We’ve all heard the joke about the good ol’ boy from Bumcrack, Alabama, who likes two kinds of music – country AND western. Well, I am similarly mono-cultural in my appreciation of footy.
Being born and bred in Sydney in that golden age before the AFL’s South Melbourne arrived in town to re-brand itself as the Swans (until they won the 2005 grand-final, whereupon coach Paul Roos and his boys celebrated a victory for ‘the Bloods’), I am what ex-private schoolboys in the world of Rah-Rah dismiss haughtily as a Rugby League mungo – and an unreconstructed, dyed in the wool one at that.
Not brutal enough for my inner city, mean streets’ tastes
Soccer (I’m too old-school to think of it as ‘football’) calls itself ‘the beautiful game,’ notwithstanding FIFA’s running neck and neck with the IOC for the title of world’s most corrupt sporting body. ‘Beautiful’ it may be, but in my formative years it was owned by strictly ethnic clubs – Yugal and Prague, Pan Hellenic and Hakoah etc. – with their own secret rivalries about which I knew nothing. And in any case, the round-ball game was simply not brutal enough for my inner city, mean streets’ tastes.
Rugby Union goes one better and refers to itself as ‘the game they play in heaven,’ presumably in front of dead doctors and QCs in elbow-patched tweed-jackets. Having never been to Melbourne, I’ve no idea what moniker the AFL has adopted (to me it will always be ‘two hours of knock-ons’), but I endorse wholeheartedly Rugby League’s ‘the greatest game of all.’ As far as I am concerned, there can be no argument about my code’s bullish assertion.
I fell in love as a child and, like my Old Man and my little brother Lonno, I might easily have become a Newtown supporter.
Becoming a Rabbitoh
Growing up in Tempe, Dad would take us to the Bluebags’ home games straight after lunch on Saturday in the days when there was only one match on Sunday. We’d sit on the Henson Park hill, opposite the George V Memorial Grandstand, shielding our eyes from the western sun as Newtown copped regular and, when the opponent was St George, fearful floggings.
Then, one afternoon in the mid ’60s, the debonair Jimmy Lisle led a South Sydney team of young up-and-comers onto the field – dashing Michael Cleary, gangly Ron Coote, big Bobby McCarthy, a tough looking hombre with rolled-up sleeves by the name of Johnny Sattler – and I was an instant convert to the Cardinal and Myrtle. It’s been that way ever since, from the halcyon era of the Rabbitohs’ four premierships in five years (1967-71) to the outrage of expulsion from 2000 to 2002 by News Ltd and its running dogs. I was also there on the awful afternoon in 2006 when Souths got done 66-0 by the Warriors, and was present on that glorious Sunday in October 2014, when Johnny Sutton led the Bunnies to their twenty-first grand-final triumph.
Despite its uncanny ability to shoot itself in the foot (come in John Hopoate, Todd Carney, Mitchell Pearce et al) the game rolls on, providing us mungoes with weekly doses of athleticism and artistry, courage and creativity, grace under pressure and primal, cathartic violence. There is little I would change in any of it … but (and there is always a ‘but’) …
Is the practice really necessary?
In that dim and distant but never forgotten past, sitting on the hill at Henson, answering the quiz in the footy program after the reggies had battled it out, awaiting the main event, we were never subjected to the anti-climactic sight of the first-graders going through their warm-up drills. Is the practice really necessary? All grounds have an adjoining area where it might be done, rather than in front of the fans, who have come to watch the performance, not the rehearsal. I for one don’t want to see the Burgess brothers charging into the tackling pads, or Reyno bombing AJ time and again. Apart from draining the contest of hostility (there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’ when both sides are on the field in training gear), it sucks the air out of that electric sense of anticipation that you are consumed by, nerves a-jangle, as you sit on the edge of your seat, counting down the clock till kick-off.
Back in that other-time, before saturation TV coverage demanded vision to accompany its talking heads’ endless babble, there were ten intense minutes of hope and fear and expectation. As a kid, I was awe-struck by the sight of Norm Provan emerging from the sheds, leading his all-conquering St George Dragons into battle, in their gleaming white strip with the intimidating red-V. There’s Johnny Raper … and Changa Langlands … and … there he is … Reg Gasnier! You just don’t get that thrill when the stars tool around in front of you for half-an-hour beforehand.
As for the referees … I can only quote a song by the Pogues, who would have no truck at all with jumped-up officialdom – “two wives are allowed in the Navy, but one’s too many for me.”
Why we need to have a second referee has never been made clear to me – there was only one throughout the 2017 World Cup, which went swimmingly. From this punter in the outer, the presence of a second official only cranks up the pedantry of the whistleblower. Stoppages in the game now are driving me and others nuts, as the pocket ref scurries about looking to find fault, particularly in the ruck, no matter how innocuous or inconsequential it might be. Can you imagine yourself being pulled over by a copper for going 110.5 kph in a 110 kph zone on the freeway? The modern game is played at a breathless pace and to think that players are being pinged for having a toe over an imagined ten-metre off-side line is infuriating – no matter who you barrack for.
“What I am watching is foreign to the game that I grew up with,” lamented Andrew Johns recently, after yet another penalty was blown in the match he was covering for Channel Nine. Joey may have been overstating it, but the frustration felt by all of us mungoes at the nit-picking self-importance of the refs is beyond a joke.
Let the players play
So, before it’s too late, can we take flight from the stifling Orwellian regime of endless slo-mo replays, with Little Brother, cocooned in his bunker, delivering textbook explanations from on high as to why a try may or may not be awarded? Let the players play, that’s all we ask. Let it be the players who decide the outcome of the contest.
Forget the PR and the smoke and mirrors and the mind-numbing ground announcers telling us when we should cheer, leave the Greatest Game of All to speak for itself. Mungoes like me are all ears for what it has to say.