A change in direction

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Joel Hardy strode across the field - not like he owned it – no, never like that, he was the wrong Hardy for that kind of confidence and he knew it but he couldn't let the family name down. So, he strode across the ground, to his first senior training like he belonged there.

He didn't and he knew that too, knew he was here to make up the numbers and take his place in Ngurang society. It had been a passion for other Hardy men but for Joel It was a duty, just one of the many things expected of him now. Another yolk drawn across his shoulders, weird and wrong and yet, in some ways, too right to contemplate.

It was all part of coming home and he had come back home, home to a place he hadn't really lived in almost a decade, but that would always hold some part of his soul - particularly now.

This – the training jumper on his back and the wide green oval – had never ever been part of his plan. He'd never expected to "pull on the boots", never expected to follow family tradition and play for the Numbats - he still might not. They needed players, sure, but he wondered if they needed them this badly? Badly enough to put up with a rugby-trained ring-in.

He was assured they did.

They were among the last very small towns to stand alone as population shrinkage - the call of the cities and coasts – reduced more and more towns to little more than a huddle of struggling farmer and older people holding on grimly to their past.

It was amalgamate or die out here now, even larger towns were choosing to join together, deciding losing their individual identity was far better than the alternative. And so it was a game of musical chairs finding a place to sit or being left to chairlessly fade into oblivion. The amalgamation options were dwindling fast so now they were one of the few small towns with a team that didn't have to abbreviate their name to get it on their signs, advertising or jumpers. This was no Grong Grong Mattong Ganmain, Ariah Park Mirool and Adlethan or Mangaplah Cookadinnia United. No, this was still the mighty Ngurang Numbats, one small fierce little town standing all on its own, clinging blindly to its tradition.

But for how much longer?

That was the big question.

Joel Hardy doubted he was the answer, doubted he was the Numbat's salvation.

He doubted he belonged here despite being fifth generation Ngurang farmer, fourth-generation Numbat player.

No, he'd been on a different path to his pop, father or brother – a very different divergent path which had started with a good education at an agricultural college a few towns over and then led him on to university in Melbourne – vet science.

Until a few weeks ago, he'd had his life all mapped out and it really didn't include Ngurang or the Mighty Mighty Numbats.

But then life has a funny way of changing on a coin or the turn of a steering wheel in this case and here he was, in a brand-new pair of footy boots back on Reece Oval where he'd played junior footy so many, many years ago.

Yeah, life was funny in a tragic kind of way and that was more obvious than ever as he did his fourth lap of the oval under the watchful eye of Macca – his dad's life-long friend Terry McDonald. Macca was the current caretaker coach of the Numbats, "until they found the money for someone with a bit a name to bring in the sponsors and a much-needed grand final win (twenty years in the making)" – a fill-in like Joel until the real thing came along.

If it ever did.

Until then they were stuck here on the only green patch West of West Wyalong and he was pinching himself.

It still didn't feel real.

None of it.

It was still one of those weird dream clichés people talked about wanting to wake up from – though the fact that his lungs were currently burning as he gasped for air in the fading summer night light reminded him that it was all too real.

It was still warm if just below egg frying on the road temperature was "warm", despite the time – 8.45pm. Though he could feel it cooling off, the sweat on his body finally hitting the cooling air temperature. It didn't drop a lot overnight at this time of year but enough to sleep semi=comfortably – as long as you had no more than a sheet over you and some sort of fan going somewhere close by.

Through the day it was still stifling but that had hardly mattered to Joel this year.

Nah the world had kept on turning around Joel Hardy but his world had been turned completely on its head – forever.

"Okay boys now you're warmed up let's just do some stretches!" Macca yells in a tone that hasn't changed in years.

He'd come to training a few times with Rob and his father during his rare time at home but it was very different being on this side of the fence. He'd always thought Macca had been a saddist but frankly now he knew he was.

His muscle burned - muscles he'd forgotten he had and had probably never used before.

The intensity of training wasn't unexpected even for the first proper training run back after Christmas. He'd expected it to be tough, knew there was no way Macca – Tez to his dad – would take it easy on him just because of what had happened, no there'd been no favours or easing him into it tonight even though he was here at Macca's request.

There was always a Hardy in the Numbats.

And now that had to be him.

And Phil Hardy's son wasn't a shirker, a nancy boy from the city, he was a Hardy.

And he'd cop it on the chin and keep going.

It wasn't that he was actually out of shape either. He'd done a lot of running at uni, joined a few sporting groups, he was bloody fast, it was just that he hadn't strapped on a pair of footy boots and kicked the Sheridan in an age. He'd played Union at high school, that was their main sport, probably why Rob had only lasted a year at Ag College before coming home to the local Central School and taking his rightful place in the Numbat's juniors and reserves.

Rob had made the seniors side at 16 and he and dad had played two seasons together in the top team like Phil had always dreamed, before dropping down to captain/coach the reserves.

"We only need one Hardy in the top grade and Rob is there to stay now!" his dad had said at the time.

The family had teased him about being an old man but Macca said Phil Hardy was still fitter than most of the men half his age and it had really been dwindling numbers in the reserves that seen him relinquish a top spot. However, that hadn't stopped him and Rob and their younger sister Thea, teasing that he was an old man.

It had been a joke but he regretted that now. Regretted not coming home earlier to play a season with his dad – father and son together -like Rob had experienced.

It was too late now and not just because his dad had declared he was hanging up his boots after yet another crushing first-week finals loss at the end of the previous season.

No, last year had been his last season – there was no going back – a dark night, a sweeping bend and a tired truckie had seen to that. 

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