A small town in the outback of Queensland, a breeding ground of far more sporting legends than it may produce, now has a new idol to cheer on: the softly smiling rugby league hit man, Selwyn Cobbo.
Cobbo, who turned 20 on Sunday, has lightened the NRL for the Brisbane Broncos this season, to the point of earning a State of Origin debut for the Maroons tonight in Sydney.
The 190-centimeter, 90-kilogram winger hails from the Aboriginal community of Cherbourg, about three hours northwest of Brisbane, on Barambah Creek.
Cherbourg is in Wakka Wakka country, right on the border of Gubbi Gubbi territory.
It was formerly known as Barambah and before that the Barambah Industrial School, a mission established in 1901 in the wake of the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act – intended to segregate indigenous peoples from the European population, essentially them. force them to leave their traditional homes and communities.
After a bleak early period, ravaged by poverty, drought and disease, the community, made up of some 28 tribal groups, gradually grew and took on an identity of its own.
That identity was partly forged on the sports field.
There was cricketer Eddie Gilbert, Cobbo’s grandfather, who famously fired Sir Donald Bradman (who called him the fastest bowler he ever encountered).
And there was Frank “Big Shot” Fisher, who named a bridge after him over Barambah Creek between Cherbourg and Murgon.
Fisher was a legendary 1930s rugby league player who made such an impression on Britain’s touring side that he was offered an offer to play in the UK – only he was not allowed to leave the mission due to the Protection Act.
A five-eighth, Big Shot has been dubbed the “Aboriginal Wally Lewis” and inspired future generations of South Burnett area rugby league talent, including Steve Renouf, Willy and Esi Tonga and Chris Sandow.
He was named in the Indigenous Team of the Century and his granddaughter, Cathy Freeman, was also a decent athlete.
The town’s name was changed to Cherbourg in 1932 due to confusion over mail delivery with the nearby Barambah station.
At the last census the population was about 1,300. Murgon, where much of the city works or goes to school, has a population of about 2,400 and is about a 10-minute drive away.
In Cherbourg there is a shop, a sports complex, a hospital, a community center, a ration barn museum and a state school.
And although it is made up of many peoples, they are all said to speak the language of rugby league.
Something in the water
Selwyn’s father, Shamus Cobbo, thinks there’s something in the water near them.
“Mate, we live near Barambah Creek, could have something to do with that, the water in that creek,” he jokes.
“We have a good sporting history in Cherbourg, and [Selwyn’s] is just another story.
Shamus Cobbo says kids as young as his toddler grandson start playing competition.
“They start very, very little, running around with a football in their hands.
“They were kind of born with football in the air these guys.”
Born to play
When you look at Cobbo, whose strong yet lanky frame is surprisingly graceful, it’s hard not to compare him to a few rare gems of the past who played with such fervor: the likes of Greg Inglis and Israel Folau. He is so joyful to watch in fluid motion.
Inglis himself gave Cobbo simple instructions for his Origin debut: “Rip in.”
Not only does the teen have all the traits you’d want in an outer back — size, strength, footwork, speed — but anyone who’s seen him up close talks about his whip-smart soccer brain.
When he doesn’t run away from the chasing pack or jump high above defenders, he uses his ruse to blind opponents.
Like a moment in round 7 against the Bulldogs – after receiving a flick pass from Kotoni Staggs, it took Cobbo less than half a second to realize he was about to be tackled.
He glanced down the field before taking a perfectly weighted kick for Rhys Kennedy to run up and score.
You have to be immersed in rugby league from day one to be able to think like that at 19 years old.
Maroon whore Ben Hunt calls him a “silent killer”.
“I think I’ve heard him say three or four words all over the camp so far,” Hunt said.
“But as soon as you get on the football field, he’s just there.”
‘You can’t catch Cobbo’
Cobbo grew up playing for the Cherbourg Hornets, before becoming the first native school captain at Murgon State High in the school’s 75-year history.
He was already an inspiration to young children in the city, now he is an idol.
Murgon High principal Simon Cotton describes Cobbo as an “excellent” student and a role model who paved the way as an Indigenous leader at the school.
There have been two more Aboriginal school leaders in three years since Cobbo became the first.
On the football pitch, he clearly had a brilliant rugby league brain, says Mr. cotton.
Ryan Brown runs the Murgon Clontarf Academy, a program designed to keep local boys in school and give them a job after school to work.
He says Cobbo has had a huge impact on local children by showing them what hard work can achieve.
“He was a leader as soon as he stepped into the academy. Quiet, humble, shy, but always led from the front.
“I see his footsteps, I see his leadership, from where he left marks, and the guys just walk through it, but also make their own stories.”
The chair of the Hornets committee, Lynette Brown, says the city is “under the spell” for Cobbo’s debut.
“I think it’s changed a lot of NRL teams, people have changed their teams to the Broncos and people have now changed teams from New South Wales to Queensland, so everyone is very proud.”
Ms. Brown, whose husband coached Cobbo under the age of 12, says you can’t necessarily pick the best players when they’re little kids, but Selwyn’s personality and attitude have never changed.
“That humility that you see in him now, with the Broncs, like that’s what we saw growing up, growing up in him playing football.”
Luella Blair of the Hornets committee says: “The football he played growing up, you could see the passion and determination he had.
Another committee member, Kimberley Barrett, says Cobbo never gave up on his dreams, despite never being picked for representative football by the junior ranks.
“His mother and father said ‘the great time will come’. And he made it.
“And he’s a great source of inspiration. Not just here in Cherbourg, but for everyone.”
The ladies say it’s now common practice to hear shouts of “I want to be fast like Selwyn” and “You can’t catch Cobbo” on the training ground!
Rugby league with a smile
Renouf, whose mother is from Cherbourg but grew up in Murgon, has been something of a mentor to young Cobbo, whom he describes as “softly spoken”.
“He will come out of his shell,” the Broncos and Maroons love it.
“He’s a quiet boy, but he loves his rugby league. And he loves to get the ball in his hand.
“I think the most important thing for Selwyn is how quickly his footy has developed.
“He’s going home now and all the young kids are screaming his name: ‘Selwyn Cobbo’.
“They love their rugby league and he has given them a new idol, someone to look up to.”
Renouf says the South Burnett is such a great breeding ground for rugby league players because the people love the game so much.
“He’s a typical Cherbourg boy when you see him play and he does it with a smile on his face.
“He builds his persona as Selwyn Cobbo. He is a beautiful boy, comes from a beautiful family.
“That’s just his nature.
“We all love to watch him play.”
Renouf says that while Origin is an intimidating environment, Cobbo will be most comfortable with the ball in his hands.
“Give him as much ball as you want New South Wales because he just wants it and he just wants to run with that footy.”
He also has an ominous warning for future generations of Blues.
And Cobbo himself? He will of course smile and do his thing.
“I’ll be nervous when I run out onto the field, but at the same time, you know, you’ll see me with the biggest smile on my face,” he says.
“It will be challenging and tough, when the hard times come during the game I will still have the biggest smile. Because I just love to play footy, this is my passion, so yes, I love it .”
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