Nineties Newcastle Knights stalwart Ashley Gordon understands the importance of regional sporting clubs. Picture: Newcastle Herald.

Nineties Newcastle Knights stalwart Ashley Gordon understands the importance of regional sporting clubs. Picture: Newcastle Herald.

Love of the game: sport and community in the time of coronavirus

Despite a disrupted season due to COVID-19, the importance of community sport remains

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Local sport continues to play a vital role in regional communities during coronavirus.

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The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has had a dramatic effect on every facet of life in regional Australia. From the way that we work to the way that we play, nothing has been quite the same since terms like "social distancing" and "slowing the curve" first entered into common parlance.

While in many areas both major and local sporting competitions have started to resume - albeit under strict COVID-safe guidelines - other towns are but part-way through a long, cold winter completely devoid of what often serves as the heartbeat of community life.

For three sporting heroes who grew up in the regions, there's little doubt as to the importance of community sporting clubs to the places they both represent and serve. Nineties Newcastle Knights stalwart Ashley Gordon, present-day Hawthorn AFL star Luke Breust and three-time Olympic basketball medallist Suzy Batkovic all say that the humble organisations where they got their start were not only critical to their sporting success, but also to their growth as people.

Gordon - who started playing rugby league at Cardiff in New South Wales before progressing to South Newcastle and, eventually, the Knights in the-then NSWRL - said the lessons he learnt from hard-working community sport volunteers were key to all that followed.

I believe if parents want their children to be well rounded, sport is probably the number one vehicle to provide values and character attributes that are going to stick with them for a very long time. - Ashley Gordon

"At the end of the day, I believe if parents want their children to be well rounded, sport is probably the number one vehicle to provide values and character attributes that are going to stick with them for a very long time," Gordon said.

"We all know what it teaches in terms of socialising, dealing with relationships with other people and how to get along with people in a group ... teamwork, all those sorts of things.

"But even more important than that, coaches and so on volunteer for their club, and they are real role models. So then you've got a role model outside of the family home who are people that can have a positive impact on a child.

"Some coaches don't realise it's not just about skills, you're a role model in that kid's life. They can really help the parenting process, by helping to teach what's right and what's wrong, what's fair and not fair, lessons for whatever field they end up going into in life."

Read more: Volunteer groups hold communities together

Gordon, who played 78 first-grade games for Newcastle and Penrith and was the Dally M winger of the year in 1990, said community sporting clubs gave players and volunteers alike plenty of opportunity to grow.

"If we go deep into defining what culture is, it's around your belief system and identity," he said.

"Sport plays a large role in that, for all cultures, for people of all shapes and sizes and from different backgrounds. It is sport that provides that connectedness, that opportunity to see 'different-ness' and accept people for who they are. There should be no discrimination and sport models that.

"It's so much more than simply what happens on the field. You're getting that social side and that health side, but I believe you're also getting all those other things."

Read more: Mental health experts emphasis the important benefits of community sport

While he grew up 600km away in rural Temora, 211-game AFL veteran Luke Breust agrees with Gordon's assessment. Playing Aussie Rules on a Saturday and Rugby League on a Sunday right through to the under 18 level, Breust said the people he met through local sport were hugely influential.

"The biggest thing for me was the sense of community," the triple-premiership player said.

"Everybody sort of getting in together and doing their bit for the footy club, whether that be working bees, running the canteen, that sort of stuff was huge from my point of view.

"Probably the other thing, being from Temora, we were always short on numbers so there were multiple mates of mine that would play Aussie Rules on Saturday and then we'd all back up on the Sunday for Rugby League.

"I'm still friends with all of them ... we've got a core group of eight or so guys who are still very close. We've been very fortunate. It comes on the back of the amount of time we spent together at training and playing on the weekends."

Olympic basketball medallist Suzy Batkovic says her time with the Hunters basketball squad paved the road for her success as a player and person. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

Olympic basketball medallist Suzy Batkovic says her time with the Hunters basketball squad paved the road for her success as a player and person. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

Batkovic, "proudly Newcastle born and bred", said far more than simply learning the fundamentals of the game, her time with the area's Hunters basketball squad paved the road for her success as a player and person.

Now a local councillor in Townsville after a stellar career spanning 2003-19 that included stops in Australia, the US and Europe, Batkovic said community sport was where she first grasped the significance of things like resilience, teamwork and unity. Now a mother, she said she planned to instil a love of sport from early in her daughter's life.

All three stars remain in touch with their sporting roots and agreed that the spread of coronavirus had made this a devastating year for community clubs.

"It's been a sad predicament," Gordon said.

"I think there's been a big hole in community life. Aside from businesses and all that's going on there, there's a lot being missed with no sport ... there's not an outlet there. It's such a huge part of community life in the regions and suburbs."

While he sympathised with leagues dealt a difficult hand with restrictions, border closures and so on, Breust said at the end of the day, gate takings and canteens were the lifeblood of local teams.

"When things like that are taken away, then it makes it near impossible to continue to run a really successful club."

Despite long delays and a raft of season cancellations, the trio believed that the mass disruption of 2020 might actually spark renewed interest in grassroots sport, both on and off the field.

"There is that element of doubt as to whether you will lose some people to the game," Breust said.

"I'd prefer to go the other way and be positive and hope that the fact they have all missed a season, they might be pretty eager to get back into it. They know how much they've missed it in their lives."

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