Almanac Rugby League – A Potted Rugby League Memoir Part II

A POTTED PERSONAL MEMOIR (part 2)

Returning to Queensland in 1984, it seemed like there was something different in the air when it came to rugby league. It didn’t take long to figure it out – State of Origin! I was familiar with the concept because the Australian Rules fraternity in the southern States had already tried the system in matches between Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia.

As was the case in rugby league, one state, Victoria, attracted the best players to its VFL competition because that’s where the money was. Living in Adelaide for 14 years, it was déjà vu all over again – the same thing happened in Aussie Rules as was the case in rugby league. The best players went east, pulled on the “Big V” jumper and came home to flog the locals.

Not surprisingly, the pendulum of power in interstate Aussie Rules soon shifted west with both the Croweaters and the Sandgropers enjoying their share of success. The concept didn’t last all that long. The Victorian clubs were a bit precious about the fitness and well-being of their players – club priorities were more important than interstate jumpers.

So back in Queensland, I had to learn a whole new vocabulary. My brother Ken was only too keen to teach me. The first two words to learn were “Wally Lewis” closely followed by “Gene Miles”. The list went on – Meninga, Murray, Scott, Dowling, Boustead, Vautin, et al. By the time the first game of the ‘84 series came along, I was dead keen to see what it was all about. I can’t recall that I had ever seen Queensland beat NSW.

At that time, Origin matches were shown as delayed telecasts, so I listened to the game on the radio and then watched the replay later that night. Talk about a revelation! The ferocity and physicality of it all, the baying of the crowd, the palpable emotion of smashing the hated Blues – I could tell after seeing just one game how and why it meant so much to the locals. I was hooked!

Earlier this year I finally watched a replay of the very first Origin game from 1980. All the pent-up frustration, powerlessness, lust for revenge and brutal aggression built up over decades were let loose in a quest to right the wrongs of the past and ensure the triumph of good over evil. It brought out the worst in one’s character – but didn’t it feel good? (Perhaps “The interface of faith and footy” might have to be written at some stage.)

Five successive years of Origin wins (1980–1984), a strong and well-supported local competition, the best players in the world played in Brisbane – all seemed well in the world. It was a good time to come home. About the only thing that griped me was that Sunday afternoon radio coverage of games (which I listened to as I tried to dig new garden beds on a rocky hill in Bethania) started with the BRL game of the day but, probably because of network commitments, switched to the NSWRL match of the day at 3.00pm. I couldn’t figure that one out – why listen to Sydney matches when we had perfectly good games right here?

Commercialisation of the game was increasing and moves were afoot to have a Brisbane-based side in the NSWRL competition. The Broncos emerged complete with top coach Wayne Bennett and a star-studded line-up of players. Financed by a cartel of local businessmen used to getting their way, sponsored by Queenslander Bernie Power and his eponymous beer label, and backed unashamedly by the only daily newspaper in Brisbane, The Courier Mail, the club was, for many, a tangible form of “us” (Queenslanders) against “them” (anything and everything NSW).

Not everyone loved the Broncos. Their rise resulted in a serious decline in the BRL competition; some felt that funding arrangements favoured the Broncos at the expense of junior development programs; many rugby league supporters already had long-standing loyalties to other Sydney-based clubs; others perceived the Broncos as elitist and arrogant. All of this is well documented elsewhere.

But it’s hard to argue with five straight up wins in your inaugural season, including an opening round thrashing of the reigning premiers Manly. New stars emerged – Alfie Langer, Steve Renouf, the Walters brothers, Willi Carne, Michael Hancock…Premierships followed in 1992 and 1993.

The quintessential commercial power play saw the game fracture in the Super League wars from 1995. As cousin Noeleen observed, it was just as well Uncle Harold died early that year- the split in the game would have broken his heart. Money, ego, pride, stubbornness, bloody-mindedness – what a farce.

About the only notable playing result from those wasted years was the Origin whitewash of 1995 by Fatty Vautin’s Neville Nobodies. It reinforced the old adage that, in sport, there’s no such thing as a certainty. Watch those games again and behold three miracles.

We’ve had fourteen years of relative peace at the highest level since then – thank goodness. We’ve seen wider geographical expansion of teams, mergers, demergers – the game has managed to adjust without imploding. State of Origin is the jewel in the crown but international football struggles to be relevant. Thank goodness the Kiwis give the Aussies a touch-up now and then. Second tier competitions have survived (just) with the Queensland Cup the pick of them. The next challenge is further expansion – even the Redcliffe Dolphins look like putting in a bid.

So how do I complete my potted memoir today, fifty odd years after first taking an interest in the game? State of Origin is the greatest thing to ever happen to rugby league in Australia – that six week period of the season when nothing else matters; those three nights of the year which leave me edgy and a bit of an emotional wreck; three results that somehow irrationally define who I am as a Queenslander; no other results in the whole year’s sporting calendar mean anywhere near as much.

Skills and fitness have never been better but team structures and game plans sap improvisation and flair. We need more Billy Slaters and Benji Marshalls, their instinctive nous and their sense of the creative. We need more individuals unafraid to express themselves rather than media-trained automatons who take it one week at a time and see every game as a great team effort. Bring back Big Dell, Alfie and the Walters boys and a sense of fun rather than a grim grind week in, week out.

The local game must not be allowed to wither – grass roots matter. It’s where the game started and found its lifeblood. The big theatre of the game may happen at Lang Park, the Olympic Stadium and other concrete palaces but give me the western mound at Dolphin Oval, the Chook Pen at Wynnum Manly, car-encircled Twickenham in Tumut or the old grandstand in Laidley circa 1964 any day, $1 and fifty cents doubles on the main game and a ticket in the meat tray raffle.

“Skippers ready…time on… stay behind…” and away we go.

Ian Hauser

 

About Ian Hauser

A relaxed, Noosa-based retiree with a (very) modest sporting CV. A Queenslander through and through, especially when it comes to cricket and rugby league. I enjoy travel, good coffee and cake, reading, and have been known to appreciate a glass or three of wine. As well as being one of Footy Almanac's online editors, I moonlight as an editor for hire - check me out at www.writerightediting.com.au

Comments

  1. Thanks Ian for the northern road trip…geeze you’ll have me wishing I was born in Qld soon!

    To me Qld has taken over as the centre of Rugby League in Australia. Not necessarily its ‘heart & soul’ but the place where the game lives on strongly, in many ways keeping it strong, viable, alive and ticking. The Sydney and southern NSW regions are being slowly eaten away by competing codes and demographic changes. Crowds are really not growing in Sydney as a total % of the population. For example, the crowd at Brookie on Friday was 7,000 less than the ground record set in the 80s yet Manly admin and commentators considered 20,000 a fantastic turn-out. But in Brisbane the Broncos consistently draw +25,000 crowds, with +15,000 crowds common for the Cowboys and Titans. I’m convinced that the best thing for the game of RL overall is to introduce another 2 or even 3 Qld clubs into the NRL comp- at least another one in greater Brisbane, one in Central Qld and perhaps one out of Toowoomba – Darling Downs.

    I realise this could come at the expense of some Sydney teams and local competitions but without such a move I fear elite level RL in this country will eventually struggle for relevancy amongst a crowded footy market. Qld is the games future in many ways.

  2. Greg Mallory says

    good article Ian,

    I think your comment on the international scene is good. I am annoyed that it appears to be relegated to a third level status. With all the hype about Darren Lockyer’s injury it was never mentioned that the captain of the Australian team had been injured. I could not imagine that this would have happened to other Australain captains such as Clive Churchill or Reg Gasnier. There will be no TV or radio comment of the 4 nations contest as the regular TV events such as ‘The Footy Show’ or ‘The Game Plan’ will be shut down for the summer season. This reinforces the view that international Rugby League is 3rd rate after State of Origin and club football whearas it should be the pinnacle of Rugby League i.e. representing your country.

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