Maroons bring Longreach to life
With such drama surrounding their build-up to Game Two perhaps it was a brave move to put the only 11 fit Queenslanders on a charter plane to Queensland's central west at all but from the moment the Maroons landed in Longreach, any suggestion of disarray was overcome by goodwill, broad smiles and a sense of wonderment.
Even putting the captain, Cameron Smith, on the back of a bull named Jigsaw as soon as he stepped out of the airport and handing Johnathan Thurston and Aidan Guerra shears and sheep in need of a haircut couldn't sabotage a day designed to lift not only the spirits of a town decimated by drought but that of a Queensland team licking their wounds.
Eagle Street was overflowing with schoolchildren, junior rugby league players, business owners and shearing contractors who waited an extra day before heading back to work, just for the chance to see and perhaps even meet the men who three times a year for the past eight years have represented their state with such pride.
A street parade, sportsman's lunch to raise funds for the drought appeal and a junior rugby league clinic were all crammed into a five-hour visit in a town some 800 kilometres west of Rockhampton.
Stewart Marshall is the president of the Longreach Thomson Tigers junior rugby league club – the club that gave Maroons prop Matthew Scott his start in the game – and said that the commitment of the kids who play the game today stretches over hundreds of kilometres each and every week.
"Not in a million years," Stewart told NRL.com when asked if he ever thought he would see the day that the mighty Maroons came to Longreach.
"[Footy] is struggling but with their commitment and everything the kids show, we're getting there.
"We have to travel 3,000 to 4,000 kays a year to each town so everyone can have a game of footy. We're pretty good here because we're central but we still have to travel 200 kays some weeks. One of the teams has to travel 400 kilometres each way for a game."
It's a tale all too familiar for local hero Matt Scott, who was welcomed back into town with a giant Maroons jersey with his name emblazoned across it hanging from a crane on the road in from the airport that helped to forge the Qantas name.
He usually sneaks into town and out to the pub run by his sister when he comes back from Townsville and knows the lasting impact that such a visit can have on such a remote area.
"The spirit is always there, you can tell by just walking down the street, but everyone is doing it tough," said Scott, who played his junior footy at Longreach because his home-town of Ilfracombe couldn't put together a team.
"The drought doesn't just impact the farmers but the town also because the farmers don't get to spend their money that they usually do so it filters down through a lot of aspects. It's a tough time at the moment for everyone but it's good to come out and just do something like this and take everyone's mind off it and give them an opportunity to interact with such a great Queensland side.
"We've been to places like Bundaberg, Roma and 'Rocky' (Rockhampton) after natural disasters so it is important we come out here. This is probably the most regional place that we've been in terms of distance and I know as a kid growing up we never got much exposure to professional rugby league.
"We can't bring rain but I know there are people in town from all over the place today so obviously that's going to inject a little bit of money and a little bit of spirit into the place but it's really more about lifting everyone's spirits.
"Drought conditions make it hard to play rugby league but hopefully we can inject a bit of enthusiasm into everyone and see that local footy stay strong."
It took more than an hour for the Maroons to make their way down the 300 metres of Eagle Street, barely able to take two steps without being asked for another photo or autograph. Kids from the Longreach Thomson, Winton, Blackall and Barcaldine clubs were there along with students from local schools, Our Lady's Primary School and Longreach State School, lining the street.
One of those boys was 10-year-old Ty Jesberg, whose father Tony works in kangaroo culling, the one animal that seems to thrive in drought conditions.
Tony estimates that the numbers of sheep in the region have dwindled from as many as 30-40 million to little more than a million today and as a result shearing teams have been cut to the bare minimum, if any at all.
Some farmers have been forced into receivership as the financial burden proved insurmountable but for a few hours at least, Longreach was the centre of the rugby league universe, and kids who play the game for the pure joy of it could dream that they could rise from the same beginnings as Matt Scott to be one of the best players in the game.
"Rough fields, long trips but good fun," was Scott's summation of junior footy in Queensland's central west.
"Ilfracombe didn't have a junior team growing up so I had to play for Longreach and later the Gemfield Giants which was four hours for a home game.
"I know how tough everyone does it so to come out and try and help out is pretty special."