Brian Walker, a lifelong Oldham rugby fanatic and author of “The Roughyeds – The Story So Far” writes about visits down under.
Until 1977 when the British Amateur Rugby League embarked on its first ever tour to Australia and New Zealand, amateur, youth and schoolboy rugby league had always been limited internationally to its annual bash against the French but hasn’t looked back since, with well over 30 tours either into or out of the southern hemisphere.
And it wasn’t only BARLA who organised those trips so unimaginable less than a generation ago. Entrepreneurial Oldhamer Peter Deakin, in tandem with local schoolteacher and rugby league enthusiast Fred Laughton, spearheaded the British Schools’ under 19’s squad that in 1984 gave the likes of Sean Edwards, Martin Dermott, Paul Hulme and Paul Topping (who later played for Oldham Bears), an early taste of life on the other side of the world.
It wasn’t always plain sailing either. Ask the organisers of the under 13’s Oldham schoolboys’ tour, who in 1988 battled aggressively with the Australian Rugby League who seemed to think that the arrival of a bunch of kids from an old Lancashire cotton town didn’t quite fit in with their own highfalutin’ youth development plans. If it hadn’t been for schools in Cronulla and Campbletown, who waved two fingers at the ARL, the likes of Mick Martindale, Rick Badby, Jon Eastwood, Chris Eckersley, George Slicker, Phil Russell & Co wouldn’t have needed to make a tackle in anger (in fact, in order to partially placate the authorities some of the matches were organised as touch football, a well tested and popular formula played out there by both sexes of all ages up to state level!).
There have since been expeditionary visits to Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Western Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, South Africa, Russia and the United States, an ideal example being the North West Counties ARL 2001 Oceanic Tour giving the opportunity to Royton Tigers’ youngsters Wayne Corcoran, Michael Rowe, Adam Sharples and Bradley Tindall alongside Waterhead’s Ryan Collins to play rugby league in Fiji, Australia and New Zealand.
In his best selling book ‘Made for Rugby’ Barrie McDermott, who started off his own rugby league career with Saddleworth Rangers, so rightly pays tribute to those who organised and managed the 1991 BARLA youth tour to New Zealand. He emphasises that without the dedicated people who make these tours possible, it would, for him, have meant a summer working in the building trade in and around Oldham as opposed to embarking on a trip during which he learnt so much about forging relationships regardless of having to rub noses with the ‘queen’ of the Maoris! On his return, along with five of the other players, he signed for Oldham, his first step in what would prove to be an illustrious career as a professional sportsman.
I was lucky enough to visit Australia in 1997 to watch Oldham Bears grapple with North Queensland Cowboys and Adelaide Rams in the World Club Championship. At my age it will probably turn out to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience but what an experience! Tropical Queensland, Adelaide, the capital of Southern Australia and Sydney, the capital of rugby league. I was born at the end of the Second World War and dreaming was one of the few affordable pleasures available to us kids from back then but even so, if I had told my best mate that I’d just imagined being in Australia watching Oldham rugby playing on the famous Adelaide Oval cricket strip he’d have pointed me in the direction of a shrink.