Singleton’s ‘chosen one’ returns to God’s Acre

Stu Walmsley.
by Stu Walmsley

Even by Bali standards, a 50-year-old former Wallaby walking into your tattoo parlour asking for fresh ink would be considered unusual, but Steve Merrick has always been an exception to the rule.

Over summer, Singleton Rugby Club historian and life member Mike (Benji) Barrett was asked to number all 1495 players who have represented the Bulls since their 1966 inception, using a similar system to that employed by the Wallabies.

Merrick was branded with 494 - something one of the town’s favourite sons clearly thought was worth immortalising on his summer holiday.

"I got the number before I left, but I still rang Benji right before I had it done and said: 'Are you sure of this number? If it’s not bloody right you’re going to have to change the booklet to suit, because I’m not changing the tattoo'.”

The Bulls’ logo and number are clearly visible behind his left ear as the club’s new first-grade coach jogs past at Singleton’s Rugby Park (known locally as God’s Acre) with a measuring tape and a stack of cones.

There’s a handful of kids playing touch as junior registrations are taken in the clubhouse, but Merrick is here well before any of the seniors, just like he used to be in his playing days.

"You’ve got to have it all set up when they get here," he says,

"It’s got to look professional."Merrick’s fresh tattoo, his Bulls’ number and logo. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyLifting standards on the pitch in Singleton, a coal mining town of 17,000 located 80km inland from Newcastle, is Merrick’s self-proclaimed mission ahead of the coming season but - going by the numbers - the club was actually due a momentous achievement in 2017.

The Bulls played their first season in 1967, won premierships in first and second grade in 1977, 1987 and 1997 and took out second and third grade titles in 2007. That year also marked Merrick’s first foray into coaching.

Calling the shots with former teammate Danny Gresham the club made the play offs in first grade but, over the next decade, it has gone from perennial finalist to cellar dweller.

A steady decline in playing numbers led to a string of poor seasons, and the club made the difficult decision to drop out of the Newcastle and Hunter Rugby Union (NHRU) top flight after their first ever wooden spoon in 2012.

They rebuilt for two years in lower grades before promotion in 2015, but again struggled to compete, finishing last with a single win. This dismal record was repeated in 2016 and the Singleton club song wasn’t heard in a first-grade dressing room home or away for the entirety of 2017.Singleton’s Justin Robins after a narrow loss to Waratahs at Rugby Park in May, 2017. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyThis all made pretty tough viewing for Merrick - a bloke who won four premierships with Singleton between 1992-97 and, in the middle of it all, managed to create one of the most remarkable anecdotes in Australian rugby history.

Having been named NSW Country player of the year in 1994, Merrick was driving a mining truck when he received a call from Wallabies coach Bob Dwyer after the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa.

The Bulls scrum half thought it was a prank by his teammates and hung up, but Dwyer called back and asked Merrick to make himself available for the NSW Waratahs to play Otago.

He kept his spot for two subsequent games against Queensland, winning man-of-the-match in the first at Concord Oval, but nobody (least of all Merrick) saw it coming when he was named to make his international debut in the opening Bledisloe Cup match against the All Blacks at Eden Park on July 22.

The ‘bolter from the bush’ had unseated incumbent No.9 George Gregan, shocking the rugby world, and giving Singleton an international profile in the process.Merrick tackles New Zealand’s Frank Bruce at Eden Park on July 22, 1995. Photo: David Rogers/Getty ImagesAustralia lost that Test 28-16 in tough conditions typical of winter in Auckland and Merrick handled the step up, although he admits the pace was absolutely furious.

“It was like playing 10 minutes of footy, no time, so fast and intense,” he says.

In a sight to assure stragglers at Eden Park they were still in the amateur era, the Wallabies No.9 then snuck out of the dressing rooms for a post-match cigarette on the pitch, just like he did every week at God’s Acre.

The Wallabies lost the following week in Sydney 34-23 with Jonah Lomu running riot and, after attending the post-match function dosed up on painkillers, Merrick drove straight back to Singleton’s Percy Hotel to join Bulls teammates who had just watched him on television.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the code’s future was being decided as the Rupert Murdoch backed SANZAR unions began to trump offers by the World Rugby Corporation, who had signed hundreds of players for an elite global competition.

A generous Australian Rugby Union contract was placed in front of Merrick, but accepting would have meant leaving Singleton and playing professionally in Sydney or Brisbane.

The 26-year-old stunned everyone, apart from his wife Rebecca, by turning down all offers and returning to the town of his birth and the Hunter Valley pits to play footy with his mates and start a family.

He retired in 2007 having made more than 300 appearances for the Bulls over 20 years.This portrait of Merrick, in NSW Country kit, was painted for the Archibald Prize and now hangs in the clubhouse at Rugby Park. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyMerrick’s is the most legendary tale from a club rich in folklore and the tattoo is a timely reminder for the current crop of players of how he once put the Bulls before the Wallabies.

"At the end of last season we had a meeting with the players and said: ‘Unless the change comes from them it doesn’t matter who’s coach’, Merrick says.

"I put it to them that, if they wanted to change, I’d be here to help them out.

“I said: ‘Change starts in October’.

"I had 40 show up in October, which was a good start, and that’s how we’ve been going ever since."

It might only be March, but attitude and player numbers at God’s Acre have certainly improved, and they will have to.

After a team from the local Australian Defence Force base played as Singleton’s thirds in recent years, the Bulls have made a bold statement by nominating three stand-alone senior grades this NHRU season.

Ethan Adler during a February training session at Rugby Park. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart Walmsley"There is a good atmosphere, but…. they call it a rebuilding process, but we’ve been rebuilding for far too long now," Merrick says.

"You’ve got to make a decision: do you want to compete?

"Do you want to do what they are doing and, if so, do it better?"

‘They’ are the other clubs in the powerhouse NHRU zone, widely considered the best in standard and resources outside of Sydney and Brisbane.

Most Newcastle-based clubs now boast four or five imports, Merewether-Carlton (who didn’t beat Singleton until 2006) fielded two sides in both colts and third grade in 2017 to accomodate burgeoning player numbers and the impressive facilities Wanderers boast at No.2 Sportsground were used by the Wallabies in preparation for last year’s Bledisloe Cup.

In fact, the coaching talents of Singleton’s chosen one were almost poached by the Two Blues in the off season as Merrick’s 17-year-old son Beau considered a move to the big smoke.

“It was his call really, in the end. I said; ‘If you want to go I’ll follow you’,” Merrick admits.

“But he’s going to play grade here (in Singleton) this year.”

In making the regular journey down the relatively new Hunter Expressway to Newcastle, Merrick would have been joining an exodus of talent sprinkled around that city’s junior and senior clubs who would otherwise be bolstering the Bulls.

A decade ago, when Singleton won the Newcastle junior club championship, it boasted 240 registered players. In 2017 that dipped to 140 and, while numbers in younger age groups are encouraging, there is currently no team for players aged 15 to 17 meaning future grade players are heading to Maitland or Newcastle.

"Our challenge is to try and get them to play footy here, with their mates, in the town where they live," says director of rugby and junior president Anthony Partridge.

"But attitudes are changing, parents are considering more factors now and are prepared to commute."Levi Robinson of the Singleton under 7s. Numbers in younger age groups are flourishing, but retaining teenage players more difficult. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart Walmsley

Retaining talent has been made even harder in 2018 with the Hunter Valley enduring one of the worst droughts in recent memory and Partridge jokes that a few local dairy farmers have asked whether he’d be open to an agistment arrangement at God’s Acre.

Merrick, whose Singleton U17 team folded towards the end of last season, agrees the improved accessibility to the coast is another factor impacting on the club.

"Plenty of my mates have now gone to live in Newy, because it’s only a quick 45 minutes in the car to get to work in the pits," he says.

"But the way I see it, you’d rather live near work, and get out and about on weekends - especially if you’re coming off a third night shift in a row."

The amount of high-vis clothing and utes bearing telltale red flags in Singleton’s main street reveal much about the town’s lifeblood, and the fact around 40 per cent of the players work in the pits presents yet another unique challenge.

"Most rosters mean you can play every second weekend but, when you’re free on the Saturday, you’ll be unavailable for the team’s main training run on the Thursday," Partridge says.

"The last time we did well and made the semis we trained three nights a week to try and engage everyone and we’d have a team run on the Friday night, but it just wasn’t sustainable."Singleton juniors Rory Ryan, Pat Nagle and Brendan Cox fulfilling ball boy duties for the senior grades at Rugby Park in 2017. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyMerrick, like Partridge, has made a career out of mining but shifts have changed dramatically since the club’s halcyon days when the pair mainly worked Monday to Friday.

"That’s why, if you want to attract footballers, you don’t want to get them a job in a pit," Merrick admits.

"You’re missing players every second week because of the roster, but that’s where they all want to work, of course."

“But the reality is the pits put so much back into the community it’s unbelievable and, if that wasn’t happening, these would be ghost towns.”

One thing there’s certainly no shortage of at Rugby Park is spirit. After the narrow mid-season loss to Newcastle club Waratahs last year the players were given a standing ovation by the packed clubhouse balcony at full time for their efforts.

Old boys mixed easily with current first graders in the dressing room immediately afterwards and a trio of clubmen who had made 300-plus appearances were in for what’s known locally as a ‘roasting’ at a function that night.

 Bulls fans Brileigh Elliot, Jenna Hawkins and Lauren Parlato enjoying the sunshine at God’s Acre during the 2017 season. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyWhen interviewed by long-time Newcastle Herald rugby scribe James Gardiner, 2017 captain Nathan Brennan was quoted as saying: "We put in the effort each week but don’t get much reward."

"It is a challenge, but we have such a great club culture at Singleton. That is the reason all the boys turn up each week. Playing with my brother and my best mates is most special to me. It means more than winning."

Brennan, who formed arguably the NHRU’s best locking combination with younger sibling Aaron, emulated Merrick by being named NSW Country player of the year in 2017 but wasn’t considered for the National Rugby Championship squad at the end of the season.

The 27-year-old boiler maker knows there will be no repeat of the Merrick miracle of the mid 90s, and has moved to Sydney this season to try his luck with Shute Shield premiers Warringah.

Merrick says the Bulls will miss Brennan, but is adamant the club can turn its fortunes around. In fact, he believes it’s very survival depends on it.

Singleton’s formidable 2017 locking duo Aaron and Nathan Brennan. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart Walmsley"You’ve just got to start winning, then, if you’re winning, you’ll be competitive the following year because the people that you’ve bought in will stay, then you’ll get the crowd back and the juniors will have something to strive for," he says.

"It’s just something that needs to happen. Unless it happens… I really worry about the club, we need to make sure that in five years time there’s still football played on that park.

Player manager Matthew Staff (who has 402 Bulls caps, and counting) says Merrick’s famed all-or-nothing attitude has already led to a few changes around God’s Acre.

"What Steve brings can be summed in two words - respect and enthusiasm. That competitiveness he had as a player, there’s no doubt he’s still got it."

What Merrick didn’t have a decade ago was much coaching pedigree, but he has since guided several junior Singleton and Newcastle representative teams, and also cites the influence of many mentors, including former Bulls teammate and Waratah scrum half Tim Rapp.

The current NSW general manager is the former Tahs U20 coach, and can still watch the action at God’s Acre from the back yard of his family home.

Merrick calls the shots during a February training session at Rugby Park, Singleton. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart Walmsley"I’ve been lucky enough to be over at the Crusaders (Super Rugby premiers) the last few years," Merrick says.

"When we watched them train they still do 40 minutes of basic skills, straight up, and it works. You just have to do it.

"I’ve been doing something similar here and, since October, the improvement’s been massive.

"There’s been a sharpening up of the whole football operation, getting budget back in order, having a bit of money to chase up some off-shore players if that opportunity comes along.

"We don’t expect to make the semis, but we want to win half our games this year. That’s a big call, it’ll be a big turnaround from not winning a game all year last year, but the core have been training since October and there’s quite a few others now starting to dribble in."

Merrick’s appointment has already prompted some reverse migration from Newcastle.

Former NSW Country player of the year Josh Stewart will play for the Bulls this year after opening a gym in Rutherford and joins Singleton junior Cody Fenwick as acquisitions from Merewether-Carlton.

Brothers Andrew and Chris Wadsworth are back at Rugby Park, after stints and Canada and at Southern Beaches, NSW Country five eighth Luke Rees returns after two years at Maitland Blacks and promising junior representative duo Jayden Duff and Jacob Miller will also run out in red and black.Jacob Miller during a February training session at Rugby Park. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyIn a positive sign, virtually none of these players were present for Singleton’s first trial match on Saturday; an encouraging 36-22 victory over reigning Central Coast first and second grade-premier Terrigal.

"It was really pleasing to see what they were doing at training was implemented on the field,” Merrick says.

"There’s still a few occasions when they get really tired they go back to old habits, but the longer the game went the stronger we were looking.

"They took us back to their watering hole, a little tavern there on the Central Coast, and shouted us a few beers and a feed - it was proper old-school rugby - really good hospitality.”

Traditional rugby values and good old-fashioned team bonding are a big part of the Merrick approach.

In February he took the squad to Nelson Bay where a weekend of ‘socialising’ was combined with training sessions on the beach - a change of scene from Rugby Park.

The players ‘ripped in on both fronts’ and Singleton are renowned in NHRU for their consistent winning form off the pitch.Singleton and Waratahs players shake hands after an NHRU fixture at Rugby Park in May, 2017. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyPartridge still gets a kick out of hosting the Newcastle teams and seeing the visiting players mingle in the clubhouse with the locals after the match - win, lose or draw.

"Everyone makes it their annual bus trip because we’re one of the furthest up the road, and they love the speeches, the boat race on the bar, everyone says: ‘No one does it like you blokes’," Partridge says.

This unique atmosphere was one of the main reasons why Merrick turned his back on professionalism, but it clearly irks him to see Newcastle clubs regarding the away fixture at Singleton as a quaint country road trip, and he’s hoping to see further progress in a three-way trial against Dubbo Roos and Mudgee up the Golden Highway this weekend.

"I’m not getting carried away just yet. We’ve got Dubbo this weekend and it’ll be a mixture of a side, because we’re travelling, but the best thing about Terrigal was it was a mixture of a side but the guys were all setting the same standard and putting on the same plays."A scene from pre-season training at Rugby Park. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleySince forming at a meeting in the town’s Imperial Hotel in December 1966, Singleton have won 15 first grade premierships, 11 in the old Upper Hunter competition, and four since moving to the Newcastle competition (NHRU) in 1990.

What the Bulls have achieved in a half century is extraordinary. They’re the bush club that went to the city and showed them how the game should be played, but the goalposts have long since shifted.

The old industry may be pulling out of Newcastle, but its rugby clubs are firing heavier artillery than ever, and Singleton have pulled out one of their biggest guns in order to beat them at their own game.

The events which flashed Merrick’s name around the rugby world occurred almost 25 years ago, but there are many who believe the famed do-or-die attitude and brutal honesty of Bull #494 and Wallaby #722 are exactly what’s needed to ensure the game’s long-term future at God’s Acre.

For Merrick, there’s no doubt Singleton’s canary-in-the-coal-mine moment has arrived.

His initial goal is survival, but you can be sure he is already thinking about what lies beyond.