Almanac Rugby League: Queensland Origin and Community – Playing for the People

 

 

 

In his 2015 Tom Brock Lecture, Sasha Lennon explored the link between the Queensland rugby league State of Origin team and the broader Queensland community. In the lead-up to tomorrow night’s Game 1 of the 2020 Origin series, we revisit Sasha’s lecture.

 

I’ve always been a huge State of Origin fan. However, my Origin was of the southern variety. Growing up in suburban Melbourne in the 1980s, the highly anticipated clashes between ‘The Big V’ and South Australia were something to look forward to. Whether my own team Hawthorn was doing well or not (and they were usually doing pretty well), State of Origin offered something different, something else or someone else to barrack for but on a different level. It wasn’t just your local club. It was your State!

 

And the game looked and felt a bit different. Maybe it was seeing my heroes like Dermott Brereton or Jason Dunstall (a Queenslander) playing in the Victorian jumper alongside stars of the day from other clubs. Or perhaps it was the awkward feeling of having to barrack against other Hawthorn heroes like John Platten and Darren Jarman as they strutted their stuff in South Australian colours. These are players you may never have heard of but to me they were demi-gods!

 

It was around this time in the mid-to-late 1980s that the suburban clubs of the Victorian Football League (VFL) began their transformation to professionalism. Australian Rules football nationalised and corporatised through the establishment of the Australian Football League (AFL).

 

Soon enough it seemed that, for the clubs, the risk of losing their highly valued human capital through potential injury in a ‘footy carnival’ was one too great to bear. The AFL never really gave Origin a chance as it invested its energies in the new non-Victorian clubs, the West Coast Eagles, the Brisbane Bears and, later, the Adelaide Crows. Very quickly, Origin faded from the AFL landscape.

 

Rugby league, however, tells a different story. Contrary to what occurred in the southern states, here in Queensland at least, State of Origin has not only grown as a spectacle but also served to re-connect communities with the very essence of rugby league.

 

With the late 20th Century corporatisation of Australian rugby league, the bond between the once ‘top-tier’ suburban and country rugby league clubs and their local communities was quickly eroded, much to the chagrin of traditionalists who rightly place stock in the importance of local football clubs to community wellbeing. The Brisbane Rugby League (BRL), which thrived up until the advent of the Brisbane Broncos in the late 1980s, is a case in point.

 

As Queensland’s foray into the newly nationalised and corporatised structure of rugby league took hold in 1988, the communities which local clubs had served for so long looked to the State’s great new arrival, in the form of the Broncos, to consume ‘the greatest game’ at the highest level.

 

Subsequently, and almost immediately, spectator numbers at BRL matches declined, impacting the competition and its constituent local clubs. But with the emergence of State of Origin football earlier in the same decade, a new platform for rugby league’s engagement with the community had presented itself and was beginning to take hold.

 

Thanks to the significance afforded State of Origin by Queensland’s football loving public, by the game’s administrators and perhaps, most importantly, by the media, the connection between Queenslanders and what could be loosely described as the grassroots essence of the game of rugby league has actually deepened over time in spite of the decline of suburban (and regional) first grade football.

 

Having now lived in Brisbane for close to 20 years, I’ve come to appreciate State of Origin, not so much for the game of rugby league itself, but for the hope, joy and meaning it brings to Queenslanders of all persuasions, rugby league fans or otherwise. And as I have discovered, this connection between the game and a wider ‘Queensland’ community means as much to the players as it does to the spectators.

 

In 2015, I was awarded the Tom Brock Scholarship by the Tom Brock Bequest Committee (www.tombrock.com.au). In undertaking my research, I sought to secure interviews with key players representing two important periods in the evolution of rugby league in Australia – firstly, the introduction of State of Origin in 1980 and, secondly, the modernisation and growth of the game in the 1990s through to the first decade of the 21st Century.

 

Later that year, I was lucky enough to meet with former Redcliffe, Brisbane and Queensland great Petero Civoniceva to discuss his take on State of Origin and its meaning to him and to the game of rugby league generally. As well as speaking to Civoniceva, I also had the pleasure of meeting with former Brisbane Easts player John Lang.

 

I found Petero Civoniceva particularly interesting. Perhaps that’s because, as a recently retired, all-conquering Queenslander who clearly loves the game, he decided to book-end his glittering career with a final stint at his local club, the Redcliffe Dolphins, before representing his ‘other home’, Fiji, in the 2013 Rugby League World Cup. Civoniceva is lucid in describing what rugby league generally and State of Origin in particular means to him both as a player and as a lover of the sport.

 

After a successful career playing for Easts in Brisbane and then a year with Eastern Suburbs in Sydney, Lang represented Queensland in the inaugural Origin match at Lang Park in 1980. (Lang had also played for New South Wales in the two earlier Interstate matches that same year).

 

Following his playing career, Lang became a successful National Rugby League (NRL) coach. As he had experienced first-hand both the turmoil of the Super League war of the mid-1990s and the growth of the NRL in the wake of its armistice, I considered Lang well placed to comment on the meaning of rugby league, both then and now.

The Role of Club and Community

 

The role of football and sporting clubs in contributing to a sense of place and community wellbeing cannot be overstated. This applies to sporting clubs of all persuasions – netball, Australian Rules football, rugby league and others. It is apparent in the inner urban neighbourhoods of our capital cities, our sprawling suburbs and, of course, in our regional, rural and remote towns and settlements that sport provides a focal point for community interaction and engagement.

 

Sports clubs do this by contributing to a community’s social capital, what has otherwise been described by some as the glue that binds us. Recognising and articulating a community’s identity and its aspirations underpins all other facets of sustainable communities.

 

Football clubs can play an important role in this regard, providing the infrastructure and the shared vision that connects individuals, families, local businesses (many of which engage with community in the form of club sponsorship) and institutions (such as schools and local government) with a common identity.

 

It is perhaps the nature of rugby league, the game, which lends itself so much to ‘meaning’ in community – the fierce front-on battles on the field a metaphor of life itself. As John Harms said in delivering his 2014 Tom Brock lecture, league has its own character, its own essence, which is not arbitrary.

 

“It shares some of the elements of other sports, and of the other codes of football – the sense of common purpose, the sense of striving for the victory cup (or shield), the call to action, the hope – but it has its own particular and peculiar elements as well.”

 

As Harms goes on to say, league is about a lot of things, but perhaps most of all, for spectators, it’s about hope, loyalty and support. It’s about the collective, it’s about places and the people who live in them. If this is compromised, as it was for many with the introduction of professional football some 30 years ago, people will still look for a common purpose to be satisfied. This is something State of Origin has been able to achieve.

 

A National Competition, a New Landscape

 

In 1980s Queensland, rugby league experienced an externally imposed decline of what were once, prosperous community hubs. This was due to the nationalisation of the code and the all-pervasive impacts of television coverage.

 

Those forces combined to inflict an irreversible blow to the order of things, creating, for country and suburban first grade football competitions, a vicious cycle of declining spectator numbers, financial support and community interest. This had consequences for the pre-eminent role these clubs once played in providing an ingredient for the glue that bound people – rugby league players, administrators, volunteers, their families and spectators – together.

 

Arguably, it was rugby league spectators who found the changes most dislocating. For the local club member or fan, the team they had followed was shunted into second place as the new moneyed clubs of the national competition took centre stage. For the spectator, it was a case of follow the best or be left behind with the rest. As Harms stated in his Tom Brock lecture,

 

“Things began to change in the world of sport and in rugby league in the 1980s, once the ‘money men’, who could see the commercial potential to be drawn from the game, got the ear of the game’s administrators and thus, a hold on the running of game itself”.

 

Harms went on to explain how the formation of the Brisbane Broncos in 1988 represented the sweeping change brought about through the commercialisation of Australian sport at the time.

 

“It [the Brisbane Broncos] worked well for what was to become a national competition. It worked well for media and sponsors, and it worked well for salaried rugby league administrators. It did not work in the interests of the traditional Brisbane grade competition, nor – it can be argued – for grass roots rugby league in Queensland generally.”

 

As John Lang explained, in pre-Broncos Queensland those first-grade leagues like the BRL were the premier competitions, attracting thousands of spectators, week in, week out:

 

“Brisbane Rugby League was at its absolute peak in the early 1970s. You’d get 40,000 people to a Grand Final. Our first premiership with Easts – the 1972 Grand Final – there was 40,000 people there and the crowd, they were out on the ground! I remember it was 10-all or something and they were kicking to win the game and they had to part the crowd for him to get his run-up; and we came back and won it with a field goal! I remember playing in the 1980 Grand Final in Sydney and I thought it just didn’t have the same atmosphere. Because, Lang Park, it would just be absolutely packed to the rafters and the atmosphere was just unbelievable.”

 

Lang further explains:

 

Then, what happened with TV, people started watching the Sydney competition. People in Brisbane started to get into their Sydney club that they would follow, you know, and the local comp gradually started to decline. Once they put the Broncos in, that was it! That cut it off pretty quickly.”

 

But with the emergence of State of Origin football earlier that decade, a new platform for rugby league’s engagement with the community was beginning to take hold.

 

The Emergence of Origin and its Role in Community

 

The question can be asked then, where did those communities – with that strong nexus between their love for league and their common association as a community now disrupted – look to find a common purpose on the field, the tragedies and triumphs of which could be shared together off it? And what of the players themselves? How did this big shift in the rugby league landscape impact upon their own aspirations and the opportunity to represent their lot?

 

I believe that the answer was in the emergence of State of Origin football. Although relatively young in the context of rugby league’s 110-year history in Australia, Origin entrenched itself as the unifier for a larger, more dynamic and fluid ‘Queensland community’ in a rapidly changing global society.

 

As Harms noted, just as South Sydney’s Rabbitohs have always stood for ‘something’, so too does the Queensland State of Origin side since that inaugural triumph in the very first clash at Lang Park in 1980. The Rabbitohs stand for their fans still living in its Redfern catchment as well as for its supporters far and wide. Similarly, for the much bigger and no less diverse community that is Queensland, the State of Origin team embodies hope, belief in community, history, tradition, the plight of the little man over its bigger, slicker southern neighbour, and the prospect of victory in the face of adversity.

 

Petero Civoniceva articulated what Origin means to Queenslanders, both players and spectators, when he explained to me how former Queensland coach Mal Meninga saw something and tapped into it. He brought his players with him so that they embraced this notion of a Queensland community as well as strengthening Queenslanders’ passion for the Maroons and their sense of self.

 

“The week-to-week grind of playing club footy, no doubt it’s huge, but win, lose or draw, you can recover the following week. With Origin, it’s do or die, you’ve got to step up in every game. There’s so little that separates the two teams, so you’ve always got to find that extra one or two per cent somewhere.

 

One of the great things that Mal did, he’d take the team for the first few days of Origin camp and we’d go to a regional community, to experience the hardship that they’d be going through; when there were the Queensland floods, we would go out to Roma, to Emerald and other places. These were the communities hit hard by natural disaster. The team had been to Bundaberg, Mt Isa.

 

You know, it all brings it back home on what our game, and what that particular game (State of Origin) does for people. You get an understanding of what they’re going through at that time; and that’s the great thing about sport, about sport in general, you know, you can switch off and get lost in 80 minutes. You can watch and cheer for your team and forget about what you might be going through, the hardships.

 

I think Mal made us realise that, and that it’s not about us when we walk out there, it’s about them. And that’s what I was talking about earlier, that’s given us that extra one or two per cent, being able to claw our way back out of a bad situation, or we may have been down on the scoreboard but we’ve been able dig deep when we needed to and find something.

 

What Mal did, having been a football player all through the ‘80s – and he was there at the start of Origin – he asked us to identify with what it’s all about, what is means to play Origin, to play for Queensland, and that is, you’re playing for the people.

 

So it goes back to the grassroots of footy and what it means to people. You’re representing your community.”

 

This embodiment of the ‘Queensland community’ in Origin became very simply articulated in the ‘Queenslander’ chant that so effectively galvanises those watching in the stands as well as the barrackers at home and supporters in the pubs and clubs around the State that this means something to ‘us’. That phalanx of thirteen combatants out on the field represents who ‘we’ are as a people and what it means to be a Queenslander.

 

Such is the strength of the ‘Queenslander’ sentiment embedded in the three annual Origin battles against New South Wales that it has become the emotive and effective catchcry called upon to invigorate spirits and a sense of purpose in the face of hardship in all facets of life. This was done perhaps no more effectively than by former Queensland Premier Anna Bligh at the height of the 2011 Queensland floods which devastated parts of inner Brisbane and many regions throughout the south-east of the State. She said,

 

“Wherever you are – and there are so many places to list, if you are in central Queensland, if you’re in south-west Queensland, if you’re in western Queensland, if you’re in the Burnett region, the Darling Downs, Toowoomba, the Lockyer Valley, Ipswich or Brisbane, all of those places have been affected by floods – I say to every one of those people in those areas and to Queenslanders in other parts of the state: as we weep for what we have lost, and as we grieve for family and friends, and we confront the challenge that is before us, I want us to remember who we are. We are Queenslanders. We’re the people that they breed tough north of the border. We’re the ones that they knock down and we get up again.”

 

So powerfully resonate were Bligh’s words, they secured her popularity amongst voters, colleagues and even adversaries, at least for a time. Indeed, reading back over Bligh’s address today, I’m sure any coach at any grade in any part of Queensland would not hesitate to borrow its words and sentiment to provide added meaning to a pre-game or half-time address.

 

John Lang explains it like this:

 

“It’s funny, people say to me oh, you’re an ex-Queenslander and I say there’s no such thing as an ex-Queenslander because there’s not. People come from New South Wales and become Queenslanders but people from Queensland stay Queenslanders.”

 

It’s this ‘Queenslander thing’ Lang speaks of as an extension of local community identity that I think has a lot to say about the success of rugby league and the importance of State of Origin as a way for the everyman (and woman) supporter to re-connect with the game at a grassroots level. It’s that original tribalism, identity and meaning focused on the local club which, although diminished to some extent by the corporatisation and nationalisation of the game, remains a focal point of local identity; yet, at the same time, a bigger, fiercer, more voluminous, guttural, almost primeval force brings them all together to the high point that is Origin, that unites us all as ‘Queenslanders’!

 

The sustained success of the Queensland State of Origin side has brought with it a knowledge that ‘we Queenslanders’ can match it with the rest. As actor and author William McInnes, like Petero Civoniceva a Redcliffe native, proclaimed in The Rugby League Almanac at the end of the 2012 NRL season,

 

“Today there is no reason for anybody in Queensland to feel envious about one thing in New South Wales…with seven years of Origin rule, surely we have earned the right to bring some of our cultural light to the philistine world of the south.”

 

Make that a decade of Origin rule.

 

Tongue-in-cheek as McInnes may be, his words would no doubt resonate with many who still find connection and meaning in rugby league, thanks in no small part to the success of the Queensland State of Origin side.

 

Image courtesy of nrl.com

 

Joe Gorman explored a similar theme in his 2020 award-winning book Heartland. Read a review of Joe’s book  here.

 

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Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

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