Just a month out from footy season, the Barcaldine Sandgoannas Rugby League Club held a crisis meeting; they had no coach and were short six players.
For the outback Queensland community located more than 1,000 kilometres north-west of Brisbane, closing wasn’t an option.
“This is a club that’s in excess of 100 years old and we can’t let that fold, we can’t let that die,” said club president Rhys Peacock.
At the eleventh hour, 17-year-old Mannix Hunt put his hand up for the coaching job.
Backed by an army of “Sandgoanna” fans and committed players, Hunt led the team to win the coveted premiership just weeks after his 18th birthday.
Lifetime member and diehard Sandgoanna fan Vivian Johnsen admitted she was concerned about Hunt’s young age.
“I’m thinking, ‘Are they going to respect the boy?'” she said.
“He has melded in really well with the boys, they were turning up for training like nothing.”
Hunt also enlisted several younger players to the squad who weren’t as big as the older players and wasn’t sure how they would go.
“[I had] no doubts in their abilities but you know the physical capabilities of the other teams, being bigger and older,” Peacock said.
Building club culture
Hunt maintains it was creating a solid club culture that helped to lift the rugby league club.
“We just stuck to the simple stuff,” he said.
“We just needed to bond a little bit more [and] have a few beers on a Friday after training just to bring the team close.”
It became a Hunt family affair and the young coach’s dad assisted with drinks while his uncle helped with training drills.
Sand Goanna fullback Ezekiel Thompson said Hunt was “a quiet sort”, but the team had known him since he was a “young fella” and knew he had what it took.
“We knew he’d come in with a new style of football, which I think we needed,” Thompson said.
“He brought the team together and we all started to build a culture.”
For the proud Iningai, Wakka Wakka, Gubbi Gubbi and Bidjara man, the club runs in his blood.
“My grandfather … he made it into Central West [Rugby League] when he was 15 and he was the only Indigenous fella to make it at 15,” Thompson said.
“So, Barcaldine Sandgoannas, for me, is a lot more than just putting on the jersey.”
Hunt said the community would be lost without the century-old institution, which has been running various events and fundraisers throughout the year.
“All the young kids would get up to mischief [and for] the older blokes there wouldn’t be that friendship [and] mateship [without the club],” he said.
“It’d be a lot quieter town — not as many people would come.”
Silly season starts
Once the serious business of winning is done, it’s time to celebrate the title.
“Silly Sunday” is an age-old club tradition where players are “auctioned off” to community members who get to dress the players from a local charity store.
“We all sat around in the sun and soaked it up and had a quick, very casual auction,” Peacock said.
“We raised $3,715 at the auction … and we’ve also had a donor come in that’s topped it up to $4,000.”
While the winning coach said he wasn’t as “loose as the Cheese and Munster”, his father Phil did turn up to work the next day with half a beard and one less eyebrow.
Support pours in from across the globe
Cheering the team on and sending support from Orlando, Florida in the US every season is Thompson’s cultural Aunty Lorelei and Uncle Clint.
A few days out from the Grand Final, Maroons’ legend and Melbourne Storm hooker Harry Grant also sent through a video of support.
“[It’s inspiring] to see that support as well and just to have a little chat and narrow that focus [and] think about what other boundaries can be pushed,” Thompson said.
Coach for the Townsville Blackhawks Aaron Payne congratulated Mannix Hunt on stepping up and tackling the tough coaching gig.
Payne, who played 219 first-grade NRL games during his career, has known the pressure of stepping in at the eleventh hour as Assistant Cowboys coach.
“The Cowboys were going through a lean patch and confidence was low,” he said.
“The challenging part was trying to transform the club’s form in a really short period of time.”
Payne acknowledged that at the elite level players are full-time and not juggling work commitments as the Barcaldine Sandgoannas do.
“I certainly wouldn’t be giving him too much advice other than just keep backing himself and enjoying himself, because that’s obviously why he’s doing it.”