The saying goes, “a trophy carries dust; memories last forever”.
The Junee Diesels’ trophy cabinet will see season 2022 as a year of just that – dust collection, with memories the only reminder of what could have been.
Earlier this year, unable to field a full squad of players for first grade, the once-mighty rugby league team had to accept the Group 9 (competition) ruling that they would not be a part of this year’s competition.
It mightn’t seem like a big deal to some but footy in the bush is often the region’s heartbeat – especially for a town so rich in Rugby League history.
Founded in 1926, Junee has produced its share of NRL players including former Test and NSW captain Laurie Daley.
The man who led the Diesels to their last first grade premiership at 17 years old and who their home ground is named after, believes the club will survive.
He says it’s up to the local players to help that happen and hang on to the younger players who are either leaving the game entirely or choosing another sport.
“It’s about trying to make sure everyone is connected and on the same page and working hard to establish that club feel about the side in the town. That’s what it was like when I was there, just a really strong link to the community,” he says.
“That’s what I remember about playing for the Diesels; you’re not only representing your footy club, you’re representing your area.”
In another life, I was the executive producer of The Footy Show (NRL).
I used to love taking the show to “the bush”. Places like Wagga Wagga, Bathurst and Ulladulla saw people camping out the days before to ensure they snagged their tickets. They love their footy and blokes like Laurie Daley are living testament to a country kid going all the way.
I read recently that on one of the first camps pre-Origin, new Queensland coach Billy Slater pulled out a child’s Maroons jumper with the name Langer on the back.
He told the players it was his and as a boy, his dream had been to one day have his own Maroon jumper with his name on it.
Well didn’t the kid from Nambour do just that!
Another country kid who got to live his dream.
So why are the Diesels in this position?
Well, Covid didn’t help. For Junee, the failure of up to eight Fijian players to arrive severely depleted their roster and possibly the hopes of attracting other players.
There has also been the suggestion that “money talks” and more affluent regions are poaching young talent.
That’s a point of view of another famous Junee league identity – the recently retired “Voice of Rugby League” Ray “Rabbits/Rabs” Warren who is immortalised in bronze in the centre of town.
I caught up with him in Junee a couple of weeks ago and talk soon turned to the Diesels’ demise.
“It’s a bloody shame and it’s been going on for years, but you can’t blame a talented kid for taking a better offer!” Rabs says.
And no one begrudges that chance for a young local kid to get a bit more coin in his pocket and hopefully more exposure that may bring his NRL dream a little closer.
Laurie Daley is a great believer that the retention of the younger players rests on the shoulders of senior players. It’s their job to get down to training, reminding them of the mateship, the fun and what a special time it is in their lives.
“I can remember as a young boy the first graders outside the newsagency on a Saturday morning selling raffle tickets,” he says.
“We’d try and sneak into the sheds or listen to what they were saying at halftime. They were the guys I looked up to and were my heroes, not from the NRL but the local first grade side.”
For this season, the broader Diesels club has retained its Ressies, Girls League Tag and Under 16s, which Daley believes gives the club some hope.
Approaching the season’s halfway mark, former Temora rugby league star and grand final winning coach, Group 9 president Andrew Hinchcliffe reflected on the ruling that cost Junee its season.
“It was a really difficult decision around the Junee first grade team, with many factors being considered. A very proud rugby league community, essentially doing it pretty tough,” he says.
“Ultimately it comes down to the strength and depth of the squad at the time and managing the impacts on the broader competition.
“We are all hoping for a healthy Junee club for the future and a competitive first grade squad for 2023.”
Daley agrees and says he won’t let the Diesels go out without a fight.
“Rugby league has given me a lot but it all started with my love for the Junee Diesels,” he says.
“That’s why I want to see them continue for another 100 years.”
So to all you senior players, take the time to say g’day to one of the juniors – because that used to be you.
And to that young kid in Junee – now with a Blues jersey with Daley on the back – keep dreaming, kid. Pull on that Diesels jumper and go out and play your heart out week in and week out.
Be proud of your town and what it means to everyone from there and always remember, what is not started today is never finished tomorrow.
Glenn Pallister is a highly experienced media producer with more than 35 years in television and entertainment including on Wide World of Sports. He was Executive Producer of The NRL Footy Show for seven years and in 2004 he was appointed Nine’s Head of Entertainment. Glenn continues to work in television sports production from his new home in Wagga where he and wife Karen run Le Brooks Café in the Australian Arcade.