Yass Valley Touch Knockout approaches 30 years of play, summer and fun | PHOTOS

Dateline, 1989: do you remember where you were, or what you saw? God forbid, what you wore?

While it might not have the same ‘Orwellian’ ring to it as the seminal tome, ‘1984’, for those who can recall, and take it as read for those not yet born, it was one hell of a year!

Remembered as much for the trailblazers as it was the end of an incredible decade; on the inexorable march towards the next century and millennium.

A time of marginal films, music and fashion faux pas’.

And a vastly  different pre-internet, Google and social media world than we see today.

It can be a test to stretch the mind back to those times of yore some four decades prior; the images a bit blurry and the details always a bit hazy.

But they’re in there. In the dark recesses of the mind.

Memories in safe keeping and to draw on in a flash, or a face, a fact – something to spark the synapses and rekindle the pictures of the past.

While some of the current generation might eschew sporting pursuits and folklore, they might also assume the year was marked by nothing more than the fifth studio album by American singer- songwriter, Taylor Swift by the same name: make no mistake ‘1989’ was indeed a year of significant events and breakthroughs here and abroad.

Who and how could we ever forget the collapse of the East German government and symbolic dismantling of the Berlin Wall and opening of the Brandenburg Gate?

The Galileo Spacecraft was launched by NASA in the US and it was the Canberra Raiders that somehow emerged from 100-minute trench warfare as first-time premiership victors later in the year.

Upsetting the fancied Balmain Tigers in arguably the greatest rugby league grand final of all time.

The Beach Boys’ Kokomo was top of the pops at the start of that year too.

And the fashion crises of the eighties was all about to come crashing down to a screaming halt alongside the Tokyo Stock Exchange and the Back to the Future trilogy.

The inaugural Touch World Cup had also just been run and won on the Gold Coast a month earlier to close out the bi-centenary year of 1988, with the Aussies starting their unprecedented and undefeated 30-year run.

All this consigned seemingly to the dustbin of history.

But for a little township south of Sydney and just a little north of the capital, ‘89 was something of a breakout year: on the brink of something very special that would open its own gates of this little heritage town to the country and the world.

All against the backdrop of this fine country’s national holiday and the promise of a great time away and had by all.

Not to mention that potent elixir of the round-robin Saturday and sudden death Sunday touch football carnival format; the heat of battle quite literally played out under the blazing summer sun.

Among other elixirs of course; potent and otherwise!

Just 15 years after the Yass some bite with many early victims and posed far more of a threat than the dreaded ‘Y2K’ strain could ever dream of inflicting in coming years, on millennium eve.

And has so proven ever since.

It says something else of the impact the event has had on the township, on the cusp of its own bi-centenary celebrations in coming years.

The little SE-NSW enclave town of 7,000 will again swell to over 10,000 when the knockout comes a-knocking.

Generating significant economic and ‘social’ capital and impact in the very literal sense.

The rich prize purse has been a constant and a gratefully accepted reward for finalists and title winners alike and over time; almost $500,000 in prizemoney distributed since its inception which is a remarkable Australian sporting achievement at the grass roots.

But all this plays second fiddle to the bigger prize: the good times!

It all started back in the heady early 80s when the seeds of the several claret ash trees were sown on the steep banks of the Walker Park complex fields; barely recognisable to the abundant canopy cover we see today.

The late Jim Beck, something of a local legend and councillor in the day had an idea. A nice big one.

Adorned with trademark King Gee overalls and a knockabout ‘can do’ approach to life, the saw-miller by trade set about galvanising the community and particularly the junior League club, the Yass Magpies.

He and some other hardy and community minded types figured this unused tract of the broader new sub-division needed a conversion to parkland. Post-haste with no time or resources to waste.

With those twenty or so seedlings spread across the various banks of the tiered playing fields, the idea of a touch footy knockout event, alongside the ample foliage to provide some sun protection and welcome relief for patrons, began to germinate.

Build it and they will come.

Enter, the like and civic-minded souls, event founders and knockout pioneers, Rod Wise and Dennis Grieves.

Just the men to get this thing off the ground with their hard-working committee and local Ngunnawal Elder, Kenny Bell who has been to every event alongside Rod’s daughter, Angela.

According to an upbeat and recently retired ‘Wise-man’, it is so rewarding and pleasing to see the repeat visitors’ year-on-year.

And to the new entrants who will all but guarantee a return to the 2582 postcode someday soon.

“It’s pretty amazing to think back how far we’ve come and all the great times we’ve all enjoyed over the years,” he recalled fondly amid preparations for the 2018 event.

“It’s almost unbelievable to think it’s been that long since we kicked it all off in the late ‘80s, with a great committee, then as it is now. And with around $3,000 prizemoney and only nine sponsors from year one across the men’s, women’s and mixed divisions and with everyone rallying around the cause and the getting the troops here for the first time – just very special, the memories.

“But geez, the time has flown. We’ve witnessed some great players and teams...and importantly some great moments and times over the years,” he added.

“I have to pinch myself at times,” he added with the grin emerging from under the right ear: “some things you just can’t forget and...and some that you wished you didn’t see, or you can’t un-see!” he trailled off with the infectious laugh and obligatory flick of the hair.

Ah, the memories. For anyone who hasn’t been to the precinct, it is something to be- hold on the edge of the town centre; juxtaposed against the traditional bush town and setting.

Eight currently and soon to become nine playing fields over four levels from ‘top to town’.

Bordered by a few local residents and a fence line with the local golf club and farm land replete with sheep and several head of cattle that loudly bleat and double as spectators.

It also takes on a stadium facility or amphitheatre feel such is the configuration across the various levels.

Designed in such a way that players and spectators can stretch out on the grass during and between games below and take it all in from in high.

And reflect on their own memories under the gaze of the livestock further up in the bleachers. Under the ample shade of those claret ash’s.

Consider the ingenuity and efficiency of the local folk to bring this dream to reality.

When the large government funded by-pass infra- structure project supplanted the Hume Highway from the main street to the outskirts of town, the third level at the venue was fortuitously constructed in just seven hours.

Thanks largely to lateral-thinking of Yass Touch worker-bees led by Dennis Grieves, but also the generosity and support of the by-pass construction operator, Thiess.

Becky would certainly be cheering what has manifest today from above with his fingerprints all over it. This memory and the enormity of the task not lost on Rod.

“Great credit to Becky, though a lot of the credit too must also go to the Yass Valley Council who have played such a major role in not only the event, but also the creation of Walker Park and its amenities,” Rod continued.

“The fields are always in their best possible conditions due to the preparations of council; right from the beginning to what we see today.

“The contributions also of the now 30-odd sponsors can’t be overstated and we thank council, the committee and all sponsors...and all referees for their enduring support over many years.”

Of those player pilgrims who make the journey year-on-year just over the Hume horizon, for Indigenous leader and one of several for- mer NRL stars to feature at the event, Joe Williams, it’s a little more ethereal than a footy carnival: “It’s a beautiful celebration of people coming together - for sport and enjoyment,” he relayed with thoughts of his famed father, Wilfred venturing to the small town with the Cowra All Blacks from the outset, still front of mind for him and many.

For Australian Touch Hall of Famer, Tony Eltakchi, he has been coming to the knockout for more than 20 years and as he says: “Yass is the best touch tournament for catching up with friends and being able to enjoy the sport on a more social level. It’s a locked in event on my calendar every year and has been for as long as I can remember.”

Likewise the world’s current leading player Dylan Hennessey who too recalled the great times on and off the field with mates: “I remember the first time we camped in tents years ago and it was and still is an amazing experience; you don’t have to travel far to play your games or find a park!”

And now with kids with Em (wife, and female legend, Emily), I definitely hope to be back next year and join the great social but also tough competition,” he added. “It’s also a great run into the Elite Eight with the Mav’s (NSW Mavericks) and to trial against other teams – it’s the ideal hit-out but better weekend away.”

That’s a view shared by several teams preparing for the annual National Touch League (NTL)/Elite Eight event at Coffs Harbour some five weeks after the knockout, including all ACT types and Eastern Suburbs regular, Manu Wakely, venturing “Yass is by the far the best preparation you can do for NTLs.”

For most like ‘Tash’, Dylan and Manu and all that have ventured down or up the Hume Highway to Yass in the height of summer around Australia Day, the enduring memory is the furnace that awaits them.

And they’re in good company including the defending men’s knockout champions the Inferno crew with Gary Sonda and Mt Isa product, Scott Prince of last year and the mighty Parramatta Eels, Manly, St George and many other great teams of yesteryear.

“Just a little drier mate the heat here than at home,” Prince remarked at his debut appearance last year, wiping his brow between matches and smile from ear-to-ear.

Recall also the former great ‘Bus’ Boland who would actually power up his old model and full size bus comprising the full and probably nervous Parramatta men’s and women’s contingent, which must have been some trip for his passengers and sight for passers-by.

While travelling on the cheap, one can’t imagine they troubled the highway patrol on the way there and back.

‘Bus’ was at his elusive best with a nod and a wink when asked if the mighty Eels might make a reunion tour in 2018 – short odds you would have to say to see this wily campaigner and gold and blue crew make a return.

Not sure though if the other ‘bus’ will make a return; much to the chagrin of the Parra and Walker car park faithful.

Some of the more colourful characters of the past provide an indelible link to the past and ‘mark’ on the event’s history as much as their poor old uniforms.

The mere mention of the Loose Mooses, the Leeton Zonks, Pink Flamingos and the ‘Farkarwee Tribe’ conjure images of all manner of on and off field mayhem and strife.

The amber fluid the essential ingredient to their successes and their electrolyte replacement of choice.

“The Yass knockout - what a great experience it is - not just an event,” said Dean Russell current head of NSW Touch and one of the event’s early particpants and advocates.

“I have fond memories as a participant playing many years for the Mr Walkers against the Zonks (boy their non-washed shirts stunk!).

“More importantly though from a sport’s perspective the 30-year existence of the Yass KO has been an important stop on the sport’s cultural journey and one that is the essence of what Touch is all about: friendship, fun, fitness, competi- tion, socialising and community. Well done to Wisey and all who have been involved in the Knockout for all these years.”

On the other side of the draw to the men’s, some amazing women’s teams of years past have also beat a regular path to the old town.

The NSW Mavericks, South Australia and Alliance women’s sides along with the famed Shark Attack girls from Cronulla, headlined by the marvellous Maher family, have all embraced and chased the fun...and the titles and prize cheques on offer.

In the more recent past, Edith Nathan who marshals regularly the Te Whanau teams from Manly in Sydney was effusive in her praise: of the event and the great family atmosphere to keep the small and big kids occupied.

She should know with her own large family contingent spanning babies to grandparents.

“The knockout tournament has always been really exciting to play in; camping around the fields is the best part of the tournament. As are the waterslides for the kids off the grassy banks near the dressing sheds and they all have an absolute ball,” she said.

“We have always enjoyed going and is something we really look forward to as a great kick-off to our sporting season.

“Playing your games, lounging around, singing and dancing...and then at the end of the day enjoying a nice cold one with your team mates; very special,” she added with a confidential pointer to the off-field and nocturnal activity.

“All teams have their own little ‘session’ with the sun going down, so a few teams normally get together, have a dance off competition which is always fun to watch and be a part of.

“The next day after the big night out is always amusing to see, some teams are lucky to form a team and take the field with players being a bit under the weather. And the skill level is always a little shabby in the beginning but as the day progress, you see teams getting right back into form.”

For those there purely for the so- cial delights, and they come in their droves, look no further than the London-based ‘Hot Custard’ outfit that are planning to bring two teams in 2018.

Formed out of the Old Dart as a netball club 13 years ago, they have slowly become an international brand and you coulkd say attraction.

They have over almost 800 members (many of whom are Aussie expats) and since 2002 they have been plying their very own brand of touch football around the traps.

They have all either worked or played touch footy together while living in London and the club is always on the hunt for new members.

Founding member, Rohan Statler says it best invoking the Custard credo: “It’s not the winning, it’s the looking good that counts.”

When they first played in the knockout in 2013, one of their players who flew over from Scotland to play said: “I’m just happy to see the sun, it’s been so long!”

Watch out for this jet-lagged crew as they are equal part hilarious but also the very essence of the sport. What could be better: flying from cold old London to Yass to fly the Aussie flag and the ‘custard’ brand of footy, novelty and frivolity.

And spare a thought too for those that drive from Melbourne and Adelaide and postcodes in be- tween each year from all points of the compass to be part of the mix and fun.

For one of the Hot Custard’s head honchos, David Diack, “it is the perfect blend of top quality touch played in the right social spirit,” no doubt adjusting his team’s signature head band ahead of the 2018 instalment. “It’s played in a great grass-roots location which adds to the overall vibe,” he said and added ominously, serving notice to the local Mayor and constabulary: “Any town that has a ‘Custard’ in its presence, is a brave town!”

For David’s one of several (780 that exclusive club’s membership) partners in crime, Laurie Young, she relayed “Yass is a special tournament where all the great things about rural Australia are on display; a warm reception, great community, good people.

“It’s a highlight on the Hot Custard calendar for a bunch of reasons that don’t always include Touch. The Touch is a bonus of course, well-organised, multi- levelled and a sweet balance between skilled and social.

“Hot Custard excel at both (cue, delicious irony), though our commitment is certainly more to the latter; as evidenced every year in our exceptional Saturdays, brilliant Saturday evenings and our dusty Sundays!

“Yass is simply one of Hot Custard’s favourite weekends of the year. And as we in the custard bowl like to say: ‘#LooksGoodTastesGood, #HotCustard #1-780’.”

And to the curious tales and travails that befit an event of this nature. Millions of memories abound and no doubt every participant has a great variety of tales to tell. Some tall and not so. But others readily spring to mind.

Speaking of tyranny of distance posing no problem, with the memory now kicking in well and truly, one summer in the 90’s on the eve of the knockout, a local lad who won’t be named and shamed in these columns, once thought it might be a good idea to venture to Whistler in the Canadian Rockies for a Northern Winter snowboard sojourn.

Upon his return home and entry through the Sydney Airport gates, the whiff of an Australian Summer flared the nostrils as he bristled with anticipation the shenanigans with mates that would await.

Re-joining teammates for a reunion of sorts and another golden weekend of fun, footy and a few ‘frothies’ at the annual get-together.

Some three hours down the highway but a million miles and a seemingly world away from the previous day.

Leaving in his wake the record cold snap that gripped the northern ski resort town not 24 hours earlier, the thermometer shifted up a few gears on this Saturday morning as the kilometres clicked over on the dash clock.

This is a guy that only hours earlier mind you sat in a Jacuzzi with his hair upright covered in solid ice once his head bobbed out of the offending spa!

Upon his arrival through the gates of Walker Park he was shifting a little uncomfortably but he put it down to the probable effects of jet lag; such is the transit from the Americas across the Pacific as the Custard’s and many weary Aussie travellers would appreciate.

A 12pm time slot with his teammates ahead, off went the backpack and on went the boots and a quick limber up before tap-off and before he knew it, he was on.

Field one was the stage but it was a slightly different game against an unfamiliar bunch of six blokes opposing him and his team, unlike his surrounds.

What proceeded over the next 28 minutes game duration would be better described on a television show such as Myth Busters or RPA.

Once the final hooter sounded, his face resembled a beetroot with heat-rash and looked to his teammates as though he was about to pop; more a case of internal combustion, ‘pop’ than anything else.

From his record cold snap in the Whistler climes of minus 43 degrees (celsius!) just a day prior, he stumbled off the field which was nudging the 43 degrees (celsius!) mark and we do the math together: enduring a 86-degree temperature swing and all manner of trouble for his body and breathing capacity!

A little hint that this particular chap’s name rhymes with the colour his face then turned when told: “mate, there’s two more games to go today and a big night ahead you realise!”

If he could just get past the inhaling and exhaling bit while in the foetal position, he might have muttered something of a reply; no doubt full of expletives and probably not in the affirmative!

Thankfully he came to and made it through the day and the weekend as so many others across the men’s, mixed and women’s divisions and various grades do. Some even combining the two divisions and finishing the weekend in the double digits in terms of games completed.

Which is some feat in that blazing heat.

And as our intrepid international traveller friends might attest!

A great day out on the park followed by some ‘relaxation and refreshments’ a little later is a key staple of the event. And why they keep coming back for more.

The Saturday night break across the several local establishments and on the event camp/party site is generally the salve that all crave; and generally always continuing to later that evening and what the knockout has become synonymous for.

Thankfully now with heat policies, better balanced draws and mandatory drinks breaks, the players comfort is a little more appeasing and all manner of ice baths and mini pools adorning the tent city precinct.

But with any southern summer, also comes the obligatory southerly ‘buster’; which would generally also arrive right on cue as the last games of the Saturday are about to take place.

For those that recall playing the 2013 Knockout, the tiered levels at Walker Park resembled a cascading waterfall, such was the sudden monsoonal downpour and as locals say “a 40-50 year event”.

The need for fluids is important, but this was ridiculous.

One unsuspecting and let’s just say, un-happy camper, was awoken in fright late one Saturday evening, amid the flooding rains bearing down from above in his one man tent.

If the rain gushing down from above wasn’t enough for him to bear, it was not the freak of nature from the clouds that surprised him most, but something else.

Coping admirably with the in-flux of water only just from the skies that had opened up above, he received a sudden burst of water up from below. He was actually camping atop a sprinkler which proceeded to go off and left him in quite a state and despair. His one man struggle to untangle himself from inside his sodden web canvas was something to behold according to onlookers; not the least the descriptive and colorful language.

Unlike most who continue to turn up each year among the tent city throng, it’s reported that he hasn’t returned since. One can only assume that news that the council forgot to turn sprinklers off that night, would be of little relief or consolation to him today.

With a view fixed firmly on the 30th year celebrations, and the great times now fresh in the memory banks of the converted, a few NSW country and city stalwarts probably depict it best; channeling the true spirit and essence of the event and the sport.

“The Dubbo boys will be heading to town in 2018 for our 6th straight Yass Knockout,” said Rick Davis of the Dubbo Devils who are also bitten well and truly by the YTK bug. “It’s such a great weekend of competitive touch; but we also love the carnival and camping atmosphere and have always looked to bring young players down and mix with the older players.

“As we have six players over 40, we try to bring some speed along as well…which goes well with the skills and experience of the older boys,” he added tongue firmly planted in cheek.

NSWTA Development Officer, Pat Batiste, who along with his team, are regulars working closely with the committee and townfolk to ensure it all runs on time and schedule.

“It’s such a great regional event bringing people from communities all over the country together to play our great game.” A view shared exactly by long-term referee and Griffith and now Yass Legend by default, Frank Scarfone: “It’s just such a good blend of competitive play and fun,” he said.

Come January 2018, for the first time, a team from Tasmania – the Tassie Pirates from Ulverstone – have nominated for the men’s division of the Knockout.

The Tassie Pirates are led by John Dowling a former Yass fishing inspector. His son James will be playing in the team.

The final word though from Ryan Dodd from the FarNo Hard crew of Wodonga nails it: “The Yass knockout is more than just a tournament to us. It’s where we go. “Once a year, every year to spend time with our touch family and friends and celebrate Australia Day.”

And with that, to the late Jim Beck, the hard working Yass Touch Committee ably led by ‘the Wise-man’, and all participants over time that are part of the event and sport’s fabric, thanks for the memories.

As we look out over the horizon to 2089, long may the good times continue today and for generations to come.

Becky, like us all, no doubt cherish the thought.