Book Review: Voices from Brisbane Rugby League

This review was previously publiashed in Queensland Labour History

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Review of Greg Mallory, Voices from Brisbane Rugby League: Oral Histories from the 50s to the 70s, Boolarong Press 2009

Greg Mallory, and his editor, Gail Cartwright, are to be congratulated for adding to our archive of oral history collections. Like all such works, this oral history of rugby league in Brisbane captures the mood of a time and place that even the great narrative historians have difficulty in conveying. The collection of subjective memories (its minor errors of recollection notwithstanding) gathers in one voice to paint a vivid picture of a sport, its culture and the society by which it is hosted.  It makes a powerful statement about the decline – demise might be too strong a word – of this culture, about the dismantling of something that Raymond Williams would have called a ‘structure of feeling’.

Voices from Brisbane Rugby League is a set of interviews with twelve prominent figures from Queensland Rugby League – ten players, the referee Henry Albert, and the commentator George ‘Mr Football’ Lovejoy.  Most of the interviews were conducted in 2001, though three are more recent. Each interview is presented around a loose template of themes: where it all started; on playing first grade; on the Bulimba Cup; on the state of Brisbane rugby league; on the state of the modern game; on life after football; and others. This is a useful device because it allows for cross-referencing between respondents – to see where they agreed or disagreed. It also sets up a pattern of expectation in the reader. In the final chapters of the book I was looking forward to what Fonda Metassa or Des Morris, for example, had to say on the modern game.

Despite the book’s subtitle, the period under discussion is a little wider than three decades, running from the late 1940s to the emergence of the Brisbane Broncos in the late 1980s. Mallory has also included much useful and interesting accompanying material: a veritable front row of introductory pieces from Tony Collins (one of the best football historians of any code), Warren Boland and the author, who gives his own personal history of his immersion in rugby league culture. The book is concluded with two short informational chapters and an index.

Perhaps the central message of the book, one on which all those interviewed seemed to have a view, is the massive changes the respondents have observed during their lives in rugby league, especially the decline of club football in Brisbane. The respondents are not excessively nostalgic and some adopt a fatalistic perspective. Most come across as hard (‘but fair’) men who have a pretty pragmatic view of things. They regret what has occurred and they are angry about what has happened to club rugby league in Brisbane. Some are even willing to apportion blame, as Norm Pope does with the Broncos. Des Morris and others see the local media as bearing some responsibility. Morris is among the few who can envisage a positive future. Marty Scanlan says: “I think Brisbane rugby league is down at the lowest that it could possibly go, not that I attend any of the games.” It is a comment that tells of a culture alienated from its own foundations and it echoes through the book.

Another theme that emerges is what is seen as the relative ‘softness’ and poorer quality of the contemporary game. A predictable and dominating nostalgia for the lung-busting defence of the unlimited-tackle rule, ‘the biff’ and Norm Pope’s stiff-arms speaks of an era prior to the interchange rule, the ‘interference’ of the judiciary and the attempts to make the game less violent. Even Pedro Gallagher, who applauds the banning of the “stiff arm tackle and the spear tackle”, believes that the game is not as good because the changes over recent years have “eliminated a lot of the great skills of rugby league, and what rugby league was about”. Norm Pope speaks fondly of the kicking duel. “The crowds loved it,” he claims.  It is hard to imagine Billy Slater and Darren Lockyer engaging in the same practice in today’s possession-dominated game. It is even harder to imagine what contemporary crowds would make of it.

Where this book shines most however, is around its edges. There are some wonderful moments where the unpredictable is narrated. The recollections of nasty cr0wd violence – particularly in Ipswich – were surprising and show that attacks on referees and players are not restricted to soccer and/or ‘migrant’ cultures. Marty Scanlan’s moment of tragedy humanises the game deeply – though there is an almost bathetic quality to its expression:

Everything pointed to it being a great year for me and then it turned sour. We played Easts in that grand final, and Jeff Fyfe kicked a field goal and they beat us by a point. My mother had a heart attack and collapsed and died in the grandstand about five minutes before the end of the game. We were very disappointed to be beaten by a field goal, but it was even worse coming off to Dr Tom Dooley telling me that Mum had died in the grandstand.

The interview with Aboriginal player Lionel Morgan is a gem. His discussion of racism and its prevalence comes out of the blue and adds a new dimension to the book.  The eccentricities of referee Albert and commentator Lovejoy are wonderful to read because they too expand the reader’s perception of the game.

If there is a point of criticism is relates to this issue. Rugby league is an expression of working class culture with close links to the labour movement, a game with clear political dimensions and affiliations. Yet very little of this is manifested in the book. While that is determined by the individuals whom Mallory has interviewed rather than Mallory’s own conception of the field, it does suggest that a further set of interviewees – fans, volunteers, politicians – might have added even greater insight to the collection.

Nonetheless I loved reading this book. Like a time capsule, it returned me to another time and place.  Now long-exiled in Melbourne, I was brought with a bump back to the North Queensland of my youth, where the Foley Shield thrived, Wally Lewis played for Valleys (indeed, Valleys still existed), the Brisbane Rugby League competition was a dominant force, and the game’s parochial refrain, ‘The Greatest Game of all’ was the mantra through which a whole culture seemed to assert itself.  In the end the vital point is that this book is not merely about rugby league; it’s about Queensland rugby league. Perhaps even more than this it is about a certain kind of person, the ‘Queenslander’.

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