THE first thing that struck Darren Dimmock was the sheer presence of the British and Irish Lions.
"They were huge human beings," Dimmock recalled.
"Fully professional and we were just blokes from the bush."
The 2001 NSW Country side that took on the Lions were the quintessential bunch of knockabouts.
Each had a different story, each a different walk of life.
Hooker James McCormack was a cow cocky from Crookwell, captain Bernie Klasens had a farm near Tamworth, Dimmock was a printer from Maitland . . . you could go on.
"We were a mixed bunch, but once you got out on the field you forgot about that," Dimmock said.
"You just tried to rip in and didn't feel over-awed."
The Cockatoos, as Country are known, were beaten but far from disgraced, going down 46-3, in Coffs Harbour.
Dimmock, a back-rower, was part of a seven-strong Hunter contingent along with Nathan Croft, Brent Dale, Warwick Crosby, Matt Brown, Dave Lubans and Ryan MacDougall.
All started bar Dimmock and Brown, who each played the final 30 minutes.
The Cockatoos had come off a second straight Australian Rugby Shield title. The tight-five had been beefed up with the addition of Sydney-based front-rowers Angus Baldwin and Matt Bowman and locks Ben Wright and Lubans, who had captained Country the year before.
The visitors led 29-3 at half-time, but the Cockatoos toughed it out.
"Being part of the game, it felt respectable," Dimmock said. "It didn't feel like we had been on the end of an absolute hiding.
"I remember the media conference afterwards, we were hanging around having a beer and a journo got into [then Lions coach] Graham Henry and said 'you would have to be disappointed with the scoreline today. Shouldn't you have beaten them by a lot more?"'
"Henry pulled him up pretty quick and said 'I think you better check the quality of the opposition we played today. They were a very good, honest team, who turned up and gave their all. The scoreline reflects the game. They put in the effort and were able to hold us to 46-3'.
"Us [Country] boys thought that was pretty good to get that compliment out of him," Dimmock said.
England winger Ben Cohen crossed for a brace and Austin Healey, Colin Charvis, Scott Gibbs and captain Dai Young also scored tries. Neil Jenkins landed five conversions and two penalties.
Croft kicked Country's lone penalty.
But the composition of the Combined Country side to take on the Lions at Hunter Stadium tonight has polarised opinion.
Nine of the 23-man squad play their rugby in the bush, either in NSW or Queensland.
The rest have been sourced from Super Rugby franchises or are Sydney and Brisbane-based players with country origins.
The Australian Rugby Union has argued that it had a duty of care to consider in bringing in contracted players against the best from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Rugby had only been fully professional five years before the last tour to Australia.
It has now been 17 years and the gap between amateur and professional players has widened.
"You only want to be competitive; no one expects you to win," Dimmock said.
"I was listening to [radio show] Big Sports Breakfast last week and host Terry Kennedy was saying amateurs should not play professionals.
"I nearly rang up and had my 20¢ worth and said here is the [46-3] scoreline that dispels that.
"They were fully professional and we had blokes running farms. We all had full-time jobs and matched it with them, to a certain degree."
Dimmock, who retired in 2009 and is now 35, has kept close ties with most of his former Cockatoos teammates.
"You get together, have a few beers and reflect more on the off-field than the on-field things you did," he said.
"That is changing as we are getting older."
Dimmock's Country jumper from the Lions games is packed away safely at his parents' house.
"The Lions weren't allowed to swap jerseys or shorts for some reason," Dimmock said.
"The only one who did was our half-back Rod Petty. He was man of the match in a beaten side. He was up against Austin Healey and at the end of the game Healey said 'well done, you out-played me' and swapped him shorts."
Dimmock and many of the 2001 Cockatoos team members will be reunited in the stands tonight.
"It doesn't seem like 12 years ago," he said.
"We were talking about it at lunch the other day.
"I remember us Newcastle boys were in a Tarago trucking up the highway to Coffs Harbour to go into camp.
"We were supposed to be at Coffs by 11am for training, but the boys were getting a bit hungry.
"We put our heads together and rang through and told the coaches that there had been an accident and we were stuck in traffic.
"Really we stopped and had a counter lunch. They put training back an hour to accommodate us.
"I'm not sure you would get away with that now."