CHRIS ROURKE still has to pinch himself most mornings just in case it has all been a dream.
Because this former Echuca hairdresser (who also worked at the Border Inn and a local sports store) and football tragic has one of the rarest jobs in Australian sport – and he knows it.
Rourke is a fulltime Australian Rules football coach.
Albeit in Canberra, one of rugby’s heartlands, but still a fulltime coach.
Outside the AFL itself it would be hard to find many in the same position, and Rourke knows it.
Plucked from the relatively rustic anonymity of downtown Rochester with a phone call “out of the blue” he was offered the top job at Ainslie Football Club.
He said it was a “sort of” friend of a friend introduction that got him the job following some work he did with the Sydney Swans.
“Sometimes I can’t believe it has been 11 years,” Rourke said yesterday, still managing to be upbeat despite his top-placed side’s last gasp defeat in Saturday’s game.
“It’s never fun losing, but it will help me get over it when I drag the team out for some extra running tomorrow night,” Rourke laughed.
“Should be a good time for a run, it might even get to 3C, because it was -7C here this morning,” he said with a glint of evil anticipation.
Before making the move to Canberra for the 2007 season Rourke had been something of a fixture in Campaspe football.
Through the 1990s he was a captain coach at Echuca, played a season at Moama, was captain coach at Echuca United and was working with Rochester Tigers, where he had played and also coached juniors, when the call came.
“In so many ways it has really been almost too good to be true,” Rourke said.
Although it might not have seemed a long-term opportunity in that first season with the Tri Colours.
Difficult doesn’t even come close to describing 2007 as Rourke was handed a playing list from which 48 of 54 names had disappeared in a mass, off-season exodus.
He recalled they won “a handful” of games.
So Rourke and the club concentrated on recruiting young players and developing its juniors – and beginning the climb back to the top.
The team finished fourth in 2008 and Ryan Lewis, one of its players, won the Mulrooney Medal.
In 2009 with a more stable playing group Ainslie continued its improvement and played in a losing grand final; just six points short of Belconnen.
All of which was forgotten in 2010 when Rourke took them to their first flag with him, defeating Eastlake in the grand final.
Then 2011 saw the introduction of the new North East Australian Football League (NEAFL) with Ainslie playing in the Eastern Conference against ACT and Sydney teams while Queensland and NT teams filled the Northern Conference.
It would prove a big year – Ainslie won the first NEAFL Eastern Conference Premiership and Rourke was named coach of the year (a spectacular achievement as there were more than 100 nominations across 28 regions in NSW and the ACT).
Since then Rourke and his team have collected two more premierships and are looking the goods for 2017 (with Saturday’s result marked down as an aberration).
But the biggest influence Rourke has had at Ainslie is in the club’s culture.
In 2007 48 players bailed.
In 2010 that was down to a turnover of just five senior players.
In 2011 only one of the 22 premiership players didn’t stay at the club – and he only left because of work reasons.
And Rourke has been able to build on that stability, guaranteeing his Tri Colours remain at the pointy end of ACT football.
His positive and inspiring approach to coaching has been infectious and he’s had a profound impact on the club – not just with the seniors but right through to the juniors and youth girls.
“Not only do I have such a well-resourced club, when I arrived in the midst of all those player walkouts, Ainslie gave me the backing and the freedom to put the new playing list together,” Rourke said.
A list which has seen him draw players out of country Victoria, including Kane Morris, now at Echuca, and Rochester’s Brodie Montague.
He is still an annual visitor here (although would rather not discuss his last round at Rich River at the end of last football season) and rattles off name after name of those with whom he is still in close contact.
So dedicated is Rourke to the development of AFL in the nation’s capital, in his spare time the husband and father of four also runs school clinics or skills sessions for students of all ages whenever he can.
Now playing in the six-team Canberra AFL League, Rourke’s next big goal is to create the same family atmosphere at Ainslie as he enjoyed in his time in the Goulburn Valley and Murray football leagues.
That, he said, was one of the big differences.
Mind you, the other big difference is nothing to be sneezed at.
Backed by 650 poker machines and a golf course Rourke said with a smile his club was seriously resourced.
“We have a fantastic oval and amenities, some of the best in the country I would reckon,” he said.
“I have a year left on my contract, Canberra’s a great place to work, it gives me an opportunity to work fulltime in football and I’ve got a burning passion to be involved in footy so it really is a great place to be.
“I love coming here every day, I still love kicking the footy and I love the footy environment.”
And Canberra in general, football in particular, and especially the Ainslie Tri Colours, would appear to love him.