Contributed by: Wesley Hull
Last year, AFL Cairns lost its annual AFL Premiership match to fierce rival, Townsville. After a proud history of hosting pre-season cup AFL matches, the city received a VFL match in 2010 between the Gold Coast Suns and the Bendigo Bombers (affiliated then with Essendon).
From 2011 to 2018, Cazalys Stadium then hosted AFL Premiership matches featuring the Gold Coast Suns – a regular, linked heavily to the club’s talent academy in Cairns. Their opponents, Richmond, Western Bulldogs and North Melbourne, put on a show which captivated Cairns’ audiences on and off the field – but now that match is gone and questions remain as to the impact that will have on the local game, especially at grassroots level.
But four past and present VFL/AFL players use their knowledge of their time involved in Cairns footy, and on the bigger stage, to consider the state of Cairns footy – past, present and future.
Courtenay Dempsey (Essendon)
Between 2006 and 2016, Courtenay played 133 games for Essendon in the AFL, along the way kicking 35 goals. According to Courtenay, “I got drafted in 2005 to the Essendon Bombers and was playing there until 2016. My connection to AFL Cairns is through the Manunda Hawks.”
Born in Mt Isa and playing much of his junior footy in Cairns, he recalls, “my earliest memories of the competition is probably travelling away for all the representative teams with my mates and having a great time.”
“The biggest challenge probably for AFL Cairns was that back then it was very hard to get noticed as we were not living in an AFL state nor was it a big city, so we had to either move away from home or really be able to make recruiters look at you. That basically led me onto probably my biggest challenge when I moved away from Cairns to Brisbane to attend school at Brisbane Boys College.”
Looking on from a distance, Courtenay has seen change in Cairns footy. “I think the game has definitely grown since the last time I have been involved and it certainly helps with the involvement of the Gold Coast Suns having a presence there. But I still don’t see why the sport can’t get bigger up there.”
“I think [the loss of the annual premiership match] will have a little impact on the game there. I think AFL Cairns will need to continue the strong relationship with Gold Coast Suns and perhaps start other relationships with other competitions like the NTFL. The game will definitely not lose out with the commitment of the Gold Coast Suns and their academy they have in Cairns.”
Courtenay is proud of his role during his time at Manunda Hawks and under the AFL Cairns umbrella. “Yeah I think anyone would be proud of where they came from and the opportunity they have had to make it to the top level.”
Ron Wearmouth (Collingwood)
A Collingwood favourite of almost legendary status, Ronnie Wearmouth played 186 games over 13 seasons with the Magpies. He was a part of four VFL grand finals with Collingwood, including the drawn 1977 match against North Melbourne and the replay that followed. His small stature disguised just what a powerhouse rover he was, running all over the field with his long, flowing hair.
When asked about his greatest memories of his playing days, Wearmouth didn’t hesitate. “Playing in those grand finals is something I will never forget – walking out onto the MCG and hearing that crowd.”
He may not have achieved a premiership, but Wearmouth says it was all worth it to play with his best mates. “To play alongside my great mate, Billy Picken, and the other boys, was just great.”
Wearmouth’s post-VFL years has seen him coaching and building his removalist truck company. But along the way he has spent time watching his son, Dylan, become a player of note. Whilst Dylan got a chance in the TAC Cup teams, he missed out on drafting and instead travelled north to the Sunshine Coast and then to Port Douglas. He became one of only three Port Douglas Crocs players to play in four club flags.
Dad couldn’t be prouder.
Ron has seen Cairns footy from a different perspective, not as a player but predominantly as a proud spectator. But he admits to seeing change in the local league.
“[AFL Cairns footy] is on the verge of getting there as a league, but lopsidedness [amongst wealthy versus less wealthy clubs] makes it [the league] uneventful. But the new club, Pyramid Power, winning the reserves flag last year is exciting. They were great to watch.”
Wearmouth does believe that losing the premiership game will hurt. He has reservations about the AFL’s priorities, however. He does not believe the AFL should be spending big dollars in Asia when the money could be better spent developing Australian leagues. However, he does concede that Australian Rules football is now “a popular game worldwide”. He also believes that AFL Cairns “is making inroads and will get bigger and better.”
Ron Wearmouth is proud of his career and life in footy. “It has been a great journey. [The game is] fun to play and [I was] proud to play.” He admits the time as a player goes quick, but will always be proud of his achievements at Collingwood – and of his son’s achievements also.
Jack Bowes (Gold Coast Suns)
The former Cairns Saints product has now notched up 27 AFL games for the Gold Coast Suns and kicked six goals. Part of the new breed of Cairns players in the AFL ranks, Bowes was snared at pick 10 in the 2016 national draft. He has the advantage of being a part of the current processes and programs available to young Cairns-based players as they try and follow his journey to AFL ranks.
It is clearly working, as Jacob Heron (2017 Draft) and Caleb Graham (2018 draft) have followed the same path from Cairns Saints to the Gold Coast Suns. In a remarkable potential eventuality, Alex Davies could be a chance in 2020 and Austin Harris has also gone from Cairns Saints on a Gold Coast Suns Academy scholarship and will be right in the mix for the 2021 draft which would see five Saints become Suns in just six years.
But it was Jack Bowes who led this latest charge.
His early memories of Cairns footy revolve around his father’s roles with Cairns Hawks and AFL Cairns, then Saints – giving Jack the chance to run around with the “big boys” on Cazalys Stadium.
His vision of the growth of footy in Cairns is linked to his being placed within the Gold Coast Suns Academy in Cairns when he was just 12 years old. “It gave me the chance to fast-track my own development, training with the best players.”
Jack is also excited by the AFL Cairns vision to grow women’s footy at junior and senior levels, as well as maybe one day seeing a Cairns team play in the NTFL or NEAFL.
When asked about the impact of Cairns losing the AFL Premiership match, he believes it will have an effect. Yes, it’s hard to tell in what way. It’s been great having the games up here and being able to go to live games – [losing the game] probably impacts that way.” The games offered role models for young players to look up to as well as giving a vision of pathways to the big time.
Jack is very proud of his Cairns heritage. “Absolutely, 100%. You always remember where you came from, your family and friends.”
The AFL Cairns community is set to remember the name Jack Bowes for a very long time.
Max O’Halloran (Footscray and Carlton)
The boy from Ulverstone, Tasmania, has travelled a long road in his VFL/AFL journey, both in terms of time and sheer kilometres.
His administrative role at AFL Cairns was as part of a powerful board that developed the game in the northern city to a level that has been the envy of other leagues. Along with Cairns footy luminaries Reg Lillywhite, Jeff Hopgood and Russell Beer – and plenty of other willing contributors – Max has been an integral and vital part of the league’s history – and its future.
Long before his impact on Cairns footy, Max was noted by spotters in Tasmania as a good thing for the transition to VFL footy. He received offers from South Melbourne, Footscray, Carlton and Collingwood – certainly a sought after commodity – before going to Footscray. “They gave away their best players at Footscray” he noted. A club which would later give away names such as “Barry Round, Bernie Quinlan, Kelvin Templeton, George Bissett and Gary Dempsey” already had players on the move in the early seventies, which is why Max chose the Bulldogs.
After just 13 games at Footscray, O’Halloran found himself traded to Carlton in a swap for star Blue Ian Robertson. He wanted to go to Melbourne, but when Carlton offered him a traineeship, he went to the Blues. O’Halloran played five games for Carlton before eventually going on to play at Oakleigh in the VFA - ironically alongside Roberston who had also left VFL ranks for Oakleigh.
Life changes eventually brought him north to Cairns. As well as his skills behind the scenes, O’Halloran was a force as a coach, guiding North Cairns Tigers to four flags and Cairns Saints to one.
He remembers the early days at AFP (Australian Football Park now Cazalys Stadium) when you could look out through the bricks of the old change rooms at the southern end where Cazalys is now. He described the field as “long and narrow and covered in sensitive weed”. Max remembers Sundays with pliers out on the field removing the sensitive weed so you could play on the oval without slashing our limbs on the vicious sensitive weed.
He also remembers past great players from local and VFL ranks coming to play, and delights in his description of former Essendon star, Leon Baker, as looking like a “broken down surfie”.
However, it was behind the scenes that O’Halloran and the Cairns boards of the time changed the game. When he arrived he saw the game in cairns as “primitive”. But the risk taking and foresight of fellow board members Lilliwhite, Hopgood and Beer saw the introduction of pokies to Cairns “two or three years ahead of the city’s first casino”. It was enormously successful and turned over the money which would later allow the board to pay off Cazalys Stadium among other things.
Even today, the standard of grounds across the Cairns region is arguably higher than anywhere else in the country. This is due to those business decisions, as well as AFL Cairns giving clubs now $30 000 a season to address ongoing costs. The decisions that would later be made to bring AFL Premiership matches to Cairns were born out of these earlier business decisions.
Max sees the loss of the premiership game as “terrible”. He believes that AFL Cairns dropped their guard and the loss of the game could be ten times harder to get back again as Tourism Queensland would be reluctant to reinvest based on falling figures leading up to the loss.
However, he sees this as an opportunity. O’Halloran believes that the doors are now open for AFL Cairns to pursue other avenues. He cites the Under 18 national championships, NTFL, NEAFL and even possibly a hub for Oceania footy as potential growth areas which will recalibrate the footy pathways for Cairns players. All have their challenges, financially and logistically, but all are worthy of investigation to grow again despite losing the AFL Premiership matches – at least for now.
Max O’Halloran considers himself “a lucky boy” to have had such a VFL/AFL journey and beyond. He is proud of his life memberships with North Cairns and AFL Cairns and his AFL Contribution to Footy Merit Award. He is equally proud of being able to walk into a reunion of players where he coached in Echuca where he is still remembered for his contributions.
But, importantly, he is very proud of the growth in Cairns footy, the role he has played in that growth and the prospects for the future.
Each of the players interviewed share this much in common – the AFL Premiership match may be gone, but there is still much to be excited about in Cairns.
There is still a shining light.
World Footy News