The Wagga Effect. It’s defined as the supernatural or outrageous force that has seen a disproportionate number of elite sportspersons emerge from the small town with a population that has always ranged between 42,000 to 48,000. Folklore reveals that it is a result of a 5 o’clock wave that flushes a secret nutrient into the Murrumbridge River.
Others call it a coincidence. The Griffith University of Queensland even conducted a research project into trying to fathom the mystique behind the outstanding honour roll of athletes that have come from Wagga Wagga.
But from that former great opening Test partnership of Mark Taylor and Michael Slater to footy legends Paul Kelly, Wayne Carey and Cameron Mooney, triathlete Brad Kahlefeld to erstwhile tennis champion Tony Roche have hailed from the largest inland city in the state of New South Wales.
In many ways, Wagga Wagga is the centre-point on a road-trip between Melbourne and Sydney. That is if you chose to avoid the superfast M31 freeway and get onto the A41 state highway-also called the Olympic highway because of having been the route for the torch during the 1956 Melbourne Games.
While M31 gets you across the two major cities in Australia’s eastern coast at breakneck speed, the A41 is one for those with an adventurous streak, and those who enjoy soaking in the tranquil sights of the tiny towns en route to Sydney.
On first impression, you actually wonder how Wagga Wagga can have anything to do with sport. Simply because of the pace at which life goes on here. It’s lethargic. It’s dreary and on a weekday afternoon it’s like the entire town is sleep-walking.
There’s a trinkling of activity in the city centre, or Wagga Wagga Marketplace, though with a number of Asian-themed restaurants intertwined with a few more local flavours. But otherwise, whether you go over including the suburb of Narrendera, where almost all the shops are shut for the holiday season, you are likely to find the town in a state of inertia.
Still, it’s from here that the likes of Taylor and Slater started their cricket journey, and then went onto earn the Baggy Green.
“They say that sport is in the blood of any Aussie. But it’s more so in the country, and especially in a town like ours. We have always taken great pride in what our boys have done, and I guess this greatness you talk about must be in the air,” says Dan, a restaurateur, who’s seen at least three generations of sportspersons achieve greatness but still having remained loyal to their roots.
There was a time when Wagga Wagga would produce a beeline of cricketers who then went on to represent New South Wales. Its major contribution though has been to the Rugby League and the Rugby union.
There might not be a huge assortment of sporting facilities in Wagga Wagga, but most that are on offer are occupied with youngsters learning or practicing their respective crafts.
“At some point, the boys do move away, especially to Sydney to pursue their dreams. But another reason why the Wagga effect works is that the kids still prefer playing sport outdoors than like in the urban lands where they play more video-games. You have cricket in summer and then footy in the winter, with rugby thrown around. You will rarely see a boy or girl doing anything but playing sport even now,” adds Dan.
Having said that, Taylor, the former Australian captain, had lamented about the lessening powers of the Wagga effect a few years ago. “I think the Wagga effect may be dying a bit these days, actually. There is a lot more choice with how kids can spend their time, and kids can decide not to be out playing sport,” he had said.
But even Taylor would agree, that while it has lasted, Wagga Wagga has indeed been a breeding ground for Australian sport. And it will continue to intrigue, even if the Taylors and the Slaters might not be coming through with the same regularity as they once used to.