September 2018

The Nation Reviewed

The return of the Moree Boomerangs

By Paul Connolly
The First on the Ladder arts project is turning things around for a rugby club and the local kids

Dozens of cars are nosed around the perimeter fence of the Burt Jovanovich Oval in Moree, northern New South Wales. On the field, the Moree Boomerangs reserve grade men’s team has just scored a second try against the Narwan Eels in the Group 19 Country Rugby League (CRL) competition. Car horns, honking like excitable geese, greet the four-pointer. Many of the vehicles have their doors thrown open on this sunny Saturday, and from within spill not only conversation and laughter but also the sound of a radio interview between two children:

“What’s your name?”
“What do you like about school?”
“Playing in the playground.”
“Do you go for Moree Boomerangs?”
“Who’s your favourite player?”
“Um … my uncle.”

Soon after, the interviewer winds things up with a station ID: “You’re lis’nin’ to the BBC!”

Not the British Broadcasting Corporation, to be sure. No plummy tones here – or indeed any slick professionalism. This BBC is the tongue-in-cheek acronym for the Boomerangs Broadcasting Corporation, a freewheeling pop-up FM radio station that the Boomerangs, a predominantly Indigenous club, operate live-to-air at every home game. The interviewer for this segment is Ciara, a sassy 12-year-old who is one of a group of kids gathered around a small mixing desk in front of the Boomerangs’ concrete dressing shed. As the kids tee up a song – “Cloud 9” by Indigenous hip-hop artist Baker Boy – the rumble and growl of the men’s first grade side, preparing for their coming match, emanates from the shed.

Operating for the past 18 months, the BBC is part of the “First on the Ladder” arts project, a three-year collaboration between the Moree Boomerangs, Melbourne’s Polyglot Theatre, and regional NSW community arts organisation Beyond Empathy. (The project is also running at the Rumbalara Football Netball Club in Shepparton, Victoria.) Intended to celebrate cultural pride and community connections, First on the Ladder seeks to engage children in the week leading up to home games and on match days themselves. Long-term goals are more ambitious.

Under the guidance of Polyglot staff, local project officers and various artists flown to Moree for their expertise, the children have made hand-coloured life-size stencils of Boomerangs players and pasted them up around town. (Moree has a population of 9300, 21.5 per cent of whom are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander.) They have also created zines and animations, and written, composed and recorded songs. Three of these make their debut on BBC this match day, including an engaging rap called “Little Kids”: “This is for the little kids / They’re tryin’ to keep us off the grid / We’re stuck in the middle kids / Shout out to the little kids.”

Today, on a patch of grass behind a small bleacher, half a dozen children sit cross-legged. They’re painting pictures and making dolls out of newspaper under the guidance of two respected community elders and artists, Aunty Valmai Pitt and Aunty Paula Duncan. Looking on, First on the Ladder’s Moree-based project officer Jemma Craigie says game day activities such as these are the envy of rival clubs. “They say, ‘We wish we had this for our kids.’”

First on the Ladder project manager Ian Pidd says that during the discussion phase of the program’s adoption the Moree Boomerangs asked Polyglot to help establish something that would tell the story of the club to the community, and to give their kids some skills. “Something to help them imagine a future that has broader possibilities,” he says.

One of the kids who has thrived during the project is 15-year-old Dekquitah. She’s become a mainstay of the BBC and has been developing her singing. With the help of visiting hip-hop artists Jacob “Jaytee” Turier and Naomi Wenitong, Dekquitah has recorded a song of her own called “Real Feels”. She has also provided a melodic chorus to a Boomerangs anthem – “Quicker than lightning / Come out fighting / You’re going to get yourself a hiding” – that’s now pumping through the speakers as players enter the field via a corridor of kids waving flags they’ve designed for the occasion.

Football song lyrics don’t always reflect current realities (as the Carlton Football Club’s “we’re the team that never lets you down” reminds us). On this occasion, however, they are almost understated: with anticlimactic ease the ’Rangs give Narwan a 64–0 thrashing. It’s a result that keeps the team on top of the ladder with the finals approaching.

Club president Mitchell Johnson says that the Boomerangs are enjoying one of the best periods in their 93 years – a chequered history noted for devil-may-care football, considerable success and famous alumni (such as former Canterbury Bulldogs star Ewan McGrady), but also for on-field brawls and alcohol-fuelled violence on the sidelines. The club paid dearly for the latter, more dearly than it felt was merited: banned from the competition for 12 seasons between 1998 and 2009.

Since reinstatement in 2010 the club has established a team for the CRL Women’s Nines “tag” competition while the men’s first grade team won back-to-back senior premierships in 2013 and 2014. “We got T-shirts printed after that,” says Johnson, who is also Moree Plains Shire Council’s director of corporate services. “They read ‘Boomerangs don’t just come back, they go back to back.’”

Adding to the good vibe is the promise of coming infrastructure. Adjacent to the paddock-like Burt Jovanovich Oval – located on the southern side of the Mehi River, which seems to separate Moree’s white and black communities – is a smart new footy field equipped with floodlights. As part of a $1.8 million government grant it will be complemented with a new clubhouse and dressing sheds for the Boomerangs’ 100 or so registered players. It’s undreamed-of luxury for a bush club like the Boomerangs in a town with a history of racial tensions and inequalities.

Moree, surrounded by rich, black-soil plains, is a cotton-growing area. It’s also known for its grey nomad–attracting artesian hot springs (the local caravan park’s pools look like the set from the Ron Howard movie Cocoon). But the town and its surrounding plains have long had their issues. For one, the region’s crime rate is significantly higher than the state average in many categories.

It is against this backdrop that the club has reinvented itself. As significant as the on-field results and new infrastructure are, says Johnson, it’s the feel around the club that pleases him most of all. In the past seven years, he says, the Boomerangs – who no longer sell alcohol at home games and fine players for swearing – have significantly reduced player and spectator misbehaviour, and have also participated in dozens of wellbeing programs addressing family violence, sexual health, nutrition and parenting. “We aim for perfection on and off the field, and to be a positive influence in the community outside of the 80 minutes of football.”

Johnson believes that First on the Ladder “has added another dimension”. “It’s all about not waiting for someone else to save you; you need to save yourself.”

As the first grade game enters its second half, Aunty Valmai and Aunty Paula are in the BBC hot seat, being interviewed by Ciara. Aunty Paula recounts playing full-contact rugby league as a girl growing up in Moree in the 1960s, and she praises First on the Ladder for giving kids something to do “in a town that’s always in the news for something bad”. She credits her grandmothers and her mother: “Because of her, I can,” she says, echoing the official theme of NAIDOC Week.

Aunty Valmai then explains to Ciara, and BBC’s listeners, what her life as an artist in Moree is like. “All I do is art work,” she says. “Every piece has a story to it. It’s basically all about the land, and the food what we survived on when we was growing up. I lived on the riverbank, had to fetch our own water. But we never starved; there was always fish. I think that’s why I’ve turned off fish and rabbit. Had it all my life.”

Shortly after, Ciara asks, “Would you like a song?”

Aunty Valmai pauses a moment and asks for “My Island Home”. Moments later Christine Anu’s voice floats along the airwaves of the BBC.

Paul Connolly

Paul Connolly is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist and author, and is the editor of the essay collection Father Figures.

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