I accidentally stumbled across Adrian Vowles in a Twitter post from the North Queensland Cowboys. It was a picture of a pre-season training camp on Magnetic Island (one of my favourite locations), and Adrian had commented on how he remembered those days on Maggie Island with the team. One tweet lead to another and before you knew it, Adrian had promised that if the Cowboys made the Grand Final in 2019 he would wear a North Queensland Cowboys Hawaiian shirt to the Grand Final, (I am feeling good about this season, so I have suggested that he buy one now.)
I knew who Adrian Vowles was. He is written into the history books of the North Queensland Cowboys, part of the tapestry that weaves the club together. He was part of the very first squad back in 1995 – he is an original Cowboy. Speaking of history books, the chronicle 20 Years in the Saddle: North Queensland Cowboys 1995-2014 by Neil Cadigan is a phenomenal read, not just for Cowboys fans, but for anyone interested in Rugby League history. There is so much information in that book, it is hard to believe that one person could possibly find all of that information. It certainly gave me a great insight into just how the North Queensland Cowboys came to be.
Adrian Vowles was part of a handpicked squad chosen to be the first group of players to represent the region of Townsville and the wider area of the North Queensland community. They would be the first team to run out onto what is now 1300 SMILES Stadium and start the legacy that has become the North Queensland Cowboys. We can sometimes forget where it all started, because we have enjoyed so much success in recent years, but the story surely begins back in 1995 when the first Cowboys, including Adrian, helped to lay the turf on the hill before the first ever home game.
Adrian has many more feathers in his cap alongside his Cowboys colours and his tally of achievements on the rugby league field are plenty. Making his career as a centre, five eighth and lock, he has a long list of accolades to his name. He was ‘Player of the Year’ in his debut season with the Gold Coast Seagulls, on that great form he was selected for the Queensland State of Origin Team in 1994 (quite an incredible moment for the kid born in Cunnamulla who had set himself the goal of representing his state as a young boy listening to the State of Origin on the radio, many years earlier). Making the move to North Queensland in 1995 to play in the club’s inaugural season, he would represent the Cowboys for the next two years, captaining the side in 1996. After his time up north he would make the switch to the UK Super League and carve an enormous and impressive name for himself with Castleford Tigers, Leeds Rhinos and Wakefield Trinity. He was awarded The Man of Steel Award in 1999 and was named in the Super League ‘Dream Team’ the same year, his achievements cemented when he was selected to represent Scotland in the 2000 World Cup.
Returning home after a very successful Super League career, Adrian played for the Brisbane Broncos feeder club, the Toowoomba Clydesdales and had an incredibly successful 2004 campaign, one which almost granted him a start in the National Rugby League competition, even though he had not played in the country for eight years. In 2005 he found himself on the field with the Burleigh Bears and after a solid season the team made the Queensland Cup Grand Final but lost to the North Queensland Young Guns. In later years Adrian would hold the title of CEO for the Burleigh Bears, Assistant Coach of the Jillaroos and Head Coach of the Queensland Women’s team, for the 2017 Origin Series.
The Former Man of Steel hails from a town named Cunnamulla, population of 1200. It is a small town that lies on the Warrego River in South West Queensland. It is 206 kilometres south of Charleville, and approximately 750 kilometres west of the state capital, Brisbane. Vowles lived in Cunnamulla until he was 11 years old, before moving to Charleville, where he stayed until he was 17. He has fond memories of both towns and says they were wonderful places to grow up in. I have no doubt both towns are proud to lay equal claim to their talented export.
Though many years retired, Rugby League still holds a special place in Adrian’s heart. So much so, that in 2014 the Adrian Vowles Cup was born – in a short 6 years it has grown from 6 teams competing to 26 teams this year. It is played in Charleville on the last weekend of February every year.
I asked him how the Adrian Vowles Cup came to be, why he does it and what it means to him and the local community, this is what he said:
“The Adrian Vowles Cup was started in 2014 by myself and a good mate from Charleville, Shaun (Zoro) Radnedge. The reason we wanted to start the competition was simply that there was no football for kids in the South West or Central West region after under 12’s, so kids basically couldn’t play a game of football. My father was instrumental in getting an under 14’s and under 17’s competition going when I was a kid and that continued for many years until falling by the wayside. Shaun’s son fell into that under 14 age group and he wanted him to be able to continue to play football. The timing was right for us to introduce the Adrian Vowles Cup.
From the start our goal was to grow it every year and we didn’t care if that was just one team or five, we were not in any hurry, we were also running it on the smell of an oily rag. The carnival had one false start in 2014 when a team pulled out so unfortunately we had to cancel, however we managed to get it going later in the year. I couldn’t make that weekend due to a prior commitment, so my parents happily presented the trophy to Miles RLFC, who, along with Central West and Charleville made up the first ever under 14’s comp. Miles RLFC entered the competition because one of our other good mates, Grant Bignell was living there. He became involved and his son, Jed played in the team and Charlevilleite, Paul Treadwell was the coach.
In 2015 our dream was growing we wanted to make the cup bigger and better. Luckily, Craig Rodgers, a good friend of mine kindly jumped on board with his company, Outback Insulation, and become the major sponsor of the carnival. That sponsorship helped enormously and gave us some financial freedom to really expand. We also had QRL employee, Peter Rafter start helping us and he is now just as entrenched in the Adrian Vowles Cup as Zoro and I are.
At the end of every carnival we announce the much anticipated ‘Dream Team’. The jerseys (donated by NRL Game Development) are presented to the best players in each position, as judged by me. My decision is not just based on skill but also how the players conduct themselves on the field. The quality of players is so good, I honestly have a hard time deciding on the team.
We had six teams in 2015, in 2016 we added under 16’s to the carnival and in 2017 our first city team, Brisbane Easts, attended. Over the years they have been joined by the Redcliffe Dolphins, Redlands and Toowoomba Brothers. This year we will have 26 teams competing with new teams from Toowoomba, Caloundra and Goondiwindi – to name a few. We have more sponsors on board than ever before, and we also allow other sporting entities in the town to make money by running the canteen, bbq’s etc. We have also had Girls Rugby League involved in the last few years too, which is becoming more popular as the years go on. The weekend also acts as a trial for the Outback Team and we will be live-streaming the games this year for the first time, which is very exciting.
The country kids love it and they really enjoy themselves and I can tell you they more than hold their own against the kids from the city. The city kids get to experience country life, they camp at the ground, its hotter than normal for them, and they also have to travel quite a distance to get out to Charleville, but this is something that country kids do all of the time to play footy. So, it is good for the city kids to get some perspective about how life is different for other people. Redlands and Toowoomba Brothers use it as a bonding trip, and they have found the kids are a much more tight knit group after the weekend.
The community also benefits from the carnival. It brings well over 500 people (even more this year) into town and the visitors help to boost the economy. The town is hurting due to drought and this is a real boost for the businesses and the community. We have a strong working relationship with the Murweh Shire Council, Mayor Annie Liston and CEO Neil Polglase have been good to us and really support what we are doing. We also help sponsor the junior and senior rugby league teams, with proceeds from the carnival helping out as well. Rugby League numbers have increased in the area by 38%, which is quite extraordinary. This isn’t all due to our carnival of course, but we have played a small part in the rise in numbers. The real heroes are the people who donate their time to grow the game in the country areas, the travelling they do for not only rugby league but other sports as well is what keeps it going.
With most of the teams that are involved, Zoro or myself have a connection with them in some way, whether it is someone who used to live in the country, someone we played against or with, or someone we have met through footy. This is what makes the Adrian Vowles Cup so special, it is about mates putting back into the game just as our parents did for us.”
Ultimately, we created the Adrian Vowles Cup hoping to give outback kids the same opportunities as their city cousins and to play and meet people they normally wouldn’t. Hopefully, one day, one of the players who has competed in our carnival will get to play in the NRL – what a great story that would be!
By his own admission Adrian Vowles has worked extremely hard to achieve what he has in his lifetime. He chased a big dream, when at 17 he left his little country town and moved to the big smoke to follow his passion of being a Rugby League player. When he left home he didn’t have any offers, but he knew what he wanted – so he went for it, and he did not stop until he got it. He lives by the quote, “Dream Big – small steps turn into giant strides”. They are simple yet poignant words that sum up the character of a man who strives to live the best life he can, with courage and determination to be the best version of himself.
At a time when Rugby League is in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, ex-players like Adrian give me hope. There is plenty of good out there in the Rugby League world, which was why I felt it was important to share this story. It is really easy to get stuck in the negative headlines – there has been enough drama this off season to warrant League’s own mini-series, but it has been for all the wrong reasons. It is important we give people like Adrian support for dreams like the Adrian Vowles Cup – what these events give back to the community is immeasurable. These are the stories we should hear about more often.
Adrian Vowles was an exceptional Rugby League player in his day and I am proud that he was part of the Cowboys original ‘Dream Team’ – in my opinion he is someone that embodies what the North Queensland Cowboys are all about. He is resilient, he is tough, he works hard and then he works harder. He gives back to his community and he fosters the talent of the next generation with grass roots footy. While he has worn a few footy jerseys in his time, I am glad that the North Queensland Cowboys was one of them.