ONa normal Wednesday night, the Cherbourg Sports Complex would be deserted after 8pm. The gym would be closed. The basketball court would be empty. The final boxing session for the week would have wrapped up an hour earlier.
Tonight, 8 June, is no normal Wednesday though. More than 1,100km to the south, one of Cherbourg’s favorite sons will stride on to rugby league’s biggest stage for the first time and the sports complex he knows so well will throw open his doors to an Indigenous community riding a wave of emotion inspired by Selwyn Cobbo’s incredible rise from Brisbane Broncos rookie to State of Origin sensation.
“It wouldn’t normally happen but they’re doing it for Selwyn,” Cherbourg Hornets chair Lynette Brown says, of the decision to invite the entire town to a State of Origin bash, complete with big screen, sausage sizzle, popcorn and fruit .
“There is the biggest buzz in our community … we have people who normally support New South Wales but are now backing Queensland because of Selwyn. Proud is an understatement.”
Cobbo, a winger who turned 20 on Sunday, only made his Broncos debut in May last year. But he has scored 10 tries from 12 games in 2022 and done so in a manner that has experts describing him as “the next Greg Inglis”.
Every Queensland town takes pride in its homegrown Origin heroes. Billy Slater and Innisfail. Darren Lockyer and Roma. Allan Langer and Ipswich. But the impact of Cobbo’s selection on the people of Cherbourg is on another level.
Located about 250km north-west of Brisbane, Cherbourg is home to approximately 1,300 people, 98.7% of whom – according to the most recent census – identify as Indigenous. Founded as Barambah settlement in 1904, the Queensland government forcibly relocated Aboriginal people there for several decades.
The town has long had a reputation for producing athletes whose talents were celebrated farther afield. They included the tall and barrel-chested Frank Fisher, who played against the British touring rugby league sides in 1932 and 1936 and was later named in the Australian Indigenous Team of the Century. Meanwhile, Eddie Gilbert famously dismissed Donald Bradman for a duck in a 1931 Sheffield Shield match, with cricket’s greatest player describing it as the fastest spell of bowling he ever faced.
Now, more than 90 years later, another son of Cherbourg is making his mark on the national sporting stage – and he just happens to be Gilbert’s great-great-grandson.
“All our mob gained a lot of pride from Eddie Gilbert’s success and now Selwyn is inspiring a new generation,” says Queensland Origin legend Steve Renouf, whose mother grew up in Cherbourg’s “dormitory system” before raising her dozen children 6km down the road in Murgon.
“I get goosebumps every time I watch the kid play because it is typical of how the Cherbourg mob play. A lot of us boys from out there are pretty skinny but he loves the contact. He just loves the ball in his hand.
“When you come from one of those little towns, it gives the community such a boost to have one of their own playing an elite level of rugby league … the whole area is just rugby league. That’s what the whole community is about.”
Cherbourg’s State of Origin ties extend to the inaugural match in 1980: Queensland skipper Arthur Beetson’s mother was forcibly moved to the settlement as a child before moving to Roma with her husband in the 1940s. Beetson was the first of 37 Indigenous players to pull on a Maroons jersey – 16.75% of the 221 men to represent Queensland have been Indigenous (compared to 3.3% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the total Australian population).
As well as adding to those numbers, Cobbo will become the third player from his corner of the world to do so, joining Renouf (Murgon) and Willie Tonga (Cherbourg).
“You need to understand that rugby league for us is not just about the kids playing and being physically active,” says Brown, whose Cherbourg Hornets cater for teams from under-6s to A-Grade. “It’s also about social inclusion and being part of something.
“For some of the kids – and even some of the men – footy can be an escape from the day-to-day issues people have to deal with and some of the hard stuff about community life. It’s like soccer is the common thing everyone appreciates.
“Things are a bit different out here. Not every family has a car so the Cherbourg council supports us with a bus each weekend. My husband is the driver and we’ll drive to all the kids’ houses and toot the horn or one of the kids will run in to tell them to hurry up … we take the Esky along with drinks, water, bread rolls and fruit for them out of our own pocket.
“It’s all about the kids. All that matters to us is getting kids on the paddock and if football can be a career for another five kids from our community, we’ll be very happy about that.”