Almanac Rugby League – State of Origin 2015: Game Three – Red Dead Redemption

A very wise man told me recently that you can’t be a single-sport journalist these days. By all means, be an expert in one or two sports but make sure you can analyse and report on a few more to make yourself a more valuable writer to a news source.

So last Friday I gave John, a native Queenslander who has been married to my Grandma for seven years, a call to ask if I could watch the decisive third State of Origin with him and pick up the rules along the way.

John doesn’t profess to be a rugby league expert but he sure as hell knows it better than he knows Aussie Rules – which he still knew as VFL up until I invited him into the family footy tipping comp in 2008. Most importantly, he knows it better than I do.

I recognise a small handful of the players lining up at either end: Queensland captain Cam Smith, going into the game under a cloud of controversy following the 60 Minutes hackjob, his New South Wales counterpart Paul Gallen and Rabbitohs’ jet Greg Inglis. Then there’s a name that I recognise: Will Hopoate.
“Hey John, is Hopoate the guy – ”
“No, his father did it.”

Five minutes in, NSW put the first score on the board following a tackling infringement: Aaron Woods converts from the penalty from near point blank range.

However, this is the falsest of false dawns for the Blues, who don’t score for the next 62 minutes of game time. Even for a league spectator debutant, Queensland’s tactical domination is obvious: when approaching their five metre line, they simply cut through a hesitant NSW defence with a combination of constant passes and tackle bursting charges. The sight of monstrous Reds Sam Thaiday and Jacob Lillyman bursting through two and three man strong Blue tackles summed up the confidence with which Queensland played. When coupled with the Blues’ inefficiency to break the lines when they have possession, the decisive 2015 State of Origin match becomes a one-sided, bloody affair.

Then it becomes more than that. Records fall by the wayside: Johnathan Thurston’s eight conversions, Queensland’s score of 52, their winning margin of 46 and the crowd attendance of 52,500 are all written into the Origin history books as Cam Smith’s side celebrates their victory. For the Blues, there was nothing but misery. Trent Merrin and Trent Hodkinson were both reported for a dangerous spear tackle on Queensland’s Corey Parker in the first half. Whatever chance was still there for a miraculous second half comeback vanished when Justin Hodges flicked the ball back into play from over the end zone for a try to Matt Gillett just a minute half time. It was not merely the 26 point margin, it was the fact that a high-confidence, low-chance play paid off.
I ask John if spear tackles are still common in league, a sport in which a standard bump would warrant a two game ban in the AFL.
John: “You don’t see spear tackles very often anymore. Which is probably for the best.”

The match has been waiting to die for a god 20 minutes by the time the final whistle blows.
“I’ve got a New South Wales mate,” says John, “last time we won I called him up to let him know about it. His daughter answered the phone and said he was in bed.” His brow furrows. “He better not be in bed now.”

So what did I learn from my first match of rugby league? Apart from rules, my most important observation is that the old adage that league is a “hooligan’s game played by gentlemen” is whatcha might call crap. What the old squareheads should say is that rugby players have a very clear code of conduct founded on mutual trust and unquestioning toughness. A player gets tackled and can expect a quick elbow press to the forehead or throat. He gets up, flicks the ball off and keeps on pushing.
A similar relationship exists between the players and the umpires: at one point in the first half, New South Wales’ Hodkinson barked an insinuation at the referee that he was allowing the parochial Queensland fan to affect his performance, which provoked the succinct reply, “Come in with a question, do not come in with that.” None of the over-enunciated AFL dialogue or complaining or warnings. Rugby league is a hooligan’s game. And for a hooligan’s game to work, the hooligans must be honest.


About Callum O'Connor

Here's to feelin' good all the time.


  1. Peter Fuller says

    My recollection is that the reference to the games and their cultures was a three parter, steeped in class consciousness and if I remember correctly originating in the north of England – the only part of the UK where League is played.
    Soccer (or football as they would say) is a game for gentleman played by thugs (the working class game for players and spectators at least prior to the arrival of the English Premier League);
    Rugby (Union) is a game for thugs played by gentleman – a reference to its physicality, but also its upper class player base and supporters.
    Rugby League is a game for thugs played by thugs (pronounced thoogs).

    League originated as a breakaway from amateur Union (certainly in Australia, but I suspect also in England) over the issue of professionalism. Workingmen could not afford to play for nothing when an injury would mean unpaid absence from work.

    It’s always interesting to get an informed perspective on the process of an outsider’s grappling with understanding an unfamiliar sport. As you demonstrated with your riveting observations of the Lower Plenty Cricket Club’s travails, your writing continues to offer entertainment and information. More power to your pen/keyboard.

  2. Well written Callum. Just a couple of corrections though. Aaron Woods earns the penalty, although Trent Hodkinson did the converting. And it was Michael Ennis who accused the referee of being overawed. Ironically given that the NSWelshmen didn’t fire a shot unless you count the ill-advised illegalities which cost them even more points.

    I always found League a game suited to television as the plays evolve around a smaller area than Aussie Rules. Live, it becomes frustrating as gaps are ignored in order to take another no-pass hit up. And with all due respect, going to games means being exposed to a level of spectatordom that makes Collingwood/Port Adelaide stereotypes seem pleasantly tame. (I’m allowed to pass comment as a born and bred Queenslandered).

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