Bush Beat: The Tassie rugby minnows showing the fight of a marlin

by Stu Walmsley

At Burnie Rugby’s presentation dinner in August, first-year president Alex McKenzie aptly described his club as "the home of a mismatched community thriving in adversity".

In terms of results, it was certainly an adverse year. In 2018 the Emus often struggled to field a full team, copped a couple of 100-point hidings and finished last in the statewide Tasmanian competition, but anyone who has spent any time around Burnie knows success isn’t measured by victories.

This port city, 320km north west of Hobart, has the highest rate of youth unemployment in Australia, only 28.8 per cent of students complete year 12 (the national average is 51.9 per cent) and almost twice as many people now work in health care and social assistance than manufacturing.

That’s a far cry from the 1960s when 3,500 employees owed their living to Associated Pulp and Paper Mills, which operated a huge plant in South Burnie, another 450 produced paint pigment for Tioxide Australia at Heybridge and still more worked for North West Acid and numerous agricultural and fishing operations.

After a gradual decline ‘The Pulp’, as it’s still known, was downgraded to a paper-making plant in 1990, Tioxide and most other manufacturing firms had skipped town and so did thousands of residents. You could buy a house in Burnie at the time for $10,000.

After winning the Northern Championship in 1964 and Statewide First Division premierships in 1979 and 1986, Burnie Rugby was also forced into a hiatus, ending a tradition which began on Wivenhoe Showground in 1961 when the Burnie Advocate advertised the code as ‘a cross between Aussie Rules and Soccer, with the emphasis on speed and stamina!’

The recession in the early 1990s hit North West Tasmania hard and rugby was dormant in Burnie for six years, but then Brett ‘Krusty’ Kershaw came to town.

Together with Canadian Ken Allan, who was president for the first five years, he resurrected the club. Kiwi dairy farmer Peter Letcher was recruited as coach and the team was a motley crew of old boys from the 1980s, expatriate players, new recruits and whoever Kershaw could cram into the back of his van on the way to the ground.

“We did pretty well for the first couple of years, grabbing players from left, right and centre and some older guys came back and had a run,” Kershaw says. “But we’ve gone through lots of changes, this area’s quite transient - it’s a ‘working’ town - a lot of people from low socio-economic backgrounds.” 

Burnie’s Brett ‘Krusty’ Kershaw. Photo: Rugby AU Media/Stuart WalmsleyThis unique club dynamic was nicely summed up by McKenzie in his presidential address; ‘…name another sport where a forester and a litigation lawyer can run around with a sparky, protecting a retired truck driver, being yelled at by a printer.’

The 30-year-old legal eagle brings a rare white-collar presence to the Emus, and the printer is Kershaw, a typically assertive scrum half (and part-time flanker) who has been even more vocal since taking on the coaching duties in 2016.

Having worn almost every hat in the club throughout a 22-year involvement, the 54-year-old travelled to NSW to complete a level-one coaching course, and probably would have gone a hell of a lot further if it had meant keeping the Emus afloat.

“Every now and then you get this little snapshot in life, or on the field, that it means so much,” Kershaw says. “It might be a guy who has played his absolute best, or you’ve seen a guy downtown who has a job because the club supported him, and he’s far above where he would be otherwise.

“I took the whole 16 of them up the top of Cradle Mountain one year, and that was a great achievement. They’d lived here, but never had the opportunity to get up there, or never thought to go up there.

“I get great self fulfillment out of those little things, not after the big wins, that doesn’t really matter, it matters that these guys come off the field or come out of the club and they’ve got somewhere to go.”

Burnie’s Brendan Griffiths tackles an opponent. Photo: Rugby AU Media/Stuart WalmsleyBurnie’s reputation in Tasmanian rugby precedes them; they are universally respected as tough men from a battling town who play hard rugby, the club that still travels to Hobart with a half-empty bus even though they know the result on paper will be a forfeit.

“This year we only had a core of 10 players and we went to Hobart with 12 instead of 15, but we didn’t care, because all we wanted to do was just play,” Kershaw says.

It took until the final match, but the Emus notched up their first win of the season against visitors Taroona B at the end of July, and the joy of that triumph was the perfect lead in to one of the more unusual traditions in Australian rugby - the Guzunder Cup.

Burnie Rugby Club’s Guzunder Cup. Photo: Stuart Walmsley/Rugby AU MediaAccording to a 1985 club newslettter, entitled ‘Emu Droppings’, this atypical trophy was discovered under a Burnie clubman’s home after a post-match party in the early 1970s. 

Towards the end of the evening, the team’s Kiwi cohort performed a particularly enthusiastic rendition of the haka, breaking through the kitchen floorboards, and a bleary-eyed working party happened upon the chamberpot when they turned up to repair the damage the next morning. The item ‘guzunder’ the bed, for those chilly winter nights when it’s too cold to dash to the outhouse.

Since 1973, the club’s Young Fellows and Old Fellows have contested the Guzunder immediately preceding the club’s annual dinner, and Burnie stalwart Gerry Horch presented Tasmanian colts representative Callan Long with the prize this year after the elderly Emus couldn’t quite bend the rules enough to win.

Not helping the Old Fellows’ cause was an early calf injury to the evergreen Mark ‘Taz’ Vivian, a club legend who is still putting in 80-minute performances at the age of 57.

“The club’s been great - it’s a family of its own,” Vivian says, 38 years after his Burnie debut in 1980. “I’ve lost 15kg (after I’ve come back), a bit of weight around the gut, and I’ve actually got on the paddock twice this year, but blew it in the Guzunder.”

The Young Fellows celebrate Guzunder Cup victory in August. Photo: Rugby AU Media/Stuart WalmsleyFamily is a fine way to describe what the Emus offer this region which still seems to be in a period of soul searching after The Pulp finally shut down for good in 2010. Burnie’s population exceeded 23,000 in the late 1980s, but has now dropped below 19,000, and the exodus has consisted of those the community could least afford to lose; young people and skilled workers.

“We’ve got seven or eight single parents in the club - it’s difficult to play when you only have your kids every second weekend - plus the isolation that we have in Burnie is a problem," Horch says. “We’ve got a moving population here, there’s four gone to work on the mainland this year, and our challenge is just getting enough people to do all the jobs to run the club and have a team.

“But we’re custodians of keeping rugby in the community here, and to be able to maintain that as well as we can, for schools, for juniors, for the current players and for our supporters.”

Helping bolster the club’s numbers and diversity is the recent success of women’s sevens rugby in Burnie. The Emus had a short-lived women’s team on 1999, but the North West Panthers have achieved regular success in northern and statewide competitions over the past two years under the tutelage of Tye Brown, and Burnie’s Isabella Hardy and Claire Whiteway were selected in the initial UTAS squad for the 2018 Aon Uni 7s Series.

Award winners from the Emus and North West Panthers at Burnie’s presentation dinner. Photo: Rugby AU Media/Stuart WalmsleySevens rugby has provided a crucial pathway for girls in regional areas where it makes the job of player recruitment only half as hard, but even mainstream sports in Burnie are doing in tough in terms of putting teams on the field.

The Burnie Dockers Australian Football club almost went into complete recess for the first time in its 132-year history at the start of this season due to a player shortage, and joined north-west neighbour Devonport in withdrawing from the Tasmanian State League.

The relationship between the Emus and Dockers is similar to that which many bush rugby clubs in Queensland and NSW face with rugby league. Players receive match payments in Australian Rules while they have to pay fees to run with the Emus and, when times are tough, that can make all the difference.

“There are local kids that love rugby, but they simply need the money, so they play footy,” Kershaw says. “But no one should play for free because it makes you feel like you belong if you hand a few dollars over - if you pay players - I don’t think you get that belief.”

Seagulls at Burnie Sports Centre. Photo: Rugby AU Media/Stuart WalmsleyTasmanian Rugby Union (TRU) development officers have begun to once again run clinics in Burnie schools, but the code’s lack of exposure to potential juniors is a problem often cited by clubs in poverty stricken areas. 

“Young players just don’t know about rugby; they can’t afford to watch Fox Sports where most rugby is broadcast,” Kershaw points out, “Getting people into schools to teach young kids the game is harder and harder as people get busier and busier.

“It’s great to have a development officer to do that, but you’ve got to have the local volunteers to back it up all the time.”

A referee multi-tasking in Burnie. Photo: Rugby AU Media/Stuart WalmsleyDuring his time as president in 2004, Kershaw took matters into his own hands, and put together  an under 18s team for the statewide competition. Most of the players were from Shorewell Park, a  Burnie suburb the Australian Bureau of Statistics ranked in Tasmania’s bottom two per cent, using socio-economic data gathered in the most recent census.

“I used to go around with this little van and pile ‘em all in the back and we’d go off to training, or to games - pick them up from their houses - and do that every Tuesday and Thursday,” Kershaw says. “They weren’t the greatest side, but they were a great bunch of lads.

“One of those kids borrowed some money of me - he had no money for years - but he came back a decade later and handed me back what he owed. 

“There’s great pride in that and I think rugby contributed to teaching some values on that occasion.”

Many of those Shorewell Park kids flowed into the club’s senior ranks in subsequent years and Kershaw also started a four-way senior school competition with local policeman and former teammate Ashley (Ziff) Arnold.

Burnie's 2018 president Alex McKenzie. Photo: Rugby AU Media/Stuart WalmsleyMcKenzie, 30, and the current captain Hamish Howe, 27, were first exposed to rugby in this now defunct format, which pitted public school students from Burnie and Wynyard against the private school boys at Marist Regional College.

“Those public school kids relished the opportunity to give us a touch up,” Marist old boy McKenzie says. “it was pretty hilarious at times because we just didn’t have that many numbers in the senior grades, so there were some much smaller bodies, but the point was it was our first introduction to the game.”

Lawyer McKenzie often gives a nod in Burnie Magistrates Court to Ziff Arnold if he happens to be guarding a defendant in the dock, and takes great pride in the fact the glaring disparity he witnesses on a daily basis in his work isn’t reflected at the Emus.

“There’s no airs and graces at our rugby club, if you turn up and muck in, you’re welcome,” he says. “I like to think we rub the edges off each other up there, you just can’t roll up and ooze ego, it’s truly a level playing field.”

North West Panthers coach Tye Brown. Photo: Rugby AU Media/Stuart WalmsleyThe club has advertised for new men’s and women’s coaches for the 2019 season and, while there’s only been interest expressed so far by a few ‘local tyre kickers’, the club certainly won’t be going backwards under the current watch.  

“We’re obviously not going to leave the club in the lurch so what we’ll probably be doing is forming a leadership group with three or four guys in early January, come up with a plan, and stick to that,” Kershaw says. “We’ll all be on the same page and one of us will always be at training to keep the players on track.”

The heavy lifting done by the likes of Kershaw and Gerry Horch to keep rugby alive in Burnie was acknowledged at the presentation dinner when the latter was named club person of the year. 

Gerry Horch and Brett Kershaw after the Guzunder Cup. Photo: Rugby AU Media/Stuart WalmsleyBut he and his great mate ‘Krusty’, who was first at the ground earlier that day marking the lines for the Guzunder Cup, understand only too well they’re maintaining a community safety net as well as a sporting club. 

“The other reason I keep it going is a promise to Ken (Allan), who helped start the club,” Kershaw says. “He committed suicide (in 2012), and I always vowed that I would keep it going as much as I could.

“The club still have some connections with his family, which is brilliant, because Ken taught us a lot about the values of rugby and he made lots of friends here.

“No one can do without the club, once you’re involved, but some people just don’t realise it until things get tough.

Kershaw marks the field at Burnie Sports Centre. Photo: Rugby AU Media/Stuart WalmsleyA moment’s silence is observed at the Emus’ first home game every year to remember the club members who have passed away, just like the ‘golden pyramids’ of wood chips piled high at Burnie port are a current monument to the town’s industrial heritage.

Bunnings Warehouse now sits on part of the huge site The Pulp once occupied along Burnie’s foreshore and, fittingly, the Emus are proudly a DIY outfit; the Tassie rugby minnows who show the fight of a marlin.

Former miner and now farmer ‘Taz’ Vivian, who will turn 58 during the 2019 season, would still make the short list for the club’s poster boy and perhaps best summed up why any budding young coaches should consider a stint in at the Emus.

“I’ve brought people back here; flying in and out, and people have moved here - to this lovely little place called Tasmania,” he says. “Even though it’s cold… it’s beautiful, it’s got rugby and I bloody love it.”

If you’re interested in coaching at Burnie Rugby Club in 2019, contact president Patrick Fahy at burnierugby@gmail.com or 0403 160 594.