Campo’s Corner: The life and death of City v Country — how the legacy of league’s much loved rep game lives on

Tariq Sims did the same thing every single year. He’d mark out his goals for the season to come, and he’d always aim high – premiership wins, New South Wales Origin jerseys, all the dreams you can imagine.

But before he could do any of that, something else had to come first. Because before Sims was a Blue, before he was a Dragon or a Knight or a Cowboy, before he was anything else in football, he was a Gerringong Lion. He was from the country, and that meant a lot.

So Sims turned up, again and again, for Country Origin in their annual clash with City. From 2012, when he debuted, until 2017, when the game finally faded away, he was there. Towards the end, plenty of NRL players pulled out, either through their own volition or after pressure from their clubs, who feared injuries for their stars and in the end caused the death of this match that was once a staple of the rugby league calendar.

But Sims never did. Not ever. He finished with six caps for Country Origin, one short of Laurie Daley’s record of seven, and he’s as proud of that as he is anything he has done in rugby league.

Tariq Sims in action for Country during the match in 2012 at Mudgee.(Getty Images: Mark Kolbe )

“Going away for the week, immersing yourself in the history of the jersey and giving back to the country, representing the people from the bush, there was nothing like it,” Sims says.

“Pulling on that maroon jersey with the gold V, that was so special to me. It was a stepping-stone to Origin, a chance to prove yourself, and playing against other New South Welshmen in the City team, personally it felt like one of the real rivalries.

“Once you’re committed you have to give it your all. That’s the bush mentality, you can’t do things half-arsed, you have to go out there and have a go.

“We played with our heart on our sleeve, and we wanted to play tough, we wanted to be a team the country could be proud of.”

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First played in 1911, by the end of City-Country’s long life span it was regarded as a remnant of a world which no longer existed, a holdover from a different era of rugby league, when country footy and the Sydney competition were of truly comparable quality and somebody could still earn state or national selection by playing anywhere in New South Wales.

The slow decline of the country competitions and the gradual rise of the Sydney premiership into the NRL we know today, meant City-Country became something else — a trial for a New South Wales Origin berth and an opportunity to represent one’s hometown or suburb on a big stage.

Then slowly, bit by agonising bit, this game was chipped away until, five years ago, it was ended as a top-line match.

Rugby league hasn’t been the same since, because the secret truth of City-Country was that it was always more than it was said to be — it wasn’t just a selection trial, or a game on a Sunday afternoon, it was a celebration of some of the game’s most unheralded heroes, a week of recognition for parts of this sport that are so often overlooked. 

Like the pre-season All Stars game, the match itself was as much a culmination as it was a showpiece. Winning the game mattered, and playing well mattered, but the community work during the week, inspiring the next generation and connecting with the people who keep the game alive in the bush, was just as crucial.

That’s why it still had meaning to the end, even if the stars didn’t come out for it like they once did and it was easy to sneer at a game that had, to many, lost a lot of cachet.

But when you were in town when City-Country was on and you could see what it meant in person, then the value of the game was easy to understand. Plenty of the game’s critics wouldn’t take that trip over the mountains or up or down the coast or into the west. 

You don’t need to be from the country to understand what the jersey meant, you just have to be from somewhere and be proud of it.

“I always pride myself on how I represent where I’m from, my family, my junior team, my mates. To pull that jersey on, it really does mean something to you, and it gives hope to kids from the bush when they see you wear it,” Sims says.

“Maybe we went to their school, or they came to the game and met a player afterwards, and maybe that’s what inspired them to chase their dream. That was something that always stood out to me.”

The NRL has compensated for the loss of City-Country by playing more games in regional areas, which are, in their own right, important to keeping the game alive in country New South Wales.

But there’s a difference between having a game in one town and having a team playing for the entire bush. A single game can only be played in one place at a time, but a rep team is different – it’s right there in the name. They represent something much larger than just one place. It doesn’t just inspire kids, it lifts up everyone around the game.

Sims could always feel that through his long career for Country, no matter if the game was played in Mudgee, Coffs Harbour, Dubbo or Wagga Wagga. That’s the thing about the country – some things are the same wherever you go.

A rugby league player during a break in play
Sims during the 2017 clash at Glen Willow Sports Ground in Mudgee. Few players wore the jersey with as much pride as Sims.(Getty Images: Mark Kolbe )

“You don’t go in the sheds after the game, you stay on the field and the fans come to you, and it just has that nice country vibe, which I’ve always really enjoyed,” Sims says.

“I’m sure it was the same for the City boys when they talked to kids who wanted to be where they were. Out in the country we’d see people who would drive three or four hours just to watch us train.

“It was a big deal to them, and it was a big deal for us to play for them. The people in the bush don’t get seen or heard as often as they should, so to go out there and make them proud, it meant a lot to me.”

It still does. Sims is 32 and much closer to the end of his career than the start, but if he had the chance he’d pull the Country jersey on without question, so long as they’d have him.

“I’d absolutely play if they still had it. If there was a chance to represent the country it would always be a goal. If the coach picked me I’d be frothing,” Sims says.

“Being able to represent the bush is always a big deal, and there’s a lot of pride there.

“I think if you asked a lot of the Country guys they’d say the same thing – that they have a responsibility to inspire the next generation.”

But Sims will never get that chance in the same way again. Neither will the players who come after him. As a top-level match, City-Country is long gone. It wasn’t a sudden death. It took years, and it died a little bit at a time via a series of small cuts that added up in the end. A break can be mended, but disintegration cannot. A rope which has been cut can be tied back together, but it cannot be fixed if it’s been allowed to rot away.

Clubs and coaches stopped allowing their charges to play, citing the risk of injury, which impacted the star power of the game which, in turn, led many to challenge the relevance of the concept in modern age. The catchcry was that the game was no longer a genuine Origin trial, and thus it was considered pointless.

A group of rugby league players huddle up during a match
By the end of the fixture the stars didn’t come out for City-Country like they once did. (Getty Images, Mark Kolbe )

But the true benefits were not in dollars and cents, or in giving the Blues coach a form guide, but in hearts and minds that were won and recognised, and in the future the game could inspire.

Given we live in a cold world of balance sheets and bottom lines, that was never going to be enough. The game could not be saved in the end, so when it was consigned to the history books at the end of 2017 it was for the best and worst of reasons.

Even though rugby league is a sport obsessed with nostalgia, to the point where it can occasionally consume the game and blind it to a better future, that nostalgia does not always seem to apply equally. Every few months there’s a story about how bush footy is on it’s knees, how it’s withering on the vine and being forgotten. You can set your watch to them arriving. There’s a lot of truth in most of them, because money is tight and a lot of country towns are declining and it’s harder to put a team together than it used to be. 

Having a week of celebration and recognition, which showed the country was important to rugby league, and the people there did matter, and the millionaires in the ivory towers hadn’t forgotten about them and what they did for the game, meant something. The match mattered, and so did everything around it. 

It was further proof that rugby league as a sport can be so much larger than just the 16 clubs that make up the NRL as the size and scale of the elite competition and the Origin series and the money they generate threaten to swallow up the nooks and crannies that make a sport larger than a single league.

Representative football gives rugby league a different flavour, one people always seem to enjoy if they’re just given a chance to enjoy it. For proof, look no further than international football, which came so far in the years leading up to COVID before the pandemic slammed the breaks on Test matches.

Fans and players celebrate an improbable rugby league victory
International football was brought to it’s knees by the pandemic and is only now restarting. (Getty Images, Fiona Goodall )

It is only now those types of matches are getting off the ground again, and even then with plenty of resistance from the clubs. Their fear of injury or player burnout is understandable, and clubs looking after their own interests is to be expected, but the game has the potential to be so much larger than 16 teams.

City-Country was beyond saving by the end. It’s passing was assured many years before the plug was finally pulled. It’s easy to consign it to the other novelties of league’s past that were left behind when the time came for it, like the Amco Cup or contested scrums. But instead of being a curio or a novelty for the rugby league trainspotter, the end City-Country should instead serve as a warning.

This was a game played since 1911, and it meant so much to so many, but if it can be allowed to die then almost can anything can be killed. 

Big city dreams

Selling the country part of City-Country has always been easy. Giving good old boys from the bush a chance to represent the small towns that made them, make their families and communities proud and giving a day in the sun to a part of rugby league so rarely afforded that type of recognition – who could possibly object to it?

For City, the equation isn’t so simple. Country fellas, for the most part, can find a lot of common ground regardless if they come from Cobar or Forster or anywhere in-between but Sydney, with it’s vast sprawl, is harder to get a handle on, especially when it comes to rugby league given the sport was built on tribalism between the different suburbs. Being a country boy can be a way of life, but there’s no song called ‘Thank God I’m a City Slicker’.

A coach addresses his players during a training session
City coach Brad Fittler speaks to his players during a training session at Leichhardt Oval.(Getty Images: Mark Kolbe )

Enter Brad Fittler, who became City-Country’s great champion in it’s final, difficult years. Fittler took over as City coach in 2011 and stayed in charge until the match was wound up at the end of 2017. A seven-time City rep as a player, the match was always important to Fittler.

“It was a game I grew up watching, a game I grew up playing when it was a trial match for Origin. It was always my first step into the next level,” Fittler says.

“One thing I was very aware of when I got into coaching was the workload on players. I always tried to choose players I thought would benefit from a week in camp, and I thought that worked really well.

“It was something I always enjoyed, and I enjoyed getting out to the country. I loved getting out there, talking to the people, and I got a real joy in beating them as well.”

As NRL stars fell away from the fixture, Fittler never stopped treating the game with the utmost respect. It was a week to be enjoyed, but there was always a game to be won and a jersey to be honoured.

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“I remember one day I was calling on the forwards, calling them cats and taking the ball up to them,” Fittler says.

“When you have (assistant coach) Tony Butterfield next to you and he’s five years older and still taking it up you think ‘I can’t let him do it on his own’. Hanging around Tony Butterfield for a week is always a fun thing to do, he’s a good man and very passionate.

“It must have fired them up, because Mitch Allgood, who played for us that year, sat me on my arse. It’s a good memory.

“You have to hand it to the players. The prestige didn’t run with it like it once did, but they saw how serious I was about the game, and there was always a reason to do it well rather than neglect it and just treat it like another game of footy.”

Fittler found small ways to build a bond in the short camp. He would call in fellow City alumni from his playing days and have them speak about the pride of the jersey, how it felt to have become a City man, and how far a good performance could take them.

He would take his players into the heart of Sydney, to somewhere like the Hope Street Hostel, and have them cook dinner for those less fortunate. At junior clinics he would send them on to the field with the words “go out there and change a child’s life”.

“One thing I always tried to teach them was the demographics of the city, what happens in there, the good and the bad of the city, and a bit of the history. Just little touches along the way,” Fittler says.

“We had a great reaction to that, some of my greatest times were coaching City teams, it was always a lot of fun because it was light but they knew there would be rewards for good games, for excellence.

“A lot of players bought in, which surprised me. A lot of coaches didn’t buy in, and that didn’t surprise me, because I’d been a coach and I’d see that side of it.

“I always tried to be selective, I’d speak to coaches, some pulled players out while others allowed players to come in. It was a tricky one, but I’d like to think we got it right more than we didn’t.”

A player looks dejected after conceding a try during a rugby league match
James Tedesco looks on while representing City in 2013 in Coffs Harbour.(Getty Images, Mark Kolbe )

The records show Fittler did more than just that. He won three, drew one and lost two of his six matches in charge for City, a remarkable record given he was almost always coaching a heavy underdog. One year he picked Addin Fonua-Blake, only for the NSWRL to rule he was ineligible. Another time he picked a young James Tedesco, who had played just four NRL matches at the time.

A couple of years later he picked Ryan Matterson, who’d only played two. Eight other players in the side that year had appeared in less than 40 NRL games. They played against a Country team that boasted Jack Wighton, Isaah Yeo, James Maloney, Jack Bird, Jack de Belin, Tyson Frizell, Boyd Cordner and Dale Finucane, and the City boys won, handily, with guys like Kyle Lovett and Aaron Gray playing blinders in a 44-30 win.

But even that couldn’t compare to the chaos of the final game in 2017. Things were already looking dicey when Paul Gallen was asked to return from representative retirement for one last ride, to hopefully inspire some players to stick it out. Ten minutes before the side was to be named, a press release was issued saying the announcement would be delayed because City didn’t have the numbers.

Calls were made across the league for somebody, anybody who grew up in Sydney and wanted to be part of something, to come on down. One of the calls reached Phil Gould at Penrith, who had coached Fittler for club, City and state in the past, and he had the guys for the job.

A rugby league player looks to offload during a match
James Tamou looks to pass while playing for City in 2017.(Getty Images: Mark Kolbe )

“I rocked up to Panthers training and the coach called me into his office and asked if I wanted to play for City, and I jumped at it. We all came in midweek, Gal was already there and I joined the group and being part of a side coached by Freddy, that was pretty special,” then Penrith prop James Tamou says.

“Rep footy is about coming together, and that’s hard to do on short notice. It’s hard to build connections and trust and everything else in a few days.

“You can’t train much, but building those connections is more important and Freddy understands that, that was the secret sauce that brought everyone together.”

Even with the addition of Panthers stars Tamou, Matt Moylan, Nathan Cleary, Bryce Cartwright and Tyrone Peachey, City had to dig deep into the bullpen to find a 17 to take on the old rivals one last time.

Dragons forward Hame Sele, who had come off the bench in each of his four NRL appearances, started at lock. Two of the subs, Jake Marketo and Pauli Pauli, were picked from reserve grade. Neither man had played a first grade game all year, and between the two of them they would only ever play one more in their careers.

But it didn’t matter. They were City men, and they were willing and that’s all Fittler needed. It wasn’t about how good he made them, it’s how he made them good.

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Tamou, in his first and only match for City, played one of the games of his life, Gallen rolled back the years in what proved to be the final rep game he ever played and managed came together in what remains one of the great feats of Fittler’s coaching career to down a far more star-studded Country side 20-10 and win eternal bragging rights, because what’s already happened can’t ever change.

“They were favourites, because our team came together so late, we were almost like a group of bandits that got thrown together and rolled into town. But everyone who put their hand up did a job,” Tamou says.

“It all came together for us, it all came out that day in Mudgee.

“At that point in time I’d played for Australia and New South Wales, but you never want to stop playing rep footy. If someone rings you up and asks if you want to play City-Country you should say yes straight away.

“It wasn’t just a trial match for Origin, it was a rep game on it’s own. The passion that comes into it, it’s a dream come true for those country blokes and for us as well. It’s always been that battle.

“You go to any country town, they want to tear your head off cause you’re a city boy. That battle has always been there. It was sad to see it go, but it’s a jersey I’ll treasure.”

A Blue era rises from the ashes

Long after the annual conversations of City-Country being a genuine State of Origin trial have ceased, its impact is still being felt in the game’s harshest arena.

Of the 64 players who debuted for New South Wales between 2010 and 2010, 56 of them played City-Country. Even that last day in Mudgee proved to be a hotbed of future Blues stars despite so many withdrawals as 11 players, including Sims, Cleary, Damien Cook, Josh Addo-Carr, Cody Walker and Dale Finucane, went on to play for New South Wales in the years since

“Even though we’re playing against other New South Welshmen we all did the same moves and same plays so once we did get into Origin it was seamless,” says Sims, who made his Origin debut the year after City-Country wrapped up and has gone on to appear five times for the Blues under Fittler.

“There was no gelling period, we just jumped straight in. We already knew what was needed, we knew what was required to perform at that level.

“It’s a great stepping stone to that level.”

But City-Country was more than the making of the players – it was the making of Fittler as a coach.

A group of rugby league players celebrate winning a match
Plenty of the Blues current stars came through City-Country first. (Getty Images, Bradley Kanaris)

Given Fittler now has the same win percentage in charge of the Blues as Gould, it’s easy to forget his stock as a coach was not high when he took over City ten years ago. His time in charge of the Roosters was tumultuous and inconsistent, and by his own admission he was far from the coach he would become.

But plenty of the hallmarks that have helped him become one of the state’s most decorated coaches were honed during his time with City. All the Fittler trademarks – like forcing players to bond by asking them to stay off their phones, forging strong links to the community to give the people they’re representing a human face, giving players the support to play their natural game and the confidence to execute it under pressure – aren’t just inventions he cooked up once he took the big job.

Before Fittler asked his Blues players to go to a corner of Lang Park or Stadium Australia and think about every person who got them where they are today, the people they were playing for once they got out there, he asked his City players to do the same at the Glen Willow Sportsground in Mudgee.

“A lot of times our team maybe wasn’t as strong as theirs, but we were always very competitive and it gave me confidence that it works, the stuff I did worked,” Fittler says.

“If the players wanted to have a go, they could have a go. It gave me confidence.

“In a lot of the camps we had a lot of fun. It was almost the last of the camps where you could have a good night out like it used to be.”

While Fittler holds many fond memories of City-Country, and was the game’s greatest advocate during it’s last days, he knows it won’t ever return in it’s old form.

“I’m nearly on the other side now. I understood towards the end, how delicate it is with players, but we never had many injuries, I think Matt Moylan broke his thumb one year but that’s about it,” Fittler says.

A coach jokes around with a group of rugby league players
As fond of the game as he was, Fittler understands why it was ended. (Getty Images, Mark Kolbe )

“I was always grateful we got through it unscathed, because there’s a big workload on the players.”

It is how it is, Fittler says, and besides – the game isn’t dead. Not all the way, anyway.

“They run it in the juniors now, my young bloke is playing in the City 16s this weekend,” he says.

“It still has a purpose.”

The saga continues

Zach Fittler will indeed emulate his father and wear the blue and gold of City this Saturday at Brookvale Oval. The Under 16s clash is part of the revamped City-Country weekend, which the NSWRL introduced last year.

The NRL players won’t be there, even if they wished they could be, because the NRL is holding it’s Magic Round on the same weekend. But there will be more maroon and gold and blue and yellow than you could ever ask for with Under 16s, boys and girls Under 18s, men’s and women’s police, physical disability and wheelchair matches to be played, as well as men’s and women’s opens games.

The women’s game will have some of the NRLW’s biggest stars, because it is still a true fight for Blues spots, but the men’s game won’t quite have the same shine.

City will be represented by the best of the Ron Massey Cup, which sits a tier below reserve grade, while Country is made up of players from all over the bush. It’s back to the old ways, residential rules, and the passion is still there.

“People might belittle you and say it’s not an Origin trial,” says Hamish Oxley, who played for Country in 2021.

“But getting to wear that jersey was the proudest thing I’ve ever done in football. I understand it’s not an Origin trial or anything like that, and I don’t want to sound like a flog, but it makes you feel on top of the world.”

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Oxley, who plies his trade for Oakdale Workers in the Macarthur Rugby League competition, is a self-described bush footy battler. Last year’s Country team, which was thrown together with players from all over the state, was filled with guys just like him.

“I was the only player from my comp who got picked, I roomed with a guy from Cooma, the team was from everywhere but because we’re all country guys we have a lot in common. Plenty of them let go of the NRL dream when they were 18 or 19, but they’re still weapon footy players,” Oxley says.

“The whole thing had this real professional feel, we were in camp for seven days and it was one of the best weeks of my life. I was 29, but it makes you feel like a kid, you feel like you’ve made it.

“You go into a room and see Terry Campese standing there with Beau Scott, two guys who are legends and played for Country.

“They coached the side for free, and they gave us a spiel when we first came into camp that those weeks they spent with the Country side were some of the best weeks of their careers, and they just wanted to give back to country footy.

City got the job done against the bush boys in their meeting last year. It was a bit of a belting as well, with the pride of Sydney running out 38-12 winners. But for proof it wasn’t just a week on the piss and a bit of a run around, look no further than the man of the match that day – Soni Luke.

Luke has since earned his belated NRL debut with the Panthers. He’s living proof City-Country can still be a step towards something greater, even if it’s not a sky blue jersey.

Reference-www.abc.net.au

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