Coogee Dolphins amateur rugby team: The biggest loss of all

For the Coogee Dolphins amateur rugby team, a trip to Bali signalled the end of the season and the start of some hard partying at the popular Sari club. Instead, a terrorist bomb that has killed nearly 200 people has left five of the team dead and a close-knit Australian community in mourning.
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It was a trip that the lads from the Coogee Dolphins junior rugby league team had been relishing all year. A week in the Bali sun-and-fun factory. A week to celebrate the end of the South Sydney Junior Grade A season. A chance to crack open a few beers, then a few more, to have a few laughs and go surfing. This is the ritual by which young suburbanites from the Sydney beaches have been celebrating the end of the sporting calendar for years. A six-hour hop to Australia's favourite tropical destination, followed by days of partying, girls, cheap food and drink and – for those in the mood – plentiful supplies of pot and Ecstasy.

It was a trip that the lads from the Coogee Dolphins junior rugby league team had been relishing all year. A week in the Bali sun-and-fun factory. A week to celebrate the end of the South Sydney Junior Grade A season. A chance to crack open a few beers, then a few more, to have a few laughs and go surfing. This is the ritual by which young suburbanites from the Sydney beaches have been celebrating the end of the sporting calendar for years. A six-hour hop to Australia's favourite tropical destination, followed by days of partying, girls, cheap food and drink and – for those in the mood – plentiful supplies of pot and Ecstasy.

And the Coogee Dolphins started the way they meant to go on. Eleven members of the team, all of them in their twenties or early thirties, flew in to Bali late last Friday night, wasting no time in hitting the town. By 1am, they were in the Sari club in Kuta, knocking back their first Bintong beers. In the pre-dawn hours, they wandered back to their rooms at the Bounty Hotel, but were soon hitting the booze again, this time at the hotel pool bar.

Five of the lads – David Mavroudis, Adam Howard, Josh Iliffe, Daniel Mortensen and Dean Kefford – spent the day dipping in and out of the water and slurping back the jungle juice. They met a couple of girls from Melbourne, Rebecca Cartledge and Jessica O'Donnell, and partied together all day. A poignant photograph, taken by Jessica and later developed from her camera, shows the five lads propping up Rebecca in the water, broad smiles on all of their faces. They kept talking and drinking until the sun went down, then decided to move on to the club that the boys had discovered the night before, the Sari.

At about 10.45pm, Dean and Daniel decided they had had too much to drink to carry on, and returned to their hotel. It was a decision that saved their lives. Fifteen minutes later, the Bali bomb exploded, and the suburban trip to paradise turned into the package tour from hell. The five others – the three team members and the two girls – had been sitting just a few feet from the front of the club and felt the full impact of the blast. David, Adam and Josh have since been confirmed dead, along with two other Coogee Dolphins members, Clinton Thomp- son and Shane Foley. The two girls are listed missing, along with a sixth Coogee Dolphin, 20-year-old Gerald Yeo.

It was all meant to be such innocent fun, but ended in such unspeakable violence. Back in Coogee Beach, and the neighbouring communities stretching south along the coast from Sydney proper towards Botany Bay, the people who grew up with the Dolphins, went drinking with them or simply greet- ed them on the street have been reeling in incomprehension at the magnitude of what has occurred. As David Marr, an author and political columnist, put it succintly: "We in Australia don't have disasters. We don't even have commuter-train crashes like you've had in Britain. This has been absolutely horrible, but at the same time it seems unreal. The attitude is, this doesn't happen to Australians."

The shock has been all the greater because of the kind of Australians involved in the bombing. These were not, after all, the rich sophisticates who are attracted to Bali because of the depth of the local Hindu culture, the beautiful villas nestling in the hills, the art and the fine gardens. They were not even in the same class of traveller as the backpackers who work their way across the world from Down Under. For the most part, they were decent, working-class men and women who saw Bali as a cheap getaway, a playground for themselves and their fellow Australians – hardly abroad at all, in their eyes, except for the pleasant surprise of the deliriously cheap prices. The equivalent in Britain would be the young singles who once flocked to the Costa del Sol or the Canaries, in the days before the advent of the euro.

The Australia these people inhabited was simple and remarkably decent. The peninsula from Coogee Beach down to the Botany Bay National Park is now becoming a hot target of gentrification, but the core of the community remains – economically modest, but very tight-knit. It is the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else. Social life revolves almost entirely around its sporting clubs. The Dolphins, for example, did not just play rugby; they also raised money every year for the local children's hospital. Ask just about anyone in the area about the team, and they will tell you of the time they went drinking with one of them, or went to school with one of their sisters, or attended a wedding with their parents.

This is the Australia of pubs and traditional pie shops, of modest brick houses on streets with names such as Loftus, or Lurline, or Wellington – names lifted straight from the old country. The Palace Hotel in Coogee Beach, which has served as the Dolphins' unofficial headquarters while a new club-house goes up behind the Oval, the town's sports field, is very much a working-class lad's establishment, despite the grand name. Children aren't admitted, and the bar doubles as a bookie's office, with television screens lining the walls to show the latest horse races. A blackboard announces that on Friday and Saturday nights you can buy two drinks for the price of one. On Thursdays, from 8-9 pm, you can try your luck at "toss the boss" – if you guess the outcome of a coin flip correctly, you get a free drink; if you guess wrong, you pay.

The Dolphins were not the only victims from the area. A player from the nearby Maroubra United football team, Craig Salvatori, lost his wife Kathy in the blast. Kathy, in turn, was great friends with Gayle Airlie, who is still listed as missing. Gail's daughter Ashleigh goes to college with Chloe Byron, who is also listed as missing. A third classmate, Candace Buchan, appears to have lost both her parents, Stephen and Gerardine Buchan, as well as her aunt, Stephen's sister Cathy Seelin.

The loss is almost indescribable. The Buchans and the Seelins are well-known and well-loved in the small community of Malabar, a few miles south of Coogee. "I've seen them at family christenings, at first communions and weddings. The mother, Maureen Buchan, comes to Mass here regularly," says Pat Hurley, the priest at St Andrew's Catholic Church, who looked visibly shaken by the events of the past few days. "Five of the victims were Catholics from this parish. They were all the same age, all linked to each other. They liked to go to Bali every year, and they often went together."

Almost inevitably, given the nature of holidays in Kuta, it is the most outgoing, most vivacious, most fun-loving members of the community who are now being mourned. The Buchans, in particular, seem to be especially well-loved. Just across the main street from the church, a steady stream of well-wishers pulled up in their cars outside Maureen Buchan's house to offer flowers and condolences.

It would be wrong to say that nothing bad ever happened before in this part of Australia. Two members of the Seelin-Buchan clan died in a car accident a few years ago, and Cathy Seelin only escaped that ordeal with severe injuries to her hips and knees that continued to plague her right up to the time she flew to Bali last week. Elsewhere in the community, a father killed his wife and two children a few months ago before committing suicide in police custody. Father Pat of St Andrew's acknowledges: "It's been a really awful year."

But the Bali bombing constitutes more than just the depths of an awful year, in suburban Sydney or in any of the other affected communities around the country. It has also challenged Australia's very image of itself, the way it sees itself being viewed by the rest of the world. What seemed to many people like innocent recreation has suddenly revealed itself to be part of a deadly geo-political struggle, a struggle that had seemed impossibly remote and unconnected to the concerns of ordinary Australians until last Saturday night.

"This is incredible to us because when we think of Bali we think – nothing ever happens in Bali. We saw it as part of Australia's backyard, a holiday island that posed no worries about personal safety," says Dianne Brien, a spokeswoman for the Randwick City Council, which administers much of the peninsula. "Bali, for us, exuded a relaxed, happy, friendly feeling. The Balinese were friendly and outgoing and we were friendly and outgoing. It seemed just a perfect combination."

The sense of incredulity persists even now – not least because many of the bodies have yet to be identified and have not come home. It is simply too soon for everything to sink in. In contrast to the aftermath of September 11 in the United States, day-to-day life has not been disrupted and underlying assumptions about Australian life and culture have not come into question. Partly, that is a result of the fact that the attacks did not take place on Australian soil. But part of it is also the result of a more muted, more privately experienced process of mourning. Kylie Minogue still hosted the Australian music awards this week, and Anthony Hopkins is still coming for the Australian premier of Red Dragon, the latest in the Hannibal Lecter serial-killer film series. Nobody suggested that the excessive exuberance of the former event, or the gory overtones of the latter were somehow out of place in the post-Bali world.

The hard questions are no doubt still to come. It is by no means clear yet whether the purpose of the Bali bombings was to attack Australia specifically, or to strike against pleasure-seeking Westerners in general, or whether it was, in fact, primarily aimed at destabilising Indonesia's fledgling democracy and had little to do with Australia at all. Only once the causes of the bombing become more apparent will it be possible to discern some kind of Australian response. Already, though, frustrations and anger are beginning to manifest themselves. Letter-writers in the big metropolitan newspapers – not, for the moment, backed up by professional politicians – have accused John Howard, the Prime Minister, of bringing the disaster upon Australia by allying himself too closely with George W Bush in the war on terrorism. Relatives of the victims in Bali have railed against the inefficiency of the Indonesian authorities in identifying bodies and returning them to their families. They have had scant patience for the reality that the Indonesians run Indonesia; some of their comments suggest that they think the Australian police and medical services should simply take over – an understandable emotional reaction that nevertheless harbours a rather patronising attitude to their immensely complex, immensely delicate neighbour to the north.

The reactions of ordinary Australians reflect the task ahead for Australia's political leaders. They have to somehow prevent future attacks on their citizens – either in Indonesia or, God forbid, at home – without upsetting the precarious balance that has kept Indonesia's civilian government in power for the past four years. They have to keep Australia plugged into the world system, but also ensure that the dysfunctions of that world system do not rebound viciously on them.

"Australians," David Marr says, " are not used in any way to seeing themselves as objects of hate and violence. It's not part of our culture. We don't suffer from the patriotic paranoia that seems to drive the Americans. We expect everyone will either like us or ignore us, but fundamentally leave us alone." Is all that about to change? "I don't believe countries change all that much," Marr replies. That, though, is just his gut feeling. Any more shocks to the system like the Bali bomb- ing, and all certainties about Australia's innocence and likeability could simply fly out of the window.