By Dara Lawlor
It’s a dreary winter’s Saturday in 1980’s Dublin and a young child is watching Grandstand on BBC1. A black haired man with brown skin and the funniest name the kid has ever heard toe pokes an oval ball between two big sticks and at the end of the game a smaller and slighter man with shoulder length blonde hair and enormous shoulder pads exchanges his jersey with one of his opponents. My first contact with the game of rugby league, and though it wasn’t as character building as finding myself neck deep in a slurry pit on my uncle’s farm outside Loughrea in East Galway a few years earlier it still sticks in my mind. The players’ names? Malcolm Norman Meninga, and Peter Sterling.
It wasn’t my game, wasn’t in my blood and like any kid who grew up with rugby union, Gaelic football, hurling, and soccer, I regarded it with curiosity but nothing more. The great English songwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson, who has spent the last 27 years living in the United States, couldn’t have been closer to the truth when he recently remarked that he could never get into North American sports as he felt that “what you grow up with makes more sense to you.”
A quick look at a potted history of the Kangaroos on Wikipedia confirms that it was Michael O’Connor and not Mal Meninga who place kicked on the 1986 tour meaning that I actually saw the 1982 “Invincibles” play. It goes without saying that as a nipper I was in no position to appreciate a team the like of which had never visited these shores in either rugby code up until then, and whose performances resonated far beyond rugby league’s heartland.
The high profile defection of players like John Gallagher, Va’aiga Tuigamala, and half the Welsh national side drew me closer to league in the early nineties as I was curious to see how they’d get on in a game that would give them more space but at the time was physically brutal compared to what they were used to. When Alan Jones and the Balmain Tigers poached Brian Smith, the talented Australian-born Irish international fly-half in 1991 the Irish sports media went ballistic. The opprobrium heaped on both Smith and Jones was remarkable. Some journalists, who had previously been regarded as measured and conservative, examined the colourful life of Jones in particular and questioned the real nature of his relationship with Smith. It was vicious stuff.
Smith was the first high-profile Irish International to cross codes since Ken Goodall signed for Workington Town in 1970. Goodall was the best number 8 in the home nations at the time and had a promising future. He lasted three years in league before his career was cut short by injury. Sadly, he wasn’t welcomed back to his old club house until rugby union went professional in 1995. He died in 2006 and remarkably bore no ill will towards the union that had shunned him. Once Smith moved on I despaired at the woeful handling skills of the Irish three-quarters, made my peace with the play-the-ball, and marvelled at the wonderful Wigan side of that time. I thought they were the dog’s bollocks. I changed my mind once the 1994 Kangaroos arrived.
Most rugby fans will tell you that as much as they may enjoy their World Cup there are few events in the international rugby calendar that stir the blood as much as the four-yearly British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand, Australia, or South Africa. As State of Origin fans already know there is nothing as compelling as the arm wrestle involved in a three match test series. Teams always improve after a defeat as they know their opponents that little bit better and are able to iron out their own faults. It’s a tradition that dates back to 1888 and next year it will be the biggest sports event to hit Australia since the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.
The second Lions test against South Africa in Pretoria in June 2009 sticks in the memory like few others. There was so much at stake and it infected the performances on the field that day with a mania that I haven’t seen since. It had everything: eye gouging –why Paul Gallen doesn’t play rugby union I’ll never know – wonderful outside back play, massive collisions, multiple injuries, and a major shift in favour of the Springboks after half-time. Brian O’Driscoll was at his peerless best and topped off a brilliant display at centre with a katyusha hit on Dannie Rossouw leading to both players leaving the field concussed. There was utter heartbreak at the death. As a spectator I was emotionally spent and was reminded of that wonderful Eels song, “Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living).”
So what’s its rugby league equivalent? How about the second Ashes Test at Old Trafford in 1990. Again, it was a game where so much was at stake and resulted in heartbreak for one side at the death after Ricky Stuart’s superb break from deep in his own half set up Mal Meninga’s winning try. Like Lions rugby union tours Kangaroo Ashes tours also have a rich tradition dating back over a century to 1908. The performance of the 1994 Kangaroos is one of the main reasons why I, a die-hard Leinster rugby union fan, have been to Super League matches at the Stoop, Challenge Cup Finals at Wembley, NRL matches in Brisbane, and Grand Finals in Sydney. I’ll always remember Brad Clyde on the floor counting his teeth after Shaun Edwards took his head off in the first test at Wembley, Jonathan Davies’ fantastic match-winning try, Mal Meninga intercepting Bobby Goulding in the second test at Old Trafford, and finally Ricky Stuart’s outrageous flick pass to Dean Pay as the coup de grace at Elland Road.
Next year will be the tenth anniversary of the last Ashes tour to either Great Britain or Australia – the longest gap since the Second World War. The last time I checked I couldn’t find any record of a World War having taken place in the last decade. Who is the genius who thinks that this is a good thing for international rugby league?
Granted, there have been a number of competitions in other formats and the Kiwis have knocked the Kangaroos off their perch winning the 2008 World Cup along with the 2005 Tri-Nations and 2010 Four Nations. But established traditional international competition means something to a public outside of that sport’s traditional heartland because it’s a statement of the competing countries common history. Would a tri-nations tournament in cricket between Australia, England, and India carry the same weight and kudos of an Ashes series between the old enemies? Not on your life. I’m not a cricket man but I remember being spell-bound by the performances of Shane Warne and Merv Hughes throughout the summer of 1993 and have kept a keen eye on every Ashes series since.
The passion surrounding a Germany v Holland World Cup match says more about both countries wartime past than it does for their obvious love of soccer. Remember Frank Rijkaard gobbing in Rudi Voller’s hair at the 1990 World Cup? The build-up and poisonous atmosphere at the recent Poland v Russia match in Warsaw in Euro 2012 was remarkable. An Irish win against England at Twickenham means a huge amount to any Irishman living and working in London regardless of whether they like rugby union or not. Rugby league is missing a trick here, selling itself short, and diluting its international traditions by so readily discarding Ashes tours. They need to be reinstated as soon as possible.
The performances of the 1982 “Invincibles” and their successors led to a level of curiosity outside the league community that was at one time almost on a par with an All Black tour. Rugby people were always curious about how far ahead they’d be and what they could learn from them. I remember two-page spreads appearing in UK Sunday broadsheets in anticipation of the arrival of the 1994 Kangaroos. Would it happen today? I don’t think so.
The Super League war and the advent of satellite television has seen to it that rugby league has kept to itself, stayed out of sight and mind, and let rugby union have a free ride in the first 17 years of its professional existence. Since 1995 all international rugby league matches between Great Britain / England and Australia, with the exception of two, have been shown exclusively on satellite television. It’s no coincidence that the game that made the most impact outside of the general rugby league community in last year’s Four Nations was England v Australia at Wembley – a game which was televised live on the BBC. There was a sense of joy at the fixture’s return to Wembley and Twitter was awash with comments hailing the return of international rugby league along with wistful glances back at the international game’s heyday of the early nineties.
It’s not international sport when you’re hiding away from the spotlight and playing amongst yourselves. International football is a chance to step forward, wear your Sunday best and show the neighbours that you mean business regardless of what they think of you. Next year the Kangaroos visit my country, Ireland, for the first time in their history and will play at the famous Thomond Park stadium. Now there’s a greater chance of Gaelic football becoming the national sport of Papua New Guinea than rugby league ever gaining any real traction in Limerick of all places, but who cares. Will the magnificent talents of Greg Inglis, Billy Slater, and Cameron Smith draw the crowds and recognition that they deserve? Will Irish people be given the chance to watch and learn about one of the world’s great sports teams on terrestrial television? I haven’t a rashers, but it’s time to put the Crown Jewels of the game back on show in all their glory and give them the respect that they deserve.