NRL finals stars farewell bush footy legend
Ben Hunt, Corey Oates and Andrew McCullough took time out from this week's finals build-up to attend a packed funeral in Rockhampton to farewell local league legend Paul Byrne after the 55-year-old died due to leukaemia.
Byrne was the team manager, trainer and medical man for Yeppoon's St Brendan's College league team for many years. NRL players Hunt, Oates and Jake Granville played for the school team.
Hunt, Oates, Granville and Broncos hooker Andrew McCullough - who did not attend St Brendan's but became close to Byrne - were on hand with a 1500-strong crowd to bid farewell to him on Monday. Former South Sydney outside back Jamie Simpson was also at the funeral.
Hunt told NRL.com that Byrne was a constant presence in his youth and that his trek north was a cause for reflection.
"He was probably my dad's best mate for as long as I can remember," Hunt said of Byrne.
"When I went to primary school he was always around. It does give you a bit of perspective. It's the way I've always looked at life – you have to try and enjoy every moment and go out there and have some fun. It can be cut short at any time.
"Going back there I saw a lot of friends I haven't seen for a long time. I saw a lot of family I haven't seen for a while. It reminds you that it's not all about footy."
St Brendan's First XIII coach Terry Hansen said Byrne had been a major influence on a plethora of NRL players that had come through his rugby league program.
"Paul Byrne was a wonderful support to the boys and like a second father to Ben Hunt, and Jake Granville the same," Hansen told NRL.com
"Byrnesy was my trainer and medico and did the last 15 years of Confraternity Shields with me. He'd patch them up and get them back on the field and had a happy knack of making the kids mentally tough because he was such a mentally tough person himself.
"He fought acute myeloid leukaemia. The doctors gave him two days to live twice, just after Easter, and the doctors sent the palliative care unit around but he politely told them to go away. He went back for a second round of chemo and ended up getting pneumonia and that was the end of it."
Hansen said Byrne was "the beating heart of rugby league" and the kind of charismatic figure who could not be replaced.
"He was there for the boys all the way through and the fact that Corey, Andrew McCullough and Ben all came up in finals week showed how much they appreciated him," Hansen said.
"Ben Hunt's father Geoff has always been a sounding board for him but Byrnesy was a second sounding board. You can't really put in words how close they were and what an influence he was."
Hansen sent NRL.com a photo of one of the St Brendan's winning Confraternity Shield sides from 2006 that Byrne worked with, which included Ben Ridge, Dave Taylor, Granville and Hunt.
Hansen is at the back, to the far left, and Geoff Hunt is far left of the middle row.
Byrne is at the far right at the back, a fitting spot for him as he was Hansen's right-hand man through many successful campaigns.