.
That’s what the Whites are built on. These are our guys.
When you add a touch of class in Nate Carroll, Liam Richman and Hudson Creighton, it creates a perfect storm.
Of course, our guys can kick on. Think Fred Kaihea, the prop whose story started in the streets of south Auckland before leading him to the ACT Brumbies. Think Robbie Coleman, the Prince of Queanbeyan whose return from the United States has bolstered the Whites’ premiership dream. Then there was Ricky Stuart. Before Ricky was a Raider, he was one of our guys.
A grand final win would be for more than the 23 players in Whites jerseys on Saturday afternoon. It would be for names like Tony Innaimo, the Jones family, the Hawkes and the Debenhams. It would be for people like Caroline Tai, who has probably lost count of how many grand final tees she has to make this week.
It would be for the lunatics who used to bring chainsaws into Viking Park in a nod to Jamie Marmont, who will suit up for the Queanbeyan juggernaut in the fourth grade grand final which also marks Luke Cochrane’s 200th club game.
It’s for a town. It’s why French’s phone is lighting up with messages, it’s why he refuses to stop talking about it at work, it’s why even his kids are up and about.
“It reminds you about all the people who have invested in the club, whether it be emotional, time, or financially. It’s like everyone is getting a bit of return on that investment,” French said.
“Because you don’t see all of these people all the time, it’s easy to forget they are taking an interest in the club, but when we have success on the field, you can feel all that love. They’ve been there all along, they just haven’t had as much to celebrate.
“When I first got appointed, I said to the committee ‘We’re not winning the grand final this year. We’re going to start rebuilding our work ethic, our off-field behaviour and the buy-in to the broader Whities community’. With that getting squared away, the results would come.
“I also said ‘I’m not looking at parachuting first-graders in ahead of some of these younger guys who are going to be good enough for us in years to come. They’ve had the opportunity to learn how to win games of footy.
“Going from a one-win season to a markedly improved season last year, and now most of those same faces are there. That’s why we’re here this week, because we believed in them.”
There’s a reason the celebrations were so jubilant when a Carroll penalty secured a 48-45 win over Uni-Norths in a 100-minute minor semi-final epic. There’s a reason the “Whites” chant late in the preliminary final was so loud it could have lifted the roof off of Walsh’s Hotel.
Barring Queanbeyan’s first title in 1959 and a pair of golden eras in the early 1980s and 2000s, first grade grand finals have scarcely been a part of the Whites’ world.
There were times it seemed like it might never come.
“When I first got back I walked into the change rooms and saw my name up there next to ‘2010’, I couldn’t believe it’s been 12 years,” Coleman said.
“It’s a good reminder that grand finals don’t come around every day and it would be quite special to involved in a win 12 years apart.
“I’m a big believer in not shying away from the fact it’s a special occasion. That doesn’t mean you have to play any other style, you just have to do your own role. Your own role entitles so many things, whether that’s getting off the ground quicker than your opponent or not giving your advantage away because you’re a bit too lazy to get back onside.
“I know a lot of people say to treat it like any other game, but it’s not another game. It’s more special than that. This group is really excited, and I have no doubt this young group will step up. They’re built for games like this.”