Players from the Townsville Blackhawks admit their love for the game of rugby league is being sorely tested by Brisbane’s growing COVID-19 cluster and a cancelled 2020 season.
- Blackhawks nervously wait as Brisbane enters three day lockdown
- Last season players were forced to find other sources of income to support families
- 2020 turned out to have a “silver lining” for some players
They only played one round of the Queensland Cup last year, the competition abandoned due to the growing worldwide coronavirus pandemic.
“A lot of the boys were in disbelief because we were told that up until the day of the competition being cancelled that it couldn’t be cancelled,” said Jaelen Feeney, the Blackhawks’ halfback and former Newcastle Knight.
“It was a shock to us all. A lot of the boys didn’t know what to do with themselves … myself included.”
Twelve months on, and the season is again on tenterhooks as players and officials await the outcome of Brisbane’s snap three-day lockdown due to growing COVID-19 clusters involving the highly contagious UK-strain.
Last weekend’s game was postponed 24 hours to allow the Brisbane Tigers to send more reinforcements due to NRL regulations ruling-out contracted players for their round two clash.
“We got a text message from [Aaron Payne] Payney saying ‘don’t stress boys, the game will go ahead’.”
There is a bye round over the Easter long weekend, giving players hope that the Queensland cluster is contained and the season remains alive.
Unlike their counterparts in the NRL, semi-professional players faced more uncertainty in their footballing careers.
They were forced to find alternative ways to stay fit in 2020 and support themselves and their families financially.
Ex Eels, Titans, and Broncos back Josh Hoffman moved to Townsville to play for the Blackhawks just as the pandemic hit.
“I was running around playing park rugby for Northward Old Boys, so that kept the hunger and desire there to keep playing,” Hoffman said.
“It put me in a place where I just had to work. I was lucky enough to have a job with Clontarf and work at the school there in Thuringowa.
“I know that some of the younger boys relied on money from football so they had to find a job in other areas.
Outside back Bacho Salam said working at Ryan Catholic College as a teacher aide and an Indigenous mentor kept his mind busy.
“I couldn’t really believe it at first, I thought ‘surely not’,” Salam said.
“I was training by myself, doing gym, but coming back and seeing the boys and training together was a relief because I look forward to coming to training. We’ve got a good culture here.
“I really enjoy working at the school. I realise I play a role in those kids’ lives, not just Indigenous but non-Indigenous kids, as well as being a male role model.”
Many in the team were keen to put 2020 behind them, but for some there was a silver lining.
Former Sharks, Eels, Cowboys, and Dragons hooker Cameron King said 2020 was one of the best years of his life.
“It was a strange one because everyone wishes it never happened. But for me, my wife gave birth to our daughter and we got married in the same year. So 2020 was probably one of the highlights of my life,” King said.
The 29-year-old suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in early 2020 in his first trial game for the Sharks and announced his retirement from the NRL in October.
King has battled many long-term injuries over his 71-game career, but he was offered an opportunity to play for the Blackhawks when he moved back to Townsville.
When the pandemic hit, King thought he would never play rugby league again.
“I did, to be honest, combined with the knee and COVID I thought that might have been it,” he said.
“There was an opportunity to come back and play, and once that came up I got my excitement back up for footy and I was pretty keen to get started.”
King’s ups and downs continue, however, as he recovers from a knee injury suffered in round one against the Ipswich Jets, expected to miss up to six weeks.
The rest of the players are now sweating on Brisbane’s COVID-19 clusters as the future of this season’s competition hangs in the air.