He was known as “Rambo” and, in an era of tough men, stood toe to toe with them all.
Ronny Gibbs was known as one of the hardest players to take the rugby league field and 30 years on, the Bourke boy’s fire and passion lives on with his fight to keep rugby league alive in outback New South Wales.
While most rugby league players continue life in the city post retirement, after playing 147 games for Easts, Manly, Gold Coast, and Wests, the former back rower found himself straight back on the Great Western Highway heading home to the bush.
“When I finished football, I didn’t have a trade and I didn’t have much education either, all I wanted to do was be a footy player,” Gibbs told NRL.com.
“So when I ended up back in Dubbo I decided I wanted to help out as many kids in our community as I could and I was fortunate to get a job at a school as a Teacher’s Aide and then I started all my education at the age of 36.
“I got all my level three tickets in refereeing, sports coaching, sports training and then I tried to transfer what I’d learnt back out to the communities to try and encourage my people to get involved with rugby league.”
“I used rugby league as my vehicle. One; because I played it and two, because I knew it’s what I could use to turn people’s lives around.”
Born in Brewarrina and raised in Bourke, Gibbs grew up in what he knew to be a “prosperous” country town. Since returning, however, he has witnessed his hometown crumble under the weight of drought, COVID and floods.
“Bourke was a strong rugby league town — I was sitting on the bench in the under 18’s,” Gibbs said.
“There’s talent galore still now, there’s lots of it, but unfortunately most kids won’t get the opportunity to get to that next level. Or someone won’t snap them up before they end up on the wrong side of the fence.
“I’m no clean skin, I had it pretty rough myself.
“Unfortunately, out here, the small towns are doing it tough and therefore community sport is struggling too.
“We had the drought for a couple of years which ripped us apart, then COVID came along and now it won’t stop raining. Businesses just aren’t surviving out in the bush so people are just selling up and moving to the big smoke.
“Back in my day the farms were going and the abattoirs employed 300 staff. Bourke had three clubs and about 11 pubs all thriving at the same time.
“Now the abattoir is shut, there’s one club and two pubs. We had 4,500 people live here back in the day and now it’s down to about 1,500.”
I didn’t have the red carpet rolled out for me but there’s always forks in the road and unfortunately a lot of the kids out here take the wrong one.
Former rugby league player Ronny Gibbs
For 25 years, Gibbs has been uniting school students from the state’s far north-west to compete in the Ronny Gibbs Sevens, where students from Baradine to Cobar travel to Bourke to compete in the rugby league and netball tournament.
With some students traveling over 400km to compete, Gibbs said the day provides an opportunity for the kids of the bush who live too remote to play in weekend competitions to play rugby league with their schoolmates.
“I know in Brewarrina there’s no footy team for the kids to play in until they’re 15 so this is the only time of the year they get to play competitive footy,” Gibbs said.
“They’re tough kids; the games are hard and fast. They play seven-a-side so each school has the opportunity to fill a side.
“No one takes backwards steps out here; if one team gets a try, the other team just steps up to match them.
“These kids are not only getting out of school for the day but they’re getting out and playing against different kids.
“The kids from Baradine who have driven over four hours wouldn’t have seen these other teams since the last carnival,” he said. “Bourke can’t just keep playing Brewarrina and Nyngan can’t just keep playing Cobar all the time so it’s great to give them the opportunity to see different competition.”
Commencing in 1995, the Ronny Gibbs Sevens celebrated its 25th anniversary last Thursday.
Played in August each year, the gala day tournament in Bourke attracts boys and girls rugby league and netball participants across two age divisions.
This year it was Nyngan High School who took out the Ronny Gibbs opens division, defeating Cobar High School in the Grand Final.