How rugby league helped Wellington tackle its ice addiction
Playing football helped Richard Peckham overcome his ice addiction. (ABC News: Elena de Bruijne)
It is Sunday morning in Wellington, in western New South Wales, and there is not a soul around.
The town is so quiet you can hear the brightly-coloured autumn leaves hit the ground as they fall from the trees lining the main street.
It is not a ghost town — just Sunday.
On Sunday, the footy is on.
The Wellington Cowboys’ home ground is a short drive from the main street and you can barely get a car park on game day.
The grandstand is full and the steak sandwiches are flying off the BBQ.
Rugby league is the lifeblood of the town of 4,000 people, five hours west of Sydney, near Dubbo.
But it is also synonomous with something else — methamphetamine.
The town has been given an unflattering nickname — “Little Antarctica” — due to the large amount of ice use in the town.
But that was in the past.
Now, this local community is using rugby league to help it prosper on and off the field.
Back from the brink
Wellington Cowboys president Darren Ah See — who is also the chief executive of the Aboriginal Medical Service — said the club was focusing on results off the field just as much as results on it.
“We’re trying to change the culture with the crowd and with the club,” he said.
“In little communities, and where there is a high Aboriginal population, sport is a major factor in keeping people on the straight and narrow, particularly younger people.”
In the early 1990s, the club made five grand finals in five years and won four.
But the Cowboys have been without any silverware for 24 years, and the first grade side only won three games last year.
The club was on the brink of collapse, players were not turning up to training and they struggled to fill a team.
Since Ah See arrived 12 months ago, the club has turned itself around.
“We’ve been getting good home crowds,” he said.
“You know the club is running well if you’re getting good home crowds.”
The Wellington Cowboys were on the brink of collapse when president Darren Ah See took over. (ABC News: Jennifer Browning)
A new man
For Richard Peckham, 26, the impact is obvious.
Not long ago, he was hauled up in his house, drinking and doing drugs alone on a daily basis.
When the ABC spoke to him, he was in the home dressing shed, lacing up his boots ready to run out for the first grade side.
“You’re all on your own, I didn’t feel like I had anyone at all,” he said.
“I was stuck in the house, drinking nearly every single day, all season, doing drugs.
“I was at the lowest, didn’t know what I was doing, hanging with the wrong people.”
He almost lost everything — family, friends and football — before deciding to make a positive change.
“I was so low that I lost some very important things in my life, then one day I realised how important they were and realised I needed to turn things around and be a bigger man.
“I’ve turned that all around to train five times a week. Rugby league was so important to my life because I loved it so much.
“I’m so proud, so happy. I met my partner one year ago — I’m just loving life.
Watching on in the stands is Richard’s former teammate Kotoni Staggs. The Wellington local made his NRL debut for the Brisbane Broncos last month.
“I grew up around Rich and played footy with him,” he said.
“He’s changed his life and turned it around.
“He was on drugs real bad but he had his family around him to help him get away from that, and now he’s come back to footy.”
Staggs was raised by his grandmother in Wellington while his mother was in and out of jail.
He played in the club’s under 18s side that won the competition in 2016, before moving to Queensland to pursue his NRL dream.
“I had mates that were going down the wrong path,” he said.
“I knew I had to pick a different path to go my own way and do my own stuff.”
A new town
In 2015, ice was wreaking havoc on the Wellington community.
With the help of police, local residents took matters into their own hands, asking people to “dob in a dealer”.
“The last 12 months — statistically speaking it would be half the crime that was there 12 months ago,” District Commander Superintendent Peter McKenna said.
“And that has reduced even further since it was 18 months to two years ago.
“It’s no [longer] the drug capital of this district or anywhere else in NSW.”
He praised the work the Cowboys were doing for the local community.
“Idle time may lead some people down a certain path,” Superintendent McKenna said.
“Some people just don’t have something to focus on that’s positive in their life … [so] having a local team to support, knowing that the local community are behind it and getting involved in [the team], it definitely has a positive impact.”
‘Just believe in yourself’
As the Cowboys marked another win, the home crowd celebrated.
Peckham raced over to his family to embrace them on the sideline.
“There’s nothing better than playing footy and there’s nothing wrong with this town,” he said.
“Just believe in yourself, don’t think that you’re on your own, you have friends and family that want to help.”