Big dreams, but little tribes rule the roost

It’s the last Friday of a soggy pre-season, and again the northern beaches are flooded. Instead of jumping castles and kicking games at Brookie, the Sea Eagles’ launch has been moved to the leagues club. Undaunted, hundreds of supporters press in to have their photos taken and jerseys signed. Here are the Stewart brothers, Jamie Lyon, some unfamiliar young guys, Igor the Eagle, as the players come in from afternoon visits to hospitals and schools.
Shanghai night field

There are the trademarks of the ad hoc event: a dodgy microphone, a late-running schedule and, Manly being Manly, some officials giving others a wide berth. But no amount of rain or mayhem can douse the defiant excitement you get in a community club at its season launch. It might be damp, but here and in 15 other clubs, this is the smell of hope.

Though its central administration is corporate, rugby league is a fundamentally local game. In cricket, Michael Clarke and Shane Watson appear for their clubs once. The endless cricket summer has no linear narrative. With league, the heroes of the sport are locally embedded, and the season has a clear ending, which 15 clubs prefer to forget, and a beginning, which is now.

Manly chief executive David Perry sums it up: “When you finish the season in October it feels like a long period for fans and players to wait. Everyone’s a bit restless now.”

The coach, Geoff Toovey, describes his mood as one of “nervous excitement”. “The players are chomping at the bit. They’re well and truly over running around the oval. Bring on Brisbane.”

Halfback Daly Cherry-Evans, who became a father last month, is ready. “To be honest, my partner’s doing most of the work getting up through the night. I’m looking forward to getting out there and doing my bit to support her.”

This is the tingling of early autumn. Manly, twice premiers in the past four seasons, have a dozen new players to inject hunger. In Brad Arthur and Andrew Johns, it has two high-profile new assistant coaches. Every start is a fresh one, for every player and every club. But in the bigger picture, 2013 is truly fresh, with a new broadcast deal and new chief executive, and the first fully prepared season of the Australian Rugby League Commission.

The commission was designed to shift power to the clubs. This is significant, because so many of the clubs face uncertainty that can only be alleviated by unity. “The clubs are the key stakeholders, and we’re hoping the new money and resources will be used wisely,” Perry says.

Toovey says: “We’re hoping to see positive changes. It’s such a great game, we believe it can be even greater. We’re excited at the possibilities of the commission doing it for us.” And yes, there is a new referees’ administration. Rugby league has always been the game that will change itself for the sake of the spectacle, and of the fans.

League is a fans’ game, which creates a tension between the aims of the centre and the needs of the local.

Adam Muyt, a Manly supporter, says the league is “chugging along beautifully as a game to watch. Its simplicity is its advantage. In the last few years the standard has got better and better.” But as a Manly fan, there is the constant spectre of nationalisation and rationalisation. Broadcasters have not paid millions to please northern beaches locals; the aims of the game’s chiefs are distinctly anti-local.

Keeping the big picture and the small linked is the challenge facing not only Manly, Muyt says, but all clubs. “The demographic shifts concern me,” he says. “Manly is not the same place as in the 1960s and ’70s. No place is, but that’s Manly’s biggest problem long term. Add in the push to rationalise the grounds. Brookie feels like it’s still 1978. The problem with rationalising is that Sydney is much more geographically decentralised than Melbourne, with the clubs a long way out and people strongly identified with them.”

Muyt says he would not follow league if Manly were rationalised – as they were, into the ill-fated Northern Eagles, 13 years ago. But the perennial tide keeps moving against Sydney community clubs. “The heart and soul of rugby league has shifted 1500 kilometres north,” Muyt says. “The strength of the game is its Queensland base. It might not sit well with Sydney, but Queensland could support two more teams at least. Papua New Guinea and New Zealand could probably have more teams. Does going national and international mean going back to the push to rationalise the Sydney teams?”

Up in Queensland, Matt O’Hanlon has been involved as a player, coach, even ground announcer, for decades. When Manly travel north this week, he will be with a thousand others at the Beenleigh Annual Prawn Luncheon, the appetiser for a trip to Lang Park. O’Hanlon is a “bigoted rugby league follower – there’s no other game”, though he does not follow any club. “I was a Newtown supporter, then Wests, then the South Queensland Crushers. Clubs are happy for me not to support them,” he says. He is a season ticket-holder at Lang Park, and goes to Gold Coast matches. A high school teacher, O’Hanlon agrees on the game’s northern strength. “Junior numbers are up in south-east Queensland. The kids at school are a barometer, and every Monday they’re talking about league.”

Anti-Sydney feeling has made the game national. O’Hanlon says: “Hardly a Queenslander wouldn’t say Melbourne is their second team.” The Storm, with its Queensland Origin stars and Super League foundations, is the league’s southern shopfront. Yet the local-national tension also complicates the Storm’s position. Paul Dalligan, a South Sydney supporter who moved to Melbourne seven years ago, says: “Melbourne people are never going to get better rugby league than this Storm team produces. That’s what worries me.” The game is still battling in the AFL stronghold, where, Dalligan says, “they wouldn’t know Gorden Tallis from Gordon Ramsay”.

AFL’s crowds dwarf rugby league’s. Dalligan says he is often asked ” ‘If your sport’s so good, why are your crowds so low?’ My response is, first, NRL’s a much better television sport than AFL, which is shown in the NRL’s television rights being worth $50 a minute more. And second, Sydney is not as centralised as Melbourne. People want to watch their team locally, whereas in Melbourne they’re happy to come to the MCG.”

Dalligan, like O’Hanlon and Muyt, belong to a community of league tragics who contributed to the inaugural Rugby League Almanac, a publishing idea imported from the AFL this year, in which fans write reports on every match. Dalligan supports South Sydney, and on Thursday will travel north to see his team play the Roosters. “I’m more confident than I have been, which is dangerous,” he says. But a Rabbitoh fan bears too many scars to be complacent. Dalligan says league wrecked his first marriage. “Souths were leading against the Broncos, and Gorden Tallis scored in the last minute. I was in the foetal position in the shower. My then wife walked in and saw me, and the look on her face said, ‘No . . .’ “

Hoping to prolong Dalligan’s agony will be Roosters diehard Brett Oaten, also an Almanac writer. “Ever since I was a kid I’ve hated Souths, as is required. The Roosters and Souths have never had good years at the same time. That makes this year particularly interesting,” he says.

Being a glamour team sits more easily with the Roosters, but Oaten has had his share of heartbreak. “I think I’ve loved them more than they’ve loved me back . . . I’ve had the same season tickets for 15 years. I like going to the footie even when we lose. I get angry, but keep coming back.” For this week, he says: “I’m nervous. All my mates are nervous. And we’re not even playing.”

That nervousness is all about to come to a head, from all corners of the rugby league nation. Matt Tedeschi, who lives in Orange and supports the Canberra Raiders, will travel to Penrith for their first game. “I’ve been counting down the weeks and days. It’s been a boring summer waiting,” he says.

It’s been even longer for Peta Bryant, who epitomises the transcendence of league fandom. Last year, Bryant lived in Cambodia and was only able to follow league online. “I was coming last in the family tipping comp,” she says. “I’m just looking forward to seeing any game live, it doesn’t matter who.”

Bryant is club-agnostic; she just loves her league. “Some families go to church on Sundays. For us it was going to the grandparents’ for lunch, then settling down to watch the Sunday afternoon league game.” Who she follows “depends on which family member I’m watching with. There are Bulldogs, Knights and Dragons fans among us. They get into me for my lack of loyalty, but it’s the game I love, not a team. I know that’s unusual.” It is her own way of conquering the local-national tension: support the game itself. Back in league civilisation, she will spend the 2013 winter in Canberra. “I’ll be going to watch Raiders games, for sure. That’ll give me a fourth team.”

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.

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