By Peter Rowe
For Cooper Stoney rugby league is a long distance love affair.
At just 16 years of age, Cooper has to make a two-hour flight from his home in the north of Western Australia to Perth to play the game he loves.
He once got dad Derek to drive down from his home in Karratha to play – it took 16 hours.
With a family background in the foothills of the Blue Mountains it’s probably no surprise young Cooper is a Panther with Liam Martin his favourite player.
But a relocation as a child to a mining town that sits 1600 kilometres north of WA’s State capital brings challenges when you want to play rugby league.
“Challenges is a good word,” admits Derek.
To those more familiar with distances on the eastern seaboard, it’s like driving from Townsville to Byron Bay.
“We did it the weekend of the NRL Double header in Perth. Just to watch some live footy,” Derek said.
Playing footy is a challenge for Derek, Cooper and other kids in the Pilbara, a thinly populated region in the north of WA, where if kids want to play sport, it’s usually AFL.
“We’re a rugby league family, so we’ve helped set up junior camps and training and small competitions to give our kids a chance to play the game, Stoney senior said.
“It’s tough, especially when they get to 12 and 13 when they need competition and tackle.
“I’m the tackle dummy and the wrestling coach combined but it’s commitment we have all bought into.”
Stoney, a lifelong Penrith fan, has worked hard, along with other parents, to give their kids a chance to play. And at times it’s not been easy.
“Most people don’t realise how hot it is up here, 40 degrees and we’re holding training camps and we’re trying to build pathways for them to play in Perth – and who knows, maybe beyond that.”
For Cooper his journey to play for the Joondalup Giants in the NRLWA Under-17s comp begins on a Saturday morning with a two-hour flight south, thanks to sponsors Hanson.
He’s picked up at the airport by team manager Sue Masterton and stays overnight with her and son Fraser, the team’s halfback, before playing in the centres for the team on Sunday morning.
Then it’s back to Perth Airport in time for the last flight to Karratha on Sunday evening, getting home at 8pm.
On grand final weekend he flew down Saturday, played Sunday – beating the Rockingham Sharks 22-20 in a thriller – before heading back home on Monday morning.
Long distance love affair? You bet.
“Do or die with footy, I love it,” Cooper said.
“It’s been an amazing experience and so many people have helped me along the way.
“I turn 17 soon and I’m then too old for juniors, so I’m hoping to move to Perth with my apprenticeship and play for the Giants reserves in senior footy.”
He wants to repay the faith and the sponsorship that helped him win a grand final winners’ medal.
The Giants ‘Old Boys’ had a whip round to ensure he made it south to play, something he will never forget.
“I’ve had a footy in my hands since I was about two or three when we moved to WA. It’s something I want to continue,” he added.
Stoney junior first came to Perth last year as a part of the North West Reds for the Junior State Championships.
He then participated for the Karratha JRL in the Harmony Cup, and wanted more rugby league.
The game in WA is not just Perth, as the NRLWA’s Lead Development Officer Gus Marshall is quick to point out.
“We identified an interest in the game in the Pilbara a few years back and have been trying to grow that,” Marshall said.
“The Karratha junior club has been doing a great job introducing kids to the game, but it was clear early on that we need to find the next step – a pathway from juniors into competition footy and maybe further.
“A local derby up there is a 250km road trip to Port Hedland. There’s a ceiling on what a young player can achieve. Six to eight-a-side, so competition was an issue.
“Luckily the Joondalup club in Perth stepped up and offered to help.”
Cooper, as his dad puts it, became the “guinea pig’, to trial the idea.
Joondalup coach Scott White said he’d do it again “in a heartbeat”.
“He’s a great kid, gelled almost straight away and listened and learned and developed,” White said.
The club even changed their training schedule to include a ‘captains run’ on the Saturday to include their new recruit in their gameday plans.
“It’s hard trying to coach a kid long distance and I wasn’t sure at the beginning, but I thought ‘hey, let’s give it a go’,” White said.
“After every game I gave him tasks to perform when at home and he did them. Not just did them, but ‘really’ did them. He smashed them.
“He’s a solid kid, can tackle and he had good basic ball skills. He lacked confidence at first but that soon changed.
“Then we worked positional skills and I gave him tasks to complete and he’d come back a week or two later much improved. His communication needed improving, talking to teammates in a game, so we chatted about that and when he played next I could see he had listened to me and worked on it.”
White couldn’t be more complimentary. Stoney played the full 60 minutes of the grand final win.
“There’s talk of expanding the idea next year to bring down another three or four. Let’s do it,” White added.
Could they unearth another Cooper Stoney?
Another long distance footy fan?
Listening to Scott White and Gus Marshall, there’s every chance.
And the Stoney family, who have experienced an amazing season of rugby league, believe it could become a pathway for future Pilbara players.
“It’s given our kids up here a real opportunity to thrive in the game they love,” dad Derek said.
“Cooper may have been the guinea pig, but I know others will now follow.”