TONY Abbott helped put out fires when he visited the Hunter in November. On Friday he started them - in the name of rugby and charity.
The former Prime Minister was the the guest speaker at the Hawthorne Club's Newcastle and Hunter Rugby Union grand final luncheon at Merewether Surf House.
With one-time Newcastle Lord Mayor Jeff McCloy, DWF Asian Pacific Chairman Mark Hickey and Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service Chairman of the Board John Davis among the 150 in the audience, Abbott didn't stray from the rugby pitch in his address.
He spoke of his time playing at Sydney University and his long-time friendship with prominent Newcastle dentist and Hawthorne Club member Rowan Burgess.
"It's great to be here with old friends. I knew Rowan when he had hair and only one chin," Abbott joked. "I do feel like a bit of an impostor, standing up to talk about rugby at a rugby event. You probably ask why serious sports people, in particular rugby players, never do anything as silly as go into politics. The reason is; if you are a serious sports person, 100 per cent of the public love you. If you are a politician 50 per cent of the public hate you and then there is your own colleagues, who can't admit to hating you, but the better you do the more they hate.
"I went into politics because I was crap at rugby, I couldn't catch, I couldn't pass, I couldn't kick, I couldn't tackle ... there was only one place for me and that was the front-row.
"As Prime Minster you get to do some incredibly exciting things and you get to have some amazing experiences. Yes there was chairing the G20, there was shirt-fronting Vladimir Putin, there was knighting Prince Philip but I have to say captain-coaching Sydney uni fourth grade to a grand final we won in 1986 just about has to be the highlight."h
Abbott, a volunteer with the Davidson Bush Fire Brigade in Sydney's Northern Beaches, joined more than 180 firefighters to battle a blaze at Lemon Tree Passage in November.
Friday's visit was his first formal trip to Newcastle since losing the federal seat of Warringah in May.
The Hawthorne Club is a philanthropic group which has raised more than $700,000 since its inception in 1995 with proceeds being used to develop grassroots rugby. The Westpac Rescue Heicopter service is its main charity partner.