Austin does great things for junior league
Sunday afternoon at Pepper Stadium and the Raiders ran off at fulltime having beaten the Panthers 34-24. It was a big game, approaching the business end of the season, and the focus understandably was on the following week and moving into the Top 8.
So just one win outside the cut-off, with serious work to be done, and serious stuff to be discussed, why were 20 Under 10s from the local area enthusiastically following the Green Machine into the visitors sheds?
Adding to the confusion, they were mostly Panthers fans!
Well it turns out that they were even bigger Blake Austin fans, and their hero had arranged for them to hang out with the Canberra team after the game – win, lose or draw.
The Doonside juniors are managed by Blake's mum, and three of his cousins play in the one team. The invitation to the sheds was a typical Austin gesture – thoughtful and generous – and one I'm sure those kids are still talking about today at school.
"I had to be pretty careful– a lot of the boys were showering and stuff and there were around 30 all together in the group," Austin said with a laugh.
"They all love Edrick Lee, Croker… and myself I hope!"
Austin is without a doubt the kids' favourite player. He has helped out at training a few times this year, despite having made the move to Canberra.
In fact Austin has done more for Junior Rugby League than many.
Last year he coached the Doonside Under 18s team, a wonderful story that I was privileged to cover for The Footy Show. You might remember these truly memorable kids - they were deemed the 'un-coachables' until Austin came in and took over.
"A lot of the boys are from broken homes, live in housing commission accommodation and were always made to believe they were lesser citizens than other people," Austin sensitively noted.
"Having someone like me go in – an NRL player – and show them that people care and that they can achieve things made a big difference.
"Some of them had been in and out of juvenile detention and they'd done it tough, but being part of a team and having people who believed in them made a huge difference."
I spent a training session with the boys – it was an extraordinary experience. I interviewed each of them after the extensive and impressively rigorous workout, and after the usual questions on tactics, fitness, favoured positions and ambition, I finished the interviews by asking the lads where they would be if they weren't part of this rugby league club. More than half said jail and, chillingly, a couple said dead.
"I really miss the coaching – I miss spending time with the boys," Austin lamented.
"But I've given dad the reins and he's coaching them this year.
"They're not doing as well without their superstar coach, but they're trying and they're staying out of trouble, and that's the most important thing."
Austin keeps in contact with the boys via social media (see – it can be used by footballers for good!), adding that there is a bit of a focus amongst the boys, as indeed with all fans, about his hirsute appearance of late.
"They give me stick about my beard all the time, but I can cop that, as long as they're behaving!"
Austin has expressed some concern that the negative publicity surrounding the Fifita twins' incident at a Penrith Junior Rugby League game will discourage NRL players from being involved with junior clubs, but urges others in his position not to be deterred from becoming involved.
"I can understand the passion and frustration – there's been times I've had to remind myself who I am and that I have to show respect," Austin said.
"But the good that NRL players can do for Junior Rugby League - and the young Australians who play - cannot be overlooked."
Being on show, and on notice, 24 hours a day is often identified as one of the real disadvantages of super stardom. And of course, all superstars are human, even the greatest superstars of our great game.
How lucky are we, and the Doonside boys, that so many of our great players are prepared to commit time, effort and energy to our junior ranks, rather than choose the understandable appeal of a little more well deserved down-time out of the public arena.