Maroons bring community to a standstill
"Are they coming? Here they come!"
Thousands of rugby league fans crane their necks and inch closer to the centre of Main Street in Proserpine as the Queensland Maroons emerge from the team bus and reach out to the masses at their annual fan day.
Some 6,000 people converged on the centre of the 'Gateway to the Whitsundays' to get a glimpse, a smile, an autograph or the most prized possession, a photo with one of the warriors who represent their state in rugby league's toughest arena.
Designed to give those in regional areas a taste of Origin, the fan days that have become such an important part of the Maroons' preparation in recent years and also serve to give the players a dose of reality.
Having visited Bundaberg, Roma and Longreach in recent years, Tuesday's visit to Proserpine was intended to provide a few moments of excitement in a region reeling from the record low sugar prices currently experienced on global markets.
It has impacted the local Proserpine and Whitsunday Junior Rugby League but given the representation of junior teams and the proliferation of Maroons merchandise spanning the past two decades, their love of rugby league remains steadfast, QRL officials describing it as the largest turnout they have ever had for one of their fan days.
To charter a flight for the Queensland Origin squad, corporate partners and media is an exercise that is 12 months in the making and comes at great expense but the pay-off for those in attendance is a memory they will treasure forever.
Young boys in Maroons jerseys handed down from fathers and brothers walked together along the street with their arms draped around each other's shoulders, united in a shared experience that saw the town of less than 4,000 people swell well beyond its normal capacity.
The walk of some 500 metres up Main Street took close to two hours to complete as players fought against a flood of fawning fans and was almost enough to bring the Queensland Rugby League chairman, Peter Betros, to tears.
"This is the biggest response I've seen. It's blown all the other ones I've been to out of the water. I've never seen this many people at a fan day before," said Betros as he surveyed the scenes before him.
"You get really emotional when you come to places like this because rugby league is in the DNA of people and to see how much it means to actually bring these Origin players out... Look at the turnout here.
"I know people who have driven two and three hours to get here today and it just shows that we're doing the right thing by doing it and we're on the right track.
"People think, 'We're a thousand kilometres away and people forget about us,' but nothing could be further from the truth.
"This is a very, very important area to rugby league and we devote a lot of resources to it and we will continue to do that."
While Maroons legends such as Allan Langer and Steve Walters may have been enticed into the Grand Central Hotel and Metropole Hotel to sample some of the local hospitality, the players went from the street parade into a capacity luncheon at the Entertainment Centre before being swamped again at a junior rugby league clinic and signing session at Les Stagg Oval.
The crowds were extraordinary wherever the Maroons went, but all the while in the background the Wilmar Sugar Mill chugged along, a sobering reminder of the difficult times faced by an industry that provides the pay cheques to so many North Queenslanders.
"A lot of these sugar towns along the 'Sugar Coast' are struggling economically at the moment so it's good to bring the Origin team here because we know this is the true heart of rugby league here in North Queensland," Betros said.
"All the [junior rugby league] registrations in the sugar towns are down because families have moved away, because parents moved away looking for work. They're still operating and still playing but obviously got less numbers to work on.
"Some of the competitions have had to be reworked a little bit to make sure that the kids still get a game regularly but it's just one of those things that is happening around Australia at the moment.
"It was Mal's idea initially to take the team somewhere where we could connect with local communities. That's where the idea first came from and I think we underestimated the response we were going to get and I think we underestimated the response we got here again today."