Almanac Book Review – ‘Heartland: How Rugby League Explains Queensland’ by Joe Gorman.

 

 

Regardless of your individual faith, philosophy, worldview or whatever you choose to call it, in the end everyone confronts what we might call the big questions of life – Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? What happens when I die? It’s all about a search for our origins, purpose and destiny; a struggle to find what it all means. Each of us has to sort it out for ourselves but not necessarily by ourselves. Challenging, to say the least!

 

I taught Religious Studies, a subject that underwent numerous name changes over the years, to secondary school students for over thirty years. Those classes were the perfect setting to grapple with these questions because, strictly speaking, the subject was inherently limitless. For me, it wasn’t so much about ‘teaching/inculcating’ a particular (my? the school’s?) understandings/beliefs but rather an opportunity to share and grapple with myriad views, insights, understandings and beliefs with my students. It was as much about proposing insights and understandings as it was about listening, sharing, learning and growing together regardless of our relative ages, life experiences, prejudices and biases. I loved those classes, I learned a lot, and I’d like to think that I shared many helpful perspectives.

 

One of the best exponents of this approach I had the privilege to encounter was my late friend and colleague, Pastor Eric Simpfendorfer, the Chaplain of one of the colleges at which I taught. Eric would lead school Chapel services and his classes with an approach that said, “This … (issue) is an important one as we grow and live life. My experience leads me to believe…but I can’t tell you what you should believe. You have to work your way through it. Just remember that you’re not alone in trying to sort it all out. Talk to others, research things, think it through, then come to an understanding that works for you.” A most gentle and gracious man, Eric cut through with teenagers and earned their heartfelt respect because, among other things, he respected them.

 

I don’t think it’s too long a bow to draw to suggest that Joe Gorman engages in a similar struggle/search to understand both the state of his birth, Queensland, and just what meaning that brings to his life. Although he lived there for only a few years as a very young child, he has always identified as a Queenslander, it is the very essence of his DNA. Central to his life experience is rugby league’s State of Origin concept, a three-games-per-year clash between Queensland and their traditional rivals New South Wales for code supremacy, bragging rights and, not to exaggerate too much, to provide a sense of belonging, purpose and meaning in life. It’s a binding agent for all those north of the Tweed River, an effective barrier to protect us from south-of-the-border contagion once exemplified by the old tick gates on the border at Wallangarra.

 

Gorman traces the century-old feeling of Queensland being regarded as a backward state, ‘hicksville’, ‘Johland’ and culturally deficient – at least as it was seen by the so-called sophisticates of the south. (What was the old 1970s joke? Q:  What’s the difference between yoghurt and Queensland? A: Yoghurt has a living culture!) Gorman then takes up and develops the journalist Laurie Kavanagh’s thesis that the 1980s marked a turning point in the State’s history when both Queenslanders’ self-image and self-esteem grew enormously and outsiders’ appreciation of its qualities developed a greater level of respect.

 

Kavanagh attributed this shift to three events – the 1982 Commonwealth Games held in Brisbane, World Expo staged in Brisbane in 1988, and State of Origin football which dates from 1980. These were, indeed, game changers. The irony is that both the Games and World Expo were either fully or substantially planned and held during the premiership of the divisive and much-maligned Joh Bjelke-Petersen! With the benefit of hindsight, I’d suggest that there was a fourth cathartic event in the 1980s that also changed Queensland – the Fitzgerald Report – which exposed the State’s considerable underbelly and paved the way for the Goss Government to substantially cleanse and modernise the mechanics of the State.

 

The Commonwealth Games lifted Queensland spirits, World Expo broadcast the state to the world and the Fitzgerald Report got us past the worst of the rampant corruption. But it was rugby league in the form of State of Origin, personified in the form of Wally Lewis, that provided a positive sense of community, identity and meaning through ongoing success against the perceived ‘old enemy’ in the form of New South Wales. In time, this would all be encapsulated in the sight and sound of Billy Moore’s visceral incantation of ‘Queenslander! Queenslander!’ as he walked up the tunnel to enter the field of play for the second half of Game 1 in 1995 – the year of three miracles by Fatty’s ‘Neville Nobodys’. It still makes my spine tingle almost 25 years later. This is who and what we are. In this regard, I concur with Gorman.

 

 

 

 

Gorman then goes on to focus on the role of Indigenous players in Queensland’s Origin story and how this has served as a vehicle for reconciliation. It’s plain to see that, from the very beginning of Origin, men such as Arthur Beetson, Mal Meninga, Sam Backo, Justin Hodges, Greg Inglis, Johnathan Thurston and many others have shown the way for Indigenous people to be an integral part of the whole Origin scene. While this may well be the case at Origin level, I am yet to be fully convinced that similar ‘peace and goodwill to all men’ is as obvious during the other 46 weeks of the year – think recent vilification claims by Josh Addo-Carr, among others. I hasten to add that I am open to convincing that things are better than I perceive in this regard. I know that they are a lot better now than they used to be, but I think there’s still a long way to go. (Over the four decades of Origin, New South Wales has selected far fewer Indigenous players, but I sense something of a shift in the last couple of years under the coaching of Brad Fittler.)

 

My only rather minor quibble is that, having established the framework of his thesis and very competently argued the case for the defining 1980s, Gorman loses the thread of his argument somewhat to become a little too linear in his journey through the 1990s. But, to be fair, full marks for highlighting the significance of Billy Moore’s war cry in that period.

 

Joe Gorman is a very talented young writer who tells a good story. He uses his variety of sources intelligently, develops his thesis well, and provides a most valuable addition to the literature of sport in general and rugby league in particular. I have no doubt we’ll hear a lot more from him over the coming years and decades.

 

Kudos to UQP for their presentation of this work – the well chosen front cover photo is a pictorial statement of Gorman’s intent and has a certain magnetism that appeals to this through and through Queenslander. (Disclaimer: I received an unsolicited copy of this book in the mail from UQP. This review is purely my own initiative. My comments on the book’s presentation are made solely from my perspective as a professional editor and bibliophile.)

 

 

Joe Gorman’s Heartland:How Rugby League Explains Queensland is readily available online and at all good bookshops, ranging in price from approx. $25 – $32, and on Kindle for approx. $15.

 

 

 

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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. Roger Lowrey says

    As you recently observed most perspicaciously Ian, I know “bugger all about rugby” (sic).

    But as Malcolm Fraser often loved saying “having said that, let me say this.”

    Truly comrade, this is a review from the vault. If Joe Gorman’s book has anything like the obvious passion, the analytical understanding and the intuitive appreciation of both the history and spirit of the code (and your own home State) that your review displays, it must be a cracker of a read.

    And just to think, I missed all those classes of yours on existentialism. Never mind, at least I now know where to look when I want an informed chin wag on the eschatological and ontological arguments. Seriously, I can’t wait!

  2. Rugby League or Union – I’d rather watch ballet even if I shut my eyes and listen to the music.

  3. george smith says

    Memories of Rugby League –
    Wally Lewis’s sublime destruction of NSW, doing what every Victorian kid dreamed of…

    The seismic stoush between Wally Lewis and Wayne Bennett. Wayne had the last laugh, assuming such a thing was possible for Wayne!

    The existential angst that is Wayne, even if his team wins a grand final by 60 points, they should have played better in the first half.

    Wayne bringing back the 100 year old and long retired Alfie Langer, for one last game against NSW, to ensure an unlikely series win for Queensland.

    the only good looking Rugby League player of the time, Andrew Ettinghausen, suing a magazine for publishing an unclad picture of himself, because: “It exposed him to ridicule.”
    He was not wrong:
    H.G. Nelson: “what about Ettinghausen, Roy?”
    Roy Slaven: “he’s a nudie, H.G, a nudie!”

  4. Thanks for the review Ian. Good to know this book is out – Joe Gorman’s a good writer and I’m sure it’ll be a worthwhile read.
    It’s a fascinating topic, this idea of the ‘Queenslander’. As someone born south of the Tweed I grew up with a certain disdain for anything from the Deep North – we all did back then in the 1960s and 70s. And anyway, in stark contrast to ‘the Queenslander’, no one in NSW really took their state identity too seriously. Why would you? It seemed such a parochial, narrow view to hang much of your identity on a rather arbitrary state boundary. Still does for that matter.
    I doubt there ares many in NSW who really care much if the Blues lose a State of Origin series. Sure, it’s a grand epic contest, and the winner gets bragging rights, but I get the distinct impression it’s always meant much, much more to Queenslanders than most people in NSW. The question of course, is why? Hopefully Joe’s book provides some answers.

  5. Ian, following on from our lunch discussion the other week, this sounds like it might be a way for me to navigate the hitherto impenetrable ways of League.

    Note: I remembered not to say Rugby :)

  6. So IJH, what do you think defines Queensland and Queenslanders? Bare feet at primary school? School camp at Tallebudgera? Mangoes?

    And did Joe Gorman ultimately nail it?

  7. Neil Saunderson says

    No doubt League DNA is Queenslanders strongest genetic sporting code but interesting to read in Murray Bird and Greg Parker’s magnificent book “More of the Kangaroo” that one of Queensland’s most famous sons Gorden Tallis’ dad Wally Junior played over 300 games of Australian Football for a proud Indigenous club Garbutt in the 60s & 70s in Townsville with Cathy Freeman’s dad Norm while simultaneously becoming a legend of Townsville Rugby League. He played on alternate days of the weekend and sounds like he was an amazingly talented athlete!

  8. Thanks, all, for your feedback.

    Roger, I agree that we have many points of commonality that would see us well engaged over a very long lunch one day. I’d like that.

    Fisho, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I’m fairly catholic in my footy tastes but find rugby union way too pedantic – and that’s being polite.

    George, I agree that there aren’t too many good looking rugby league players. But have a gander at Sam Burgess, then age him 25 years, slightly longer and greying hair and you have……….John Harms!

    Adam, yes, Origin does mean more to Queenslanders. For me, the main reason is that, for years, pokie-rich NSW clubs bought the north’s very best players, selected them for NSW and sent them up to Brisbane in blue jerseys to belt the you-know-what out of what was left to choose from north of the border. Origin simply provided the closest thing to a level playing field, and on that field Queensland more than held its own. Redemption? Fairness? Balancing the ledger? David defeats Goliath? Call it what you will.

    JB, you’re learning!

    Harms, I don’t believe that Joe ultimately ‘nails it’ but he most certainly does give shape and personal conviction to the notion. For sports lovers north of the Tweed, he probably gets it very close to correct and for that he deserves every credit. Origin is a rallying cry for very many people in Queensland, and it provides them with identity and a sense of belonging/identity/meaning. Origin is also, perhaps, an escape from other less attractive aspects of the modern game – commercialism and professionalism. Origin is a lingering form of the previous tribalism of the old Brisbane, Ipswich and Toowoomba competitions, the Bulimba Cup and the Foley Shield, as Joe well argues. It’s now just a different, higher tribe. But, in reality, there are also many Queenslanders who are not interested in sport generally nor in rugby league in particular, and so a study of rugby league does not explain their ‘Queenslanderishness’. Billy Moore’s ‘Queenslander’ chant may well appeal to many 9including me) but, at the same time, it makes others cringe. In other words, Joe may well ‘nail it’ for the vast numbers of sports loving Queenslanders but by no means for everyone.

    Neil, what a character Wally Junior must have been! Some record.

  9. Peter Fuller says

    Ian.
    I read your review with considerable interest.I also note your observation in your reply to comments that the Queensland passion for state of origin cfd. with NSW insouciance was cultivated by the pre-SOO practice of the NSWRL bleeding the northern State of its most talented players and then smashing Queensland using these exiles/traitors. My speculation in search of an hypothesis is that this is analogous to attitudes in SA and WA towards the VFL. I might add these attitudes persist until the present with West Coast particularly but also the two Adelaide teams in the AFL maintaining a sense of grievance from the days when the likes of Polly Farmer were the vehicle for Victorian dominance of interstate football.
    You would be aware that State of Origin began in Aussie Rules and WA enjoyed early success but SA treated it as a crucial antidote to a need to prove itself against the patronising and arrogant Vics. Like NSW, I’ve sensed that interstate football was also of less significance to Victorians, although notably players who enjoyed less club success did treat it very seriously (e.g. Whitten, Skilton, Flower).
    It’s also my conviction in that Aussie Rules, and especially in the VFL/AFL, club allegiance was always so important that interstate matches were a distraction. My sense is that in League, State of Origin has been the centrepiece, because the club competition doesn’t capture the public imagination with equivalent intensity, compared to the AFL.
    Finally your review provides me with a contrived excuse to use a favourite political/sporting anecdote. When Gough Whitlam was busy shaking up Australia in 1974, and his popularity plummeted, especially in Queensland, he attended a representative RL match in Queensland. Senator Ron McAuliffe, a notable figure in League administration, was his host and as the official party walked onto the field prior to the match, they were met with an extremely hostile reception. Gough, well-aware of the focus of the booing, remarked to McAuliffe (wtte) “I thought you were popular here, Ron; don’t ever bring me up here again.

  10. https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/why-i-hate-victorians/
    This was hysterically parochial and over-the-top. But every time I hear a Cats fan bleating this week about the cost/time/unfairness of a Friday night final at the MCG I know they deserved it. Privilege lives in a house without mirrors.
    Queensland Rugby League culture seems barbarian to me but maybe it’s just a talisman for defiance in the face of southern arrogance (real and perceived). I once challenged a very cultured Croatian gent about the neo-nazis who had returned to fight in the 90’s War. “You can’t fight a war with choir boys”. Billy Moore would have nodded.

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