Greg Growden writes ...
Country spirit alive and well despite scoreline
Greg Growden
June 12, 2013
The Lions' Sean O'Brien fends off Combined Country's Alex Gibbon, Queensland-New South Wales Combined Country v British & Irish Lions, Hunter Stadium, Newcastle, June 11, 2013
The Lions' Sean O'Brien fends off Combined Country's Alex Gibbon in a dominant display by the tourists © Getty Images

You know you're getting on when you're among the dwindling few who remember when Country teams were an innovative rugby force. That is no longer, with Tuesday night's match against the British & Irish Lions showing that the Country spirit may still be there, but not the surprise.

New South Wales Country matches against touring teams were once the highlight of the year, as they so often provided wacky moments. When former Wallabies coach Daryl Haberecht was in charge of Country, he would use these matches to devise outlandish moves that didn't always come off, but invariably produced moments of hilarity and even outrage. As former Wallabies Test forward John Lambie explained, Haberecht had a very simple philosophy: "The laws of the game tell you what you can't do; only the imagination limits what you can do."

Haberecht invented the famous "ball up the jumper" move that enabled NSW Country to beat Sydney in 1975, plus the 14-man scrum. He made the 1989 Lions-Country match memorable by providing a radical way of overcoming an opposing dominant scrum. Simple, you get one of your players to run straight over it.

The move was called "Gallipoli". The venue: Newcastle No. 2 Sports Ground. And the man handed the responsibility with hurtling over the top was Country winger Dwayne Vignes.

Country had the feed, won the scrum, and Vignes at full stretch, jumped onto the back of the Country second rowers. He then leapt onto the Lions pack, only to lodge his foot between their second rowers and stumble. The Lions weren't delighted with this, and as Vignes put it, "did a barn dance on my head." Referee David Kennedy penalised Vignes for dangerous play, then reversed it, castigating the Lions for over-vigorous rucking.

At the back of the main grandstand, several ageing doyens of the Lions media pack "tut-tutted" away for minutes on end, saying this disgusting move was against the spirit of the game. One old grizzled British journalistic fogey was near apoplectic with rage. Haberecht just laughed it off.

Such matches reminded all of the power the country areas once held over Australian Rugby. Apart from nurturing countless Wallabies, NSW Country had a considerable off-field structure, boasting numerous ambitious administrators, such as Ross Turnbull, who used it as their base for higher titles.

That power has long disappeared, and bush footy is now more of an after-thought, which is why Tuesday night's Combined Country fixture was important for reminding all how the outlying regions were once so powerful and imaginative.

Rugby has moved on. No longer can you expect part-time footy players to hop off the farm, out of their plumbers' van or labouring sites and expect them to be competitive against an opposition, professional to the extreme. It is even harder when you only have a few days to prepare, and team-mates were introducing themselves to each other for the first time just over 48 hours before kick-off.

But that didn't deter Country. They lacked any real stars, were soon outclassed by the tourists, and while they didn't do anything fancy, never gave up. To their credit, Country, relying on kicking most of their possession away and bustling away at the breakdown, improved as the match went on, and succeeded in flustering the Lions into making unnecessary errors.

Over in the Andrew Johns Stand, the Country followers, out-voiced by the Lions supporters, were circumspect. They knew their place. This was not going to be pretty, so they might as well humour themselves through it.

It wasn't long before someone in row W, bay 4 was mimicking the long gone Federal Member of Parliament Fred Daly's famous line: "We're Country Members ... yes, we remember." It also wasn't long before getting on the end of a long food and beer queue became a more appealing option than wincing through the lead-up to another Lions overlap try. But they hung around in the vain hope that Country would score.

No wonder there was one resounding groan when Cairns removalist Dale Ah Wang got over the line late in the game, only for a video replay to show Country's chance for glory was ruined by two knock-ons.

Sure, the match was lopsided. But these fixtures still deserve their spot on touring calendars, for the mere fact of allowing a group of primarily heart-and-soul amateur footballers the chance to reminisce for decades on end about the night they took on the Lions. And it doesn't really matter if the first thing they forget is the lopsided scoreline.

The Lions ran out convincing winners over the Combined NSW-Queensland Country side
© ESPN Australia / New Zealand

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