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Lessons learned on Country bring a local hero back home

Andrew Mathieson -

Nothing brought Dylan Pietsch back to reality from the cusp of improbable World Cup selection more than boys from his own mob camping out on Country.

The Wiradjuri man had only been back a few weeks from touring Europe in Australia A and Barbarians matches while on standby during the Wallabies' bungled campaign.

It actually got to the point where Eddie Jones rang Pietsch briefly to notify the flanker-turned-winger of his impending debut against Wales in the midst of the controversial Zoom call surrounding his eventual Japan coaching job.

But as the team sheets five days later would reveal, Pietsch's name was missing after a return to the squad was initially put on hold the next day to never again be raised.

The ongoing wait of coming so close to being the first Indigenous player for Australia in 13 years since Matt Hodgson, and just the 15th listed ever across rugby's dark past of poor representation, called on Pietsch to find his comfort zone.

So, after unexpectedly showing up to a cultural bush weekend away for a number of young Wiradjuri mob, it was hard to comprehend their local hero walked up and sat next to them around the camp fire.

The smile right then instantaneously returned after fronting a few of stunned looks on their faces.

"Some of them just happened to be wearing the Wallabies Indigenous jersey when I arrived," Pietsch grinned.

"They were great and just kept on asking me about rugby and all the travelling I do.

"It was really cool to be there, but really humbling too. For me, it is always good to go and connect to Country while also helping our kids."

Pietsch has come from a supportive extended family in Narrandera, who take pride in sharing their historic Indigenous understanding of the area with their mob.

So much to the point that Pietsch's sister, Jasmin, contacted not-for-profit organisers Dhiidyays Connections for the former Australian Olympic sevens star to show up.

The contract with Rugby Australia leaves the 25-year-old stranded in Sydney to fulfill commitments and, much to his chagrin, away from the land of his ancestral kinship.

But he's still often pictured on social media doting all over his nieces and nephew, and the fierce grunt player on the park could not wait to play Uncle on Country.

"It was just so funny them just telling me how good they were," Pietsch laughed.

"They're all mad players, really.

"But I did get to tell them in terms of how you dedicate yourself, but having fun while doing it because that's the biggest part."

While Pietsch hoped his new found larrikins will follow their ambitions should rugby become the choice, there was a moral to his story to yarn more about.

The pathway to the sort of stardom that puts "you on the telly" started for the Leeton Phantoms juniors before his untapped gifts could not be ignored by nodding heads.

The Kings School, one of Sydney's most prestigious private institutions, offered him a scholarship to boost his rugby opportunities.

The mental health advocate relates strongly to other Aboriginal kids from bush towns.

"I came from exactly where they're coming from now," Pietsch said.

"I hope everything I said does resonate with them heaps that they are able to go out and achieve what they want to achieve, whether it is in rugby or whatever it may be.

"I think me being from the area, you know coming back to Country, does help them a lot because I want them to know I like looking after my mob."

That kind of care led Pietsch back down the road to Dhiidyays Connections that first began in 2021 as more of an Indigenous youth art movement across the Riverina to better understand Wiradjuri culture.

The juggernaut has now turned more into the complete cultural experience outside of a classroom in the multiple number of secret men's spot.

The program takes mob to significant Aboriginal sites like archaic scar and ring trees, sacred caves, and teaches how their ancestors threw boomerangs and spears with a woomera, while children also learn to crush traditional ochre with grinding stones, and custom make didgeridoos and emu-callers.

In a respite from the game before preseason commenced with NSW Waratahs' Super Rugby side, Pietsch was able to forget about set plays and discipline that play out on other camps to share his vast Indigenous wisdom that Elders have passed onto him.

"We went up to Galore Hill, which has been a pretty significant spot for our people in the area," he said.

"We showed the kids the cave and told them (about) the history behind it – it's pretty crazy.

"There was the riverbank rock at the top of the hill, all of that was under water, which is also pretty cool to show them while telling the cultural significance of the place and the songlines of the rock."

Dhiidyays Connections founder, Darryl Honeysett, felt Pietsch's love for culture would only be surpassed by his abilities with a football in hand.

"I rocked up on the day and I saw a couple had the jerseys on," Honeysett, known only as DJ to all, added.

"I thought they're in for a treat here.

"Look, Dylan was just awesome.

"He's such a good fella, kind of heart and he loves doing this for the kids."

The proud Wiradjuri and Ngemba man runs the organisation on a shoestring budget.

Right down from the mini bus to take his passengers on their adventures to emptying his own pockets for the sausages and hamburgers they cook for meals.

But that's of little consequence to the volunteer, who works two other jobs outside his passion all to ensure that First Nations' traditions and customs relevant to the area of his descendants are not lost towards retaining their oral history.

"I'm just building up my knowledge that I am able to share with our children," the 27-year-old man said.

He goes out on Country himself with wise Wiradjuri men to share knowledge and pass that down to large pockets of Wagga's Aboriginal youth.

Most live around Karingal, Ashmont and Tolland whose Indigenous populations total between 12 and 18 percent.

"I go to the suburbs that need this the most where there are the (high) crime rates," Honeysett said.

"I like targeting the kids, who are at risk that could go down the wrong path.

"Most of the time, we only get the good kids, but the others also see what I do with the good kids, and they slowly come in and they find they fit in."

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