Bush Beat: How a Bloody Slow Cup helped heal a grieving community

Stu Walmsley.
by Stu Walmsley

Charles Bathurst Bledisloe would be intrigued by the fact the latest chapter in a tradition he started in 1931 is about to play out in Japan, but Lord only knows what he would make of Newman’s Bloody Slow Cup.

There aren’t many links between the ubiquitous red dust of the East Pilbara and the bustling commercial port of Yokohama but, in events only a week apart, these two traditional non-rugby communities will demonstrate the inclusiveness, diversity and international appeal of Australia and New Zealand’s great sporting rivalry.

With Bledisloe’s booty safely secured in New Zealand Rugby’s cabinet for yet another year, Michael Hooper leads the Wallabies on to Nissan Stadium today in Japan’s second-largest city looking to avoid a clean sweep. He won’t take much inspiration from New Zealand’s 12-3 victory in Newman last weekend, but the story of the annual match and how it helps a remote mining community remember four young men it lost in 2001 is truly rousing.

On Australia Day that year Newman police received a call for assistance from Kiwirrkurra, a tiny Gibson Desert community about 1000km to the east. A team of three officers responded in a police Cessna 310, call sign Polair 64, piloted by a fourth officer from the coastal town of Karratha.

Only 2.6km from Newman Airport on the return journey, Polair 64 crashed, and all four men on board were killed - still the most significant loss of life in modern-day Australasian policing history.

The deaths of Newman police officers Gavin Capes, Philip Ruland, David Dewar and Karratha-based pilot Donald Everett are marked by a sombre remembrance ceremony at Newman police station on Australia Day every year, but October’s Bloody Slow Cup is more a celebration of their lives and the significant connection the men had to this remarkable Western Australian community.

While officer in charge of Newman police in 2004, Geoff Stewart, along with Kiwi colleague Tony Signal, recognised the town was still hurting from the events three years prior and the pair began workshopping a way to help heal the wounds.

“When I arrived many police who were here at the time (of the incident) had moved, but a lot of the community hadn’t. It was still very raw in the community so we wanted to do something about that,” says Stewart, now a WA Police superintendent in Perth, 1200km south west of Newman.

“About 700 people turned up for the first Bloody Slow Cup in 2005 - New Zealand won unfortunately - but it started the juggernaut of what the event is now. More than anything, it’s brought the families and partners involved with the four officers back into the police family so they feel they haven’t been forgotten.”

At this year’s event on October 20 it seemed at least half the town’s 6000 residents were in attendance at Newman’s Capricorn Oval, and organisers were hopeful of hitting a fundraising target of $100,000 for WA Police Legacy, a charity which supports the partners and children of deceased police officers.

The families of those who perished in the Newman disaster are still fixtures at the Bloody Slow Cup, almost 18 years after they lost their loved ones, and lay wreaths at a powerful and well-attended remembrance ceremony held at the crash site memorial on the Saturday morning.

“The first service was horrendously emotional because we came out here and there was obviously no memorial or structure, there was actually bits of the plane still sticking out of the dust, so it was really raw,” says Patricia Dewar, mother of 31-year-old victim David Dewar, who had been living in Newman five years with wife Lynne when Polair 64 crashed.

“This is what makes us come because, without this community, there would be no memorial. It’s the people here, and that’s what’s driven me every year to come up here because of what they put into it; the police and the locals, what they put in to make sure they’re not forgotten.

“We always attend the match too - we’re still trying to learn the rules, to be honest - but David loved rugby and played up here in Newman,” she says.

Originally comprised of the remembrance service and rugby match, the Bloody Slow Cup now features a host of social and sporting events across seven days, including school coaching clinics by the Western Force, a golf tournament, a breakfast for visiting families hosted by WA Police Legacy and trans-Tasman clashes in netball, soccer, cricket and touch football.

Since 2009 the crowd have also been treated to the Len Snee Cup; a curtain-raiser between Perth-Bayswater under 11s and Newman, a bunch of raw-boned bush kids who this year were too strong for the visitors from the big smoke.

Head coach Jason Hill had the unenviable task of chaperone for the north Perth club’s ‘giant sleepover’ in the Pilbara, a post-season trip the team has been fundraising for all season.

“It’s all about mateship, it doesn’t really matter what happens on the rugby field,” Hill says as his players took their place to watch the haka before the main game. “We’re also coming up to an event that’s special - we laid a wreath at the memorial service this morning, walking through touching the rock - you can see them taking it all in.”

The families of the victims were also involved in the formalities before the main event, breaking a blue-and-white banner which read; ‘26th January 2001, four officers gone, but not forgotten’. After the national anthems, the New Zealand haka was led by Zion Paul, and was every bit as passionate as TJ Perenara’s war cry will be today in Yokohama.

The fixture involves police officers, boilermarkers, diesel fitters, ambulance officers, scaffolders, engineers and electricians - not too dissimilar to the makeup of the first rugby league scratch matches played as early as 1968 when Newman was being built by BHP.

The mining giant established the community to support the extraction or iron ore from nearby Mt Whaleback, and the contractors at the construction camp would take on the mine employees on a clay pan pitch in the red Pilbara dust.

Most of today’s participants are still linked to Mt Whaleback, now the biggest single-pit open-cut iron ore mine in the world, and there’s a bit more grass around town these days, but the contest on Capricorn Oval was still no place for the faint hearted.

Australia, led by Newman police officer Scott Stenson, and New Zealand, skippered for the sixth year running by Mt Whaleback diesel fitter Derek Teahu Rangi, tore into one another throughout a physical first half with Alex Hoff’s penalty giving the Aussies a 3-0 advantage at the break.

The brutal defence continued in the second stanza, but the turning point came when Hoff, an ambulance officer from the Cook Islands, made one of the few line breaks of the match down the left flank. Already celebrating Australia’s first try, he was ankle tapped by a desperate Kiwi defender, and New Zealand managed to repel the attack.

The powerful Kiwi back row was the difference in the end, and number eight Iona Uili barged over for two close-range tries in a player-of-the-match performance, one of which was converted by Shane Moiri.

According to local historian Lisa Rickert, by 1972 Newman’s population of 2000 was made up of more than 60 nationalities, and the legacy of that fact was clearly evident at Capricorn Oval on Saturday.

The refreshing sound of Indigenous language could be heard being spoken around the ground by people of all skin colour (Martu Wangka is now the dominant Aboriginal dialect in the East Pilbara) and running an eye down the Newman junior team sheet provided the reader as much pleasure as perusing a West Indian batting order.

Rangy centre Supachai (pronounced Super-shy) Rainford is clearly destined for greatness, a runaway try from powerful prop Kavear Agir brought the crowd to its feet, and the parents of Duke Thomson and Pheonix Gill also have an eye for a name with impact.

Newman is a true melting pot of cultures and many local families originally came for short-term FIFO (fly in, fly out) contracts at the region’s iron ore mines, but ended up staying.

“I could not ever imagine life without Newman; it’s an amazing place, it’s a unique place, and I think I’m lucky to have lived here through some pretty incredible times,” Rickert says.

It’s accepted that the head of Newman police takes on the organisation of the Bloody Slow Cup, and current officer in charge Mark Fleskens experienced a baptism of fire at his first event in 2017.

“Last year over a two day period I had over 300 phone calls; it was my first year here and I was a little bit proud and thought I could do everything, so this year we’ve organised things a little bit differently,” he says.

“I’ve got a station of 19 officers and every individual officer is involved in this event in one way or another. They’re either running an event or helping out in logistics and some are working 20 hours in a day, outside of police hours.

“The Bloody Slow Cup is something dear to my heart; I was friends with one of the passengers in Polair 64, and I also knew two other people in the incident, so it was actually part of the reason I wanted to come to Newman.”

The events’s October time slot places it between the end of the Australian Rules football season and start of the Wet season, but temperatures still reached 38 degrees on Saturday, and the extreme conditions in the Pilbara make the visitor respect those who established the community.

A photograph from the late 1960s in the town’s tourist centre depicts a couple of grinning and shirtless young men standing in front of a a giant sign which reads; ‘Sufferer’s Paradise’ - the name of the wet mess in the town’s original construction camp.

Co-founder Stewart, who played in the first four Bloody Slow Cups and has the missing tooth to prove it, believes it’s a place that just gets under your skin.

“It’s the best community we’ve lived in; I think there’s still fingernail marks from my wife somewhere as we left town in 2010,” he says. “We were here for more than five years and, if I’d had the option, I wouldn’t have left.

“It warms my heart when I go to the ceremony and see the boys’ mums and dads, their brothers and sisters, their partners and their kids…. they know that all these people are here for my dad…..

“The best decision we made was to play the Bloody Slow Cup at Newman.”