Glamour and grit: Jessica Mauboy helps launch the rugby league season last week. Photo: Brendan Esposito Mitchell Pearce grapples with Greg Inglis during last year’s clash at ANZ Stadium. Photo: Brendan Esposito
Officials will be hoping the opening game on Thursday between Souths and the Roosters will be as exciting as last year’s clash. Photo: Brendan Esposito
This time it is Cronulla. So the allusion seems apt. There is one thing more optimistic than leaving the porch light on for Harold Holt. Expecting an NRL season to start without the stench of controversy.
It was with an aching inevitability whisperings of alleged performance enhancement by the Sharks became a public roar on the eve of the kick-off. Too inevitable, the conspiracy theorists might mutter, given ASADA’s need to add substance to talk of illegal substances.
Regardless of the timing, wrongdoers must be punished. But, as ever, the innocents suffer. The fans. The Roosters and Souths. A packed house. Sonny Bill Williams transformed from feather duster to a Rooster. All the spine-tingling optimism of March. No one has lost a game, sacked a coach or spilled a beer.
It should be a time to celebrate the game, not investigate it. To run an eye across the team and ask “What do you think?” Or, more pertinently – what does she think?
The regeneration of league since the madness of the Super League war has followed a steady course. Those heartland faithful disillusioned by impertinent modern-day intrusions returned. Except George Piggins. At the Fox Sports launch on Tuesday, the disaffected Souths stalwart said he would be watching the Rabbitohs from his couch. “I can’t go to the games,” he said. “Someone will say the wrong thing [to me], and I’ll blow up.”
The chattering classes came back. Even those suits who were embarrassed to admit their alliance in polite company because of the game’s tarnished reputation. The Wallabies and Swans provided more civilised alternatives. Soccer carves a deeper niche. But in the north and the east, as well as the west, Sydney again seems like a league town.
For the NRL, that was the easy part. Putting the pieces back together. But the promises of vast growth in support and revenue rely on new markets and new fans. Lipstick Leaguies.
The NRL emphasised the importance of women to the game, even as it continues to embrace the vacuous frippery of cheerleaders. Most prominently, there was the appointment of commissioner Catherine Harris. However, there is something jarring about the NRL’s “Women in League” campaign. The title betrays female displacement, rather than suggesting natural inclusion. Just as “men in lingerie shops” evokes the image of a bewildered bloke in a female domain.
For the NRL to entice women, more than symbolism is required. It is wrong to assume all women are repulsed by the biff and bash, or do not enjoy the beer-soaked outer or the smell of fried food.
But, as the AFL has demonstrated, the majority of women want to watch sport in a safer, more comfortable environment. Not because they love their club any less. Because they have lapped their male counterparts in the evolutionary grand prix.
The NRL is flirting self-consciously with the female ticket buyer. The new advertising campaign more resembles an old tampon commercial than the thumping anthems of the past. The one where, thanks to the latest product, women develop a monthly appetite for parachuting, hang gliding or, in this case, rugby league. Not a shoulder charge in sight.
Promoting a female-friendly image is one thing. Convincing those who take in a game to come back is more difficult. Can the NRL provide better stadiums or improve the best of the old ones? Can it prove – rather than merely claim – women are more than incubators for future stars, glamorous red-carpet companions and match-day hot dog makers? Can it project to women the image of the many professional, likeable, community-minded, family-oriented players? Or will it allow the self-defeating introversion of media-shy coaches and officials bury the game’s greatest assets?
If the NRL wants to become girls talk, Thursday night’s game is a good place to start the conversation. The Rabbitohs and Roosters provide, potentially, the two most intriguing storylines of the season. The astutely managed Souths tilting at windmills again. The strangely Machiavellian Roosters ushering Williams back into the game, and adding the talented Michael Jennings without as much fanfare.
It is an encounter that presents one aspect of the NRL that has grown and improved at a startling rate. The game itself. The NRL’s plea to potential female fans thinking of heading to Allianz Stadium? You go girl!
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.