Rugby league has a different sort of edge when it’s played for nothing but love.
Sure, the flashy lights and packed city stadium grand finals for the NRL are great.
Being paid six figures (or more) each year to play the game professionally would be delightful too.
But for the men, women and children at the Koori Knockout on Darkinjung country this long weekend, it was playing for Mob. For Country. For fun.
And boy, did that love show in the finals on Monday.
“It was three big days of real, real hard footy,” said soon-to-be Rabbitoh Jack Wighton.
He played in the Knockout for the Walgett Aboriginal Connection.
“It’s family you know what I mean? We’re all linked in one way or another, and it’s very, very special.
“Some of the lads that don’t make the NRL, this is the be-all and end-all, so I’m very honoured to be here.”
Women’s extra time thriller
Before the men, came an absolutely edge-of-your-seat final in the women’s competition between the Newcastle Yowies and the Redfern All-Blacks.
As it inched closer to the bell, the Yowies looked like they had it locked away.
Redfern’s Darci Simpson-Carr wasn’t having a bar of that though, sinking a try on the right wing.
With a successful conversion, the scores were levelled 12-all with a few minutes to spare.
The game went to extra time after a forward pass ruling denied an almost fairytale dying seconds try from Yowies halfback Caitlin Moran.
But extra time unleashed the passion in Moran, as she sunk a perfect match-winning kick, sealing the victory 13 points to 12.
“I’m overwhelmed, I’m buggered, the game dragged out a bit,” she said.
Moran said the Yowies players and supporters were “one big family”.
“Even though we come from all over, we’re all one mob, we all look after one another.”
The Yowies’ title came less than a day on from the second consecutive NRLW title for the Newcastle Knights, where Moran was named on the extended bench.
“It’s been a bit of a big night but I’m honoured to pull up and come down here to back it up for the Yowies,” she said.
Gwen Wright is known as the grandmother of the Yowies.
Her husband, the late Jimmy Wright, formed the side more than two decades ago.
“They’re family,” she said, echoing Moran, when asked to describe what the team means to her.
“People who come and join us, some people stay for 20 years. Others just maybe stay for one season.
“But all in all, you know, people are welcome. For as long as they want to stay.”
Battle of the west
“Firmness of character; indomitable spirit”. That’s how the Macquarie Dictionary defines “grit”.
Rugby league writers and commentators love to label players with it.
The men’s final — a western derby between the Wiradjuri Aboriginal Rivers (WAR) and the Walgett Aboriginal Connection (WAC) — was up to its eyeballs in grit.
WAR fullback Matt Milson opened the scoring in the men’s final, and with another try and then two conversions from Bailey Hartwig, Wiradjuri were ahead with 12 points.
Walgett had the star power though, with two Dally M Medallists kitting up in red — Jack Wighton and Ben Barba.
They notched up 10 points by half-time, and then a second-half try from South Sydney Rabbitohs’ centre Isaiah Tass put them into the lead.
That lead was deepened by Latrell Siegwitt in the 71st minute, securing the win at 22-12, a year after the team copped a grand final loss.
“I’m ecstatic,” said a teary Ben Barba after the win.
“I didn’t even cry like this when I won an NRL grand final, I’m so happy to give this back to that community.”
What the Koori Knockout means for mob was shown as the full-time bell sounded.
A sea of red, flowing from the crowd, flooded the field.
Walgett Aboriginal Connection 22 – Wiradjuri Aboriginal Rivers 12
Newcastle Yowies 13 – Redfern All-Blacks 12
Under 17s mens:
La Perouse Panthers 12 – Bundjalung Baygal Warriors 6
Under 17s womens:
Northern United Dirawongs 20 – Minda Sisters 4
Under 15s boys:
Mindaribba Warriors 18 – Campbelltown Ghosts 16
Under 15s girls:
Newcastle Yowies 20 – Bundjalung Connections 0
Under 13s boys:
Mindaribba Warriors 30 – La Perouse Panthers