By Troy Whittaker
Staring out in shock at the desolate plains of drought-stricken regional NSW a few months ago, Joe Thomas instantly felt compelled to help.
“I saw the landscape and I was very upset about the way it looked,” Thomas said. “I’d never actually seen a drought, and I was very upset at the appearance of cows and sheep standing on dust.”
And so, the former premiership-winning Canterbury hooker conceptualised the Men of League Foundation’s Tackling the Drought Tour with the goal of bringing joy and support to struggling country towns across the state.
On Friday 5 October 2018, Thomas’ vision came to life as five buses packed with ex first-grade rugby league players departed ANZ Stadium for the bush.
Thomas was on Bus Three, headed to Narromine and Gilgandra alongside 12 other esteemed footballing names including Les Davidson, Greg Florimo, Rod Silva, David ‘Cement’ Gillespie and Darren Britt.
After leaving Homebush at 9am in pouring rain – the perfect omen for a drought support initiative – the bus stopped at Mudgee’s Oriental Hotel around lunchtime.
Though the downpour was torrential in Sydney, it was immediately clear that the rainfall unfortunately wasn’t as significant in regional areas.
Following the Mudgee break, it was onwards to Dubbo RSL for a hearty pub meal thanks to the generosity of Gavin Townsend and his staff.
The players mingled with passionate Dubbo locals, signed plenty of autographs and enjoyed a refreshing drop of beer courtesy of sponsor Lion, before piling back onto the bus for the last leg of the trip to Narromine.
The final event of the day was held at the Narromine United Services Memorial Club, where NRL merchandise was distributed and songwriter/comedian Denis Carnahan performed his hilariously clever Rugby League The Musical.
Aside from enjoying Carnahan’s side-splitting act, the Narromine people revelled in having some of their favourite sons visiting home: David Gillespie and David and Gary Walsh
Gillespie – an Australian representative forward renowned for his hard-hitting defence – told of his excitement to be amongst friends and family while championing a great cause.
“It’s always good to get back to your hometown. It’s been a while since I’ve been back so it’s great to see a few familiar faces,” he said.
Speaking from first-hand experience, Gillespie provided insight into how severe drought impacts places like Narromine.
“It’s a knock-on effect that the drought has with the smaller communities,” Gillespie said. “Often the people that live in the towns work on the properties and feed the town. If they’re doing it tough, the whole town’s doing it tough.”
Gillespie said he believes the townspeople will experience a huge lift in morale after meeting some league greats.
“That’s what this tour is about. Having a bit of goodwill, letting them know that we’re thinking about them.”