Cobar is a tiny town in far north-western New South Wales. As the crow flies, it is more than 700 kilometres from Sydney.
The locals like to think that their town is part of rugby’s heartland, grassroots style – but there is barely a blade of green to be seen anywhere in Cobar.
Barren wasteland and desert is more like it. And in the middle of that barren wasteland, stretching almost as far as the eye can see, is the huge, underground Endeavor mine.
It’s the zinc, lead and silver that the mine produces that sustains the town of roughly 3,800. However, on winter weekends, 99.9 per cent of the town’s inhabitants can be found supporting their local heroes, the Cobar Camels rugby team.
In fact, one of the few places where you can find patches of green (with a lot of brown trampled through) is at the Ailsa Fitzsimmons Memorial Oval, the Camels’ home field and training ground.
The Cobar Camels, who play in the Western Plains zone, would have to be the most unique rugby club in Australia, if not the world.
Firstly, there is the team itself. As you would expect, it is comprised entirely of miners. The coaches have no choice but to juggle their team selection around the mine’s work roster: Seven days on, seven days off.
Then there is the travel required just to play an eighty-minute match.
Cobar is geographically challenged, and that is an understatement. The nearest away ground is 130 kilometres by road. The farthest is 480.
A Camels player might finish his shift at seven on a Saturday morning, jump in a bus, travel three or four hours on the road, play two halves of rugby, and then travel another four hours back to Cobar. Dedication is the only way to describe it.
And with mine work being a transitory profession, the Camels get creative in recruiting new players.
In 2008, the club was facing a major crisis as they struggled to find enough players to field a team. Thankfully for the Camels, fate intervened when a former Fijian international rugby player, Netava Tagi, answered the call. A job was found for Tagi at the mine and he took up the roles of player and coach with the team.
The crisis passed and the club soon began taking on members from different sporting codes, with players from rugby league, AFL and soccer beginning to turn out for the Camels. At one point they even recruited a former Canadian Ice hockey player as a prop forward.
Fast-forward to 2016 and the Camels are doing their best to embrace the modern way of playing the game. There is a new head coach, John ‘The Outlaw’ Barnes, suitably named for a town in the state’s ‘wild’ west. An experienced sportsman, Barnes also doubles as the team’s strength and conditioning coach.
The Outlaw originates from a strong rugby pedigree, having spent 30 years playing the game in South Africa. More than half those years were in first grade, and five years playing provincial rugby. He moved to Australia to become strength and conditioning coach for the Western Force in Perth, who won the international Super Rugby competition in 2014.
Barnes also has a Master’s degree in personal training. He was a trainer for the South African Army’s special forces and, at one time, wrestled professionally under the name his Camels would come to know him by: ‘Outlaw’. They like to do things a little differently in Cobar.
The Camels only had one win last season. They’ve only ever won two first grade premierships in their history, in 1976 and 1996. The Outlaw is determined turn this record around, and this year could be the year.
If you’re sceptical, just ask anyone from Cobar and they’ll put you right.
But even if the Camels don’t end up being the best side in the competition, they are certainly going to be the fittest with the ‘Outlaw’ laying down the law.
You might think that travelling vast distances just to play a game would become a bit of an ordeal for a team, but it doesn’t seem to worry the Camels one little bit. The travel isn’t a problem but the cost of doing so is. At one point, the club was spending close to $20,000 a year just to play games of rugby.
The Camels needed a cost effective solution so they did what any other club might do in their situation. They bought themselves a bus. It’s not the fastest or flashiest piece of machinery but it gets the job done, and the club does its best to make each away trip a special event.
How do you go about entertaining a group of hard nut rugby players for four hours? No worries, the Camels have that sorted: You get everyone to sing songs. Plenty of songs. You sing them loud and out of tune, but it won’t bother anyone. When you’re with your mates and doing something you love no one’s going to be bothered if you don’t get the tune quite right.
The team is named after an animal that is a ship of the desert, built for endurance and the long haul. There really is no better way to sum up this bush rugby club.