Adrian Vowles made his name on the rugby field, but it was growing up on a 22,000-acre sheep property in deepest rural Queensland which equipped him with some of the skills needed to succeed at the highest level.
The loose forward enjoyed a fine playing career at the highest level both in Super League and his homeland of Australia, most notably being named Man of Steel in 1999 for his role in helping Castleford Tigers to within one game of an appearance in the Grand Final.
That underlines how highly regarded Vowles was as a leader on the pitch too, something which was evident from captaining his junior clubs in his hometown of Charleville to skippering both North Queensland Cowboys and Castleford, and later being player-coach at Wakefield Trinity.
Those abilities did not necessarily come naturally though, and it was the unforgiving nature of life on an outback station plus the encouragement of his junior coaches at Cunnamulla Rams which helped set the Scotland international on a path to success.
“A lot of the time there was drought, so I watched my dad and my grandfather work from the time they got up in the morning to the time they went to bed,” Vowles told the Golden Point podcast.
“To me, that was leadership – never giving in, working hard, so I learnt a real good work ethic from them. The coaches I had in the country towns I played at were just unbelievable.
“When you’re in the country towns, they’re more of a mate, but they can give you a kick up the backside if you want. Going back to the property, I could drive a car by the time I was eight, because if something happened on the property you had to learn to drive two-and-a-half hours into town.
“I had a gun, I had motorbikes, I had horses, so I had a lot of responsibility from a young age and that played a big part in me becoming a leader.”
Playing under Australia and Queensland great Wally Lewis during his time as head coach of Vowles’ first top-level professional club, Gold Coast Seagulls, helped that development too even though the team struggled on the field.
Nevertheless, Vowles stood out in that side as a three-quarter, earning a call-up to the Maroons team for Game II of the 1994 State of Origin Series and being signed by Townsville-based expansion side the Cowboys the following year.
He would go on to skipper North Queensland but was let go at the end of the 1996 season by Tim Sheens and ended up moving to England with Castleford – although the signs in the early part of his time in Yorkshire were not promising.
An 11-game losing streak at the start of the second Super League campaign led to Cas icon John Joyner resigning as head coach and the team’s struggles were mirrored by Vowles’ own.
However, his decision to start attending the Monday night supporters club meetings organised by another Tigers great, Mick Morgan, led to barriers being broken down which in turn helped the Australian settle.
“They’d replay the game, but they’d do stand-up bingo, other games and have a pint, so I got to know the true Cas supporters by going to that and it was a bit of pivotal moment,” Vowles said.
“They knew I was a good person and I knew not everyone hated me, because that’s what I thought. They were following me to my car abusing me, but I got to learn more about the club, the culture and the players. I knew of the club already, but I started to live and breathe the club, which helped.”
Vowles credits the back-to-basics approach of compatriot Stuart Raper for helping Castleford eventually avoiding dropping out of Super League in 1997 when he arrived as head coach.
The forward found his voice as well, standing up to make himself heard at half time as the Tigers were trailing in a game at home to relegation rivals Oldham Bears which they came back to win after the break.
“I don’t even know where it came from and I wasn’t captain at the time, but I made a speech at half time saying ‘I’m an Australian, but I’m very, very proud to play at this club and I do not want to be part of a club that goes down’,” Vowles said.
“I wanted the English boys to know how much it meant to play for their club and be in their country. I spoke from the heart and I’m not saying it played a part, but we came back and won that game.”
Vowles would stay at Castleford until the end of the 2001 season, moving to Leeds Rhinos for a short spell before accepting a player-coach role at the Tigers’ local rivals Wakefield alongside Shane McNally.
Hat-tricks from Vowles and Brad Davis in a 50-10 win over Warrington Wolves, plus Cas’ victory over Salford, ensured Trinity’s survival on the final day of the season, although he would eventually pull on a Tigers shirt again at the end of 2003 and for another short stint in 2005.
Although now making a living running his own cleaning company in Brisbane, Vowles is still involved in rugby league as coach of Fiji’s women’s team and, in some ways, it has taken him back to his beginnings.
“The country town I come from, we didn’t have anything as players,” Vowles said. “If we wanted a polo shirt, we’d have to raise money to get it.