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Mannix Hunt at 17 led the Barcaldine Sandgoannas Rugby League Club from crisis to premiership win

Just a month out from footy season, the Barcaldine Sandgoannas Rugby League Club held a crisis meeting; they had no coach and were short six players.

For the outback Queensland community located more than 1,000 kilometers north-west of Brisbane, closing wasn’t an option.

“This is a club that’s in excess of 100 years old and we can’t let that fold, we can’t let that die,” said club president Rhys Peacock.

At the eleventh hour, 17-year-old Mannix Hunt put his hand up for the coaching job.

Backed by an army of “Sandgoanna” fans and committed players, Hunt led the team to win the coveted premiership just weeks after his 18th birthday.

Barcaldine Sandgoannas won the premiership for the first time in 13 years.(Supplied: Aaron Skinn)

Lifetime member and diehard Sandgoanna fan Vivian Johnsen admitted she was concerned about Hunt’s young age.

“I’m thinking, ‘Are they going to respect the boy?'” she said.

“He has melded in really well with the boys, they were turning up for training like nothing.”

Hunt also listed several younger players to the squad who weren’t as big as the older players and wasn’t sure how they would go.

“[I had] no doubts in their abilities but you know the physical capabilities of the other teams, being bigger and older,” Peacock said.

Two barcaldine sandgoannas in maroon uniforms tackle a blackall magpie in a black uniform
The Barcaldine Sandgoannas had younger and smaller players than some of the other teams.(Supplied: Aaron Skinn)

building club culture

Hunt maintains it was creating a solid club culture that helped to lift the rugby league club.

“We just stuck to the simplest stuff,” he said.

“We just needed to bond a little bit more [and] have a few beers on a Friday after training just to bring the team close.”

It became a Hunt family affair and the young coach’s dad assisted with drinks while his uncle helped with training drills.

Barcaldine community got behind Mannix.
Mannix Hunt had the whole community behind him through the season.(ABC Western Qld: Carli Willis)

Sand Goanna fullback Ezekiel Thompson said Hunt was “a quiet sort”, but the team had known him since he was a “young fella” and knew he had what it took.

“We knew he’d come in with a new style of football, which I think we needed,” Thompson said.

“He brought the team together and we all started to build a culture.”

a young man wearing a maroon jersey stands in front of a huge poster with the barcaldine sandgoanna logo on it in his home town
Ezekiel Thompson’s great-grandfather helped pave the way for Indigenous players in the 1960s.(ABC Western Qld: Carli Willis)

For the proud Iningai, Wakka Wakka, Gubbi Gubbi and Bidjara man, the club runs in his blood.

“My grandfather … he made it into Central West [Rugby League] when he was 15 and he was the only Indigenous fella to make it at 15,” Hunt said.

“So, Barcaldine Sandgoannas, for me, is a lot more than just putting on the jersey.”

After the premiership win, the Barcaldine Sandgoannas gather around lifetime member Viv for a group photo, dressed in maroon
The Barcaldine Sandgoannas gather around lifetime member Viv after their win.(ABC Western Qld: Carli Willis)

Hunt said the community would be lost without the century-old institution, which has been running various events and fundraisers throughout the year.

“All the young kids would get up to mischief [and for] the older blokes there wouldn’t be that friendship [and] mate ship [without the club],” he said.

“It’d be a lot quieter town — not as many people would come.”

A white house with two trees in front has a big sign hanging from the awning that says
Barcaldine is an outback community of 1,500 people, most of whom are involved in or support the club.(ABC Western Qld: Carli Willis)

Silly season starts

Once the serious business of winning is done, it’s time to celebrate the title.

“Silly Sunday” is an age-old club tradition where players are “auctioned off” to community members who get to dress the players from a local charity store.

A man stands dressed in a pink frilly bow-peep hat with big sunglasses a brown top and a pink skirt with avocado prints on it
Silly Sundays and Mad Mondays are a spectacle for outback towns.(Supplied: Barcaldine Sandgoannas)

“We all sat around in the sun and soaked it up and had a quick, very casual auction,” Peacock said.

“We raised $3,715 at the auction … and we’ve also had a donor come in that’s topped it up to $4,000.”

While the winning coach said he wasn’t as “loose as the Cheese and Munster”, his father Phil did turn up to work the next day with half a beard and one less eyebrow.

a man stand underneath a tree in a blue uniform with half of his beard shaved off and one eyebrow missing
Mannix’s Dad’s beard was a casualty of Silly Sunday.(ABC Western Qld: Carli Willis)

Support pours in from across the globe

Cheering the team on and sending support from Orlando, Florida in the US every season is Thompson’s cultural Aunty Lorelei and Uncle Clint.

A few days out from the Grand Final, Maroons’ legend and Melbourne Storm hooker Harry Grant also sent through a video of support.

“[It’s inspiring] to see that support as well and just to have a little chat and narrow that focus [and] think about what other boundaries can be pushed,” Thompson said.

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The Barcaldine Sandgoannas had an army of supporters(Supplied: Barcaldine Sandgoannas)

Coach for the Townsville Blackhawks Aaron Payne congratulated Mannix Hunt on stepping up and tackling the tough coaching gig.

Payne, who played 219 first-grade NRL games during his career, has known the pressure of stepping in at the eleventh hour as Assistant Cowboys coach.

“The Cowboys were going through a lean patch and confidence was low,” he said.

“The challenging part was trying to transform the club’s form in a really short period of time.”

Townsville Blackhawkes rugby coach crouches down, surrounded by the team, to give a team talk
Payne says club culture, process and goals are important to bed down.(Supplied: Townsville Blackhawkes)

Payne acknowledged that at the elite level players are full-time and not juggling work commitments as the Barcaldine Sandgoannas do.

“I certainly wouldn’t be giving him too much advice other than just keeping backing himself and enjoying himself, because that’s obviously why he’s doing it.”

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