A phone conversation in early January between NRL CEO Todd Greenberg and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian was behind the morale-boosting and economically successful trial in Bega.
Parramatta and Penrith’s visit to the Saphire Coast that injected $5 million into the local economy and lifted the spirits of those struggling to cope after the devastating bushfires.
Like most, Greenberg had watched as South Coast communities were decimated by the unprecedented fires that claimed 25 lives and destroyed thousands of homes, and he wanted to know how the NRL could help.
"What we need you to do is what the NRL does best, get into some of these regions and lend a hand," Berejiklian told him.
The reasons were clear to all who spent time in the region for Saturday’s EISS Super Saphire Trial Tribute match that finished in a fitting 22-22 draw before a capacity crowd at Bega Recreation Ground.
This was about more than a game of rugby league, the visit by Penrith and Parramatta players was a much-needed boost for people doing it tough financially and emotionally, including children whose summer holidays were largely spent indoors because of the smoke or on alert to evacuate.
"If you actually think about it, these kids have been challenged in every single way and not just for a fire event that happened for a day, these bloody things went for months and to see the kids change when a footy player lobs up in their community is incredibly special," Bega MP Andrew Constance said.
Constance has been praised for his ability to reflect the anguish and desperation felt in the local communities to those watching from afar on television and along with the likes of Tim Salway and Cobargo publican David Allen, he has risen above the crisis to inspire others.
The toll caused by the ongoing emergency hit home for Constance recently when his 10-year-old son, Will, asked after two weeks of heavy rain: "Are we safe now."
There are genuine concerns about mental health and the players helped deliver the NRL State of Mind program in communities and also visited schools, signed autographs and posed for photos at open training sessions.
"When we went through the fires so many people felt alone and the community coming together and the strength and resilience that neighbours bring to each other and the community brings each other is really important," Constance said.
"The NRL through the initiative of bringing teams here is part of that, so that does save lives.
"We have enormous risk of young people getting into some long-term depression and self-harm.
"Moments like this can change a life path so we are very sensitive about that.
"This is more than football, this is who we are, and that’s what this does.
"You’ve changed lives today and you have given our community a massive injection of hope at a time that we have needed it."
'There is no grieving time'
Panthers coach Ivan Cleary had played in the last match at Bega Recreational Ground when he helped North Sydney to a 19-18 defeat of Penrith in the 1995 Tooheys Challenge so he was keen to return and captain James Tamou also wanted to help after his own personal bushfire experience.
Parramatta mentor Brad Arthur has a connection to the South Coast after beginning his coaching career with Batemans Bay in 1996 and he didn’t hesitate when asked to shift the club’s last trial before the opening round of the Telstra Premiership.
Both coaches and their players now feel they got as much from the experience as the people they wanted to help, with the Eels spending a day on Salway’s farm as they heard how he lost 163 cattle and his father, Robert, and brother, Patrick, in the New Year’s Eve fires.
The heat was so intense that part of an aluminium roof had melted, which should only occur at temperatures above 660 degrees Celsius, while aluminium dinghies were shrivelled to the size of hubcaps.
Eels brotherhood inspires farmer after double tragedy
Both Salway’s grandmothers also died within the next three days but as Constance said "if you want to meet someone inspirational who can lift your spirits, Tim’s the guy".
Eels halfback Mitchell Moses said: "We went out to Tim’s farm and just to see how tough he is with everything that has happened was incredible.
"He had his little bloke Blake with him as well and he was joking around, it just looked like nothing fazed them.
"They just got on with their lives and they kept saying ‘there are always more people out there that need more’. It just speaks volumes about their community and how tough they all are."
Jillaroos stars Millie Boyle and Kezie Apps are from the Saphire Coast and they were also able to provide an insight into what it was like for people living there.
"My dad lives out near Quaana and the paddocks were just black and a few of the neighbours have lost their houses," Boyle said.
This is more than football, this is who we are.Andrew Constance
"Even a few days after [the fire], the cows just started dropping because of all the smoke.
"But they just got back into work, there is no grieving time because the cows need feeding or the fences need repairing so it is just ‘next job, next job’. It’s so devastating what has happened but I think everyone wants to help and it is helping."
Apps said businesses had been hit hard financially by the loss of trade during their peak tourism period.
"It is the busiest time of the year over New Year’s and they missed out on the booming times so this will definitely help to put money back into those businesses," she said.
Match Highlights: Panthers v Eels
'They called themselves mosquitoes'
While the Eels players had dinner with the locals at Cobargo pub, the Panthers attended a community BBQ in Bembooka and met firefighters, members of the army sent to the South Coast to help with the recovery and other emergency service workers or volunteers.
Tamou was able to relate to them his story of helping to fight fires near Braidwood, north of Batemans Bay, where his parents-in-law live, and he said many of the firefighters were working up to 20 hours a day without any respite for a month.
Tamou's personal tale amid bushfire tragedy
"There was your average mum and dad, and aunties and uncles and retirees, who were working 12-hour shifts.
"They were very thin [in numbers] and the effort I saw there was quite inspiring," Tamou said.
"We were six weeks into pre-Christmas training so I thought I’d jump in and I will do what I can but after a big day of fighting fires it really took it out of me, and I only did a fraction of what they did.
"Some of them were walking around with black ash over them and speaking to them, they had families so they had plans over the Christmas or New Year’s break. It wasn’t just the massive, massive efforts of the RFS but the local community too.
"They called themselves mosquitoes, they had utes with a tank of water in the back and they’d just go around and try to put out spot fires wherever they could.
"They were doing it tough, the whole area had evacuated. I have never been afraid of anything but something uncontrollable like that made for some scary times."
Cleary king of the kids after Bega trial
'Darkest of days to best of days'
Dragons, Rabbitohs, Raiders and Storm players have also been to the South Coast in recent weeks, while the Sharks visited Kangaroo Valley.
Fundraising efforts will continue across the opening round of the Telstra Premiership, with the NRL partnering with the Salvation Army to raise donations, but when Greenberg contacted Berejiklian in January they agreed the code had the ability to make a far greater impact.
Bega Valley Mayor Kristy McBain said the efforts of the clubs and players were greatly appreciated.
"You will never know the difference your visit has made to a number of people in our community, helping out on farms, eating in our restaurants and shops and training in our gyms," McBain said.
"It is a bit of a historic moment for us - off the back of what has been a horrendous summer, the last weekend of summer ends in something special for our community."
Constance added: "We’ve gone from the darkest of days to the best of days and it is because of the NRL this weekend. People’s spirits are lifted, our kids are lifted, the footy players are lifted and that’s because we have all just come together.
"We are unified in recovery and the NRL is at the heart of it."