Almanac Rugby League: What really matters?


Several years ago, rugby league was rocked by the sudden deaths of several young players. At that time, Brett Hutchins was scheduled to write a match report for the Eels v Cowboys game at Parramatta Stadium. A minute’s silence before the game and the earlier death of his mother caused Brett to think about the big questions of life – what really matters?


The prospect of the Eels playing the Cowboys at Parramatta Stadium was an unexciting one. A struggling young team at home to a likely semi-finalist boasting an intimidating forward pack. But as I sat down to watch the game on a Saturday night, I recalled a maxim stolen from Gideon Haigh about cricket that I have reworded – some people take football too seriously, others not quite seriously enough.


The broadcast started with a minute’s silence for Alex Elisala, North Queensland’s young hooker who had died earlier in the week after having his life support switched off. A member of the club’s U20s squad, news of his death had been reported widely with the tragic phrase ‘no suspicious circumstances’ and the contact details for Lifeline included in stories. For anyone who consumes a steady diet of news and current affairs, these words and details have a way of cutting sharply into consciousness. The blood and breath of life smashes headlong into the tragedy of an apparent suicide, transcending the endless factoids, rumours and tip-offs that are otherwise known as sports ‘news’ in the digital age.


Watching the Cowboys players and support staff form huddles and stand arm-in-arm during the moment’s silence was to witness undiluted human sadness from tough and physically intimidating men. The question of the meaning of life, or possible lack thereof, in a theoretically infinite universe is not the sort of existential challenge one expects prior to a low-key Round 8 NRL clash. Closed eyes, clenched jaws and tears could be seen as each individual faced a terrifying and ultimately unanswerable question, ‘Why?’ This was a rare display of emotion from men who deny fragility and vulnerability each time they enter a playing arena built around speed, strength and pain.


The other matter running through my head involved the honouring of the dead. My mother passed away earlier in the year, so the nexus of commemoration, grief and observance is something I had pondered during long nights devoid of sleep. Just as the full range of family politics and history can be felt in the air at a funeral, the inclusion and exclusion of public remembrance was on display as the Cowboys stood as one. What of the women in Alex Elisala’s life? What of his mother, sister, girlfriend? Did he even have a sister or girlfriend? How many in the cloistered masculine world of rugby league gave serious thought to how they might be included or honoured at this moment? Sadness, anger and loss are felt no less keenly just because one does not ‘lace on a boot’ or ‘take a hit’ alongside other humans with X-Y chromosomes.


Another possibility was that the Elisala family had no wish to have their grief publicly paraded. The open exposure of their hurt and confusion to complete strangers may have only compounded a form of pain that exists beyond words, with the heartfelt show of respect by the players and coaches offering an all-too-brief reprieve from their suffering. The problem with grief is that it reaches to the very core of human experience and the enduring paradoxes that each of us embodies. There is no right way of experiencing it, let alone performing it.


Rugby league and sport more generally matter at moments like the one discussed here. Sport is not a mirror held up to everyday life on these rare occasions – it is life itself, raw and unsuppressed. Deep truths that mostly remain unspoken or hidden away from public view are, for a fleeting period, on display. In the minds of many people, subjects like suicide and grief are best avoided as one must ‘get on’ with life. The minute’s silence for Alex Elisala underlined why ‘getting on with it’ actually means confronting tragedy and sadness, recognising it, squaring up to it. These feelings are inescapable, carried by the players and many of those watching throughout 80 minutes of a close, mistake-ridden contest.


The things that many fans get most passionate about – the score, the table, whether Jarryd Hayne is over-rated (he’s not) or Johnathan Thurston is a modern-day great (he is) – are but amusing distractions when faced by fundamental questions that will be forever unanswered. For the record, North Queensland won the game 14-10.


Rest in peace Alex Elisala.



Lifeline  is a free and confidential support service which can be reached on 13 11 14.

Beyond Blue  can be reached on 1300 22 46 36.


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.



  1. You put it all into perspective beautifully, Brett. In the end, each and every one of us has to face up to ‘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? They make the footy itself look incidental, but you manage to help us see these questions from another perspective: through the prism of sport.

  2. Liam Hauser says

    Brett, I like the way you say that “the things that many fans get most passionate about…are but amusing distractions when faced by fundamental questions that will be forever unanswered”.
    When I worked as a sports reporter in the Tumut-Gundagai region, a few really tragic things happened in the space of 7 months (and these are just the ones I remember around that time). The first was the death of Phil Hughes after being hit by a bouncer in a Sheffield Shield match. The second tragedy was a 22-year-old Gundagai rugby league player losing his life after a car accident. The third incident sticks in my mind very vividly because I was at Anzac Park to see what happened. In an under-16 rugby league match, a Gundagai player was driven back in a solid tackle by a Tumut player. There was nothing dangerous about the tackle, but the ball-carrier fell awkwardly and stayed on the ground. Before I knew it, a helicopter arrived at the scene to airlift the supposedly injured player to hospital. The player had lost consciousness and, tragically, passed away just a few days later.

  3. Beautiful article, Brett. Thankyou. Perspective is everything in life. I remind myself of it daily.

  4. Beautifully expressed. Asks all the right questions and proffers none of the simplistic answers. We have to find those ourselves.

  5. In a world obsessed with stardom, this is a great story that reminds me how tragedy rains on life at times and affects normal people like us and our kids; how sport is something that binds us together; and hopefully provides some sense to the journey.
    Thanks for writing this.

  6. Jarrod_L says

    “The question of the meaning of life, or possible lack thereof, in a theoretically infinite universe is not the sort of existential challenge one expects prior to a low-key Round 8 NRL clash.”

    And how…

    Beautiful stuff Brett, disarmingly written.

  7. Very well said, Brett.

  8. Daryl Schramm says

    All of the above.

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