Late spring, 1985.
A seemingly endless air journey, starting in British Columbia and the better part of 24 hours, nears its end. Down below, with Mount Whitfield to the west, Trinity Bay to the east, lies the newly redeveloped Cairns International airport.
The city itself, located in northeastern Queensland, once known for gold, for agriculture and as a port for slave ships, is now a popular tourist destination. People from across the globe flock to the area, due to its pleasant tropical climate and for an opportunity to sail, swim, snorkel, and dive. Offshore, the Great Barrier Reef, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, is home to thousands of marine species.
Not surprisingly, as is the case in every Australian city or town, sport plays a hugely important role. In addition to all manner of water based pursuits, soccer, AFL, rugby league, cricket, basketball, and baseball are also on the docket.
As is rugby union.
I am excited. Somehow, thanks to various retirements and other non-availability, at long odds I scramble my way on to the Canadian national team. With a relatively unfancied Queensland Country selection to be our first opponent on a grueling five week, nine match tour Down Under.
Training commences at one of the local Cairns parks. Twice daily we go through our paces, hoping to gain confidence and some semblance of cohesion. Still, I know my place. Namely, to hold tackle bags or offer token resistance in various practice scenarios.
Otherwise, I am pretty much surplus to requirements.
Then it happens. A freak collision. A bloodcurdling scream of pain. Our star fly half writhes on the ground, clutching his knee. To my shock, I am summoned from the dirt trackers, told to replace him in the starting XV.
I need to get my wits about me. And quickly, as a first ever Canada appearance looms on the horizon.
A day later, we gather with our liaison officer. A time honoured “Captain’s Run” scheduled, one last opportunity to execute starter moves and phase plays. To fine tune the game plan. More importantly, to get our bearings at the stadium. Familiarize ourselves with the changing rooms, the field access, the turf itself. Anything to assist in building a comfort zone.
The bus skirts the city Showground, apparently the main setting used for various sports and funfairs. Acres of open space lie behind a brick facade and a handful of aging buildings. Our host gestures grandly at the vast expanse. “The game this weekend will be played here”, he announces.
I surmise this must be some type of a practical joke. Yet, it becomes increasingly clear it is not.
Saturday, May 25 duly arrives. The Country squad mascot is a Heeler, a cattle dog well known throughout the regional areas of the state. In this vein, the local committee and volunteers clearly have also worked like dogs. Gone is the empty, vacant space of two days previous. Stunningly, in its place now sits a proper game day venue. Temporary stands ring the field, set to host a crowd of several thousand. The grass is cropped close, crosscut to resemble a massive checkerboard. Blue flags, goal posts, corner posts, post pads and bright white lines frame firm, inviting turf. Complete an idyllic picture. Marquees and tents of all descriptions sell programs and merchandise. Or host pre-game parties, the beer and spirits flowing freely.
Nerves threaten to get the best of me. In the changing shed, my hands shake as I receive the #10 jersey. Slowly I trace the maple leaf embroidered on the left breast. A goal of mine, to represent my country, shortly to be realized.
Eventually, play begins. If given little hope of springing an upset, the hosts display plenty of skill, plenty of physicality, mountains of strength and character. The game is close throughout, a fierce scrap from start to finish. In the end, we scrape home 13-6, the narrow victory at least a positive way to begin the tour.
Paradoxically, while the game flies by, I take a long time to settle. Struggle to relax. Feel the pressure, not wanting to make a costly error. A performance that, at best, draws mixed reviews. Not what I had hoped for, though better than the alternative.
A day or two later, returning from a team sailing outing, we again pass the Showground. I do a double take. Is my mind playing tricks? Little, if any, evidence of the stadium or the game remains. As if the earth has opened up and swallowed them whole. Gone completely are the marquees, the scaffolding, the changing areas, the goal posts, the flags. The white lines now faint and barely visible. Garbage and other debris bundled up and collected. Only the wind to carry away any remaining stray bits of paper and other refuse.
Interestingly, and long overdue, Cairns does soon build impressive and permanent athletic facilities. Indeed, within a few short years, a glittering Convention Centre, well appointed Hockey fields, an upgraded Barlow Park, and the splendid Cazalys Stadium open for business.
In similar fashion, my own rugby career takes something of an uptick. Over the next fifteen years, I am fortunate to either play or officiate internationally at many of the sport’s most hallowed stadiums. Twickenham, Lansdowne Road, and Murrayfield. Ballymore, the Sydney Cricket Ground, River Plate. Carisbrook. The Flaminio in Rome, Prince Chichibu in Tokyo, the Hong Kong National Stadium.
Still, nostalgia being what it is, I often think back to where, for me, it all began. At a modest venue, in a far-flung rugby outpost. In a temporary stadium, seemingly constructed overnight. Then taken down in equally rapid fashion. Leaving only a fading grab bag of memories.
At times I wonder if it did all actually happen? Or, quite literally, was Cairns just a field of dreams?