LEADER: Rugby league immortal and Monto junior Mal Meninga says outback Queensland is in desparate need of passionate individuals to keep the sport alive.
LEADER: Rugby league immortal and Monto junior Mal Meninga says outback Queensland is in desparate need of passionate individuals to keep the sport alive. Dave Howarth

Custodians of the game, it's time to step up

RUGBY LEAGUE: Few have given more to rugby league than Mal Meninga.

He's one of the most respected voices in the game. And for good reason.

His record speaks for itself.

He captained his club, state and country in a playing career spanning more than 400 first-grade games including 45 Tests, 32 Origins and three premierships.

He coached the Maroons to nine series wins in 10 years and has since presided over the national team, which he led to Four Nations and World Cup success.

Immortalised as one of the 12 finest talents the sport has ever seen.

The greatest individual honour a player can receive, reserved only for the very best.

THE PROBLEM: State of the League

INTRODUCTION: The Decline

PART ONE: Mal Meninga Weighs In

PART TWO: Gavin Ford's Sacrifice

PART THREE: Richard Dugdale's Herculean Task

PART FOUR: Short End of the Stick

Like many of the game's greats, Mal began his journey in the bush.

Mal Meninga in 1965 with his pet kangaroo. Aged five, this was around the time his rugby league journey began with the mighty Monto Roos.
Mal Meninga in 1965 with his pet kangaroo. Aged five, this was around the time his rugby league journey began with the mighty Monto Roos. State Library of Queensland

Outback Queensland. The heartland of rugby league and a nursery for the likes of Lockyer, Beetson, Renouf, Shearer, Scott.

And the list goes on.

From humble beginnings in Bundaberg and Monto, Meninga reached the top.

His league-mad parents Norm and Leona were instrumental in the creation of a junior competition in the North Burnett.

But the next Mal Meninga - the next immortal - won't come from the Monto Roos, they no longer have a team.

History has shown that clubs and competitions in the country are fickle. They have a tendency to come and go.

Through the years this has always been the case.

Recently, both Biggenden and reigning premiers Gayndah spent a decade on the sidelines.

The latter came back stronger than ever.

But those who understand rugby league in the North Burnett will tell you this time feels different.

Meninga spoke to the Central & North Burnett Times, joining the chorus of influential voices who fear for the future of rugby league in the bush.

Like other highly-placed individuals, he said it's hard to find answers for rugby league's dwindling support.

"It's a dilemma, there's no doubt about it,” Meninga said.

"I'd love to have an answer but sometimes it's hard to put your finger on the reasons why. It's sad.

"When I grew up in Monto, rugby league and sport in general was the central social hub for the community.

"I started off playing schoolboy footy in Monto in what was a very strong competition.

"Because of my parents and other parents in the region, there was a junior competition.

"Passionate parents and volunteers that love the game of rugby league need to encourage their kids to play.

"I was lucky in that sense.”

Mal Meninga's first day in school, Monto 1965.
Mal Meninga's first day in school, Monto 1965. State Library of Queensland

Unfortunately, most North Burnett kids today are not that lucky.

Gayndah is now home to the only juniors, the Central Burnett Brumbies, who compete against Kingaroy, Cherbourg, Murgon, Nanango and Wondai in the South Burnett competition.

With no shortage of local talent, it's no coincidence Gayndah's senior team have won the premiership two years in a row.

Long-distance travel is part and parcel of rural sport, but only the most committed parents are prepared to put in the hours, week in, week out.

Particularly as rugby league comes under threat from less contact-heavy alternatives - soccer and AFL.

But rugby league in the bush needs these passionate individuals now more than ever.

Menigna says without them, the sport will die.

"People are busy are trying to make a living and other things start to take priority,” he said.

"Rugby league is and always has been driven and run by passionate individuals in the community.

"The coaches and supporters and the people who run the canteen.

"The fundraisers and the people who wash the jerseys each week.

"You can't do it without those people and the things they do to keep the clubs alive.”

FAMILY: Mal (left) and brother Geoffrey (right) with father Norm in Monto. Norm Meninga was a legend of bush rugby league and successful captain-coach of the Thangool Possums for several years.
FAMILY: Mal (left) and brother Geoffrey (right) with father Norm in Monto. Norm Meninga was a legend of bush rugby league and successful captain-coach of the Thangool Possums for several years. State Library of Queensland

Meninga is the first to admit grassroots football needs funding, but said placing all of the blame on the NRL is a cop-out.

The problem will not go away. The response must be community-driven.

"I understand the resources the NRL and QRL provide are probably not substantial enough,” he said.

"From a game development point of view I would say it's under-resourced.

"But you can't just blame the NRL all the time.

"It's easy to say they're at fault because they don't send enough development officers up here but there's more than one answer.

"If you don't have enough passionate people who want to support the game then is it worth them making the trip?

"It's a conundrum.”

So, what is the cause - could it all boil down to economics?

A population going backwards thanks to the lack of industry, dwindling job opportunities and the transient nature of the rural workforce.

With options already limited, the role of sport in country communities should not be underestimated.

As Meninga said, it was once firmly at the heart of the North Burnett way of life.

The hundreds of people that turned up at Gayndah's Peter Dunn Oval for Saturday's grand final would suggest that is still the case.

The community turned out in force to cheer Gayndah on to their second straight premiership.
The community turned out in force to cheer Gayndah on to their second straight premiership. Mackenzie Colahan

"Sport drives emotional health but economic strength drives everything else,” Meninga said.

"You are not alone. I know other communities are suffering as well.

"It's a problem in all regional and rural areas.

"That's no excuse.

"Obviously I would like to see rugby league prosper. It hurts me.

"I'd love nothing more than for Monto, Eidsvold, Mundubbera and Gayndah and all those committees to be thriving.

"Not only the football, we want to see those communities thriving economically.

"When they thrive economically then everything else seems to follow.”


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