While walking my dog around my locked down 5km radius of Sydney’s Inner West this week, I came across a discarded copy of Rugby League Week from March 2015 that someone had left out to be taken away.
Take it away I did, and, despite the magazine closing more than four years ago, I read my first ever copy of Rugby League Week.
It doesn’t seem an obvious place to start a discussion of the 2021 National Rugby League (NRL) season, but in terms of this column, in which the #NRLOutsider tries to pick apart accepted truisms in Australian rugby league, it is.
This column has been dark for a few months, largely because of fatigue from writing about the postponement of the Rugby League World Cup, but also because it’s hard to write interesting, engaging content about the game when you don’t get to leave your gaff.
What I have been doing in the interim period, like most league people, is watching, listening, reading, consuming and thinking about rugby league.
Not the game, because I’ve always done that and, frankly, could do that from anywhere, but the game, the ineffable rugby leagueiness of it all, the sense that the sport occupies a unique position both in popular culture and in Australian culture.
After a year of trying to get to grips with what the NRL actually is and where it stands in the grand scheme of things, here are some observations. Call me the Nino Culotta of the north of England.
The NRL media environment has no memory
It’s strange to think of a media environment having a memory, but the discovery of an old Rugby League Week planted this idea in my mind. Once upon a time, print allowed news stories to breathe, for journalists to reflect and for people to think for a longer period of time about events.
Now, in the 24 hour, fast turnover news cycle, there is no time for reflection. Obviously, this is not something limited to rugby league, but it is something that rugby league excels at. You find it in all areas where one sport dominates the media landscape: from Scottish football to Indian cricket to AFL, the need to shout loudest, be heard quickest and get your tweet shared is vital.
The story leads on the Channel 9 News, bounces around social media, all the familiar faces – Phil Gould, Phil Rothfield, Paul Kent sat around a table on NRL 360 – chip in and that feeds the frenzy more, before it extinguishes itself and is replaced by something new.
The point isn’t to actually discuss what is happening to get anywhere, but to discuss it for discussing’s sake: this is where Gould, the master coach, and Rothfield and Kent, the seasoned journalists, become Gus, Buzz and Kenty, more like guys in the pub than the experts that they are.
There’s something uniquely Australian, to my mind, about being on first name terms with everyone in the game, and in reducing complexities to essentialisms.
The experts become characters and at worst, caricatures. As the comedian Stewart Lee used to say of Jeremy Clarkson’s controversialisms, he had them to a deadline in The Times.
Again, this news cycle is far from unique to rugby league or to Sydney, but it is something that rugby league does not have to deal with elsewhere, and that the Sydney media environment is perfectly suited for.
Between March and October there is only one sport that matters, and the only news is local news, because we’re miles away from anything. Rugby league everywhere else in the world is at best second to football, and lives in a competing environment where it is one sport of many. Not here.
Australian rugby league can’t keep an idea in its head
Naturally in a media environment like this, it follows that linear, well thought-out ideas get little time to flourish. When every conversation has to be a spray and every debate a stoush, reasoned argument is an innocent bystander and the idea of building a hypothesis and testing it against facts over time goes out of the window.
This year might have been a vintage one for the two week outrage cycle, and but I doubt it. I think it’s always like this.
Since March, we’ve had everyone getting injured, everyone getting sent off and every game being lop-sided; as well as the new rules, the old rules, the eligibility, the indiscretions, the expansion and the endless, endless, endless transfer rumors.
The high shot crackdown, which was the death of the game for a week in April, has apparently ended, but then people keep getting sent off.
The NRL sent off roughly one player a year before this season, if you’d forgotten when the lack of a crackdown looks like. As any sane person could have predicted (and as was exactly the point of the crackdown) players have generally gotten better at tackling lower. The refs took a bit of time to get used to it, but then they did and that was that.
The blowouts were A Big Thing, but at the end of the year, we seem to have decided that maybe some of the teams are just way better than others. Sure, the new rules might make that a bit more obvious, but the team that came fifth had a record that would have won them the comp in 2018 and the team that came eighth won just over 40% of their games.
That’s a lopsided league you’ve got there, so it’s understandable that lots of the games were mismatches. This was, to me at least, quite obvious in May or so, but that it wouldn’t have made as good telly to say that 70% of the league isn’t that good.
Things that might actually matter for the sport barely get discussed at all. A whole World Cup was postponed and barely got a run on mainstream media. The NRLW was postponed with slightly more of a ripple, but still behind such pressing matters as that time a Bulldogs player got kicked out of a pub.
Perhaps this is me being sentimental, but when print publications existed, you did get a lot more time to think about things. Australia’s rugby league ecosystem is relentlessly tabloid. I’ve said before that there appears to be a general assumption that, as a game, people don’t think that it is worth any effort thinking through, and that is certainly the impression you would get from the coverage.
Rugby league is big time and that’s great
It’s easy to get annoyed at the way that things that you love are portrayed, because you love them and want them to be the best that they can be. Almost every Aussie that I have spoken to about rugby league gripes about it, usually from a position of affection, with a shopping list of complaints ranging from the media issues I get annoyed about to their team (Wests Tigers fans) to the way the game is run.
But take it from someone who grew up in the other heartland of the sport, in the north of England, where the sport is always in football’s shadow: living somewhere where rugby league is inescapable is brilliant. For those of us who call it The Greatest Game of All non-ironically, because it is actually the greatest sport on Earth, being in the place that cares the most about it is not to be sniffed at.
Origin, like it or not, genuinely stops the country. Everyone is in a tipping comp and talks about it around the office. You see people walking around in jerseys everywhere you go. The marketing, even when you know its marketing, is irresistibly good. Aussies might take these things as a given, but I don’t.
Absent-mindedly flicking through the channels last Sunday, I found that the Wallabies, Australia’s national team at rugby union, were playing the All Blacks, literally one of the most recognizable sporting teams on Earth, on a secondary channel while the main channel showed a game between a basket case, Wests Tigers, and the worst team in the NRL, the Canterbury Bulldogs.
Later, the excellent @FootyindustryAU Twitter reported that, in Sydney, 281,000 people watched an international rugby union game and 440,000 people watched two terrible rugby league teams play a meaningless fixture.
While it is, to paraphrase The Simpsons, easy to criticize (and fun too), it bears repeating that for all of the often poor quality of NRL coverage, there is so much of it about that there is always something good to be found.
In my time researching these articles, writing about the league and going out into the world (remember when that was allowed?) to report on the game, I have come across more engaged, passionate, and talented rugby league people than I can count. They exist in England, and in France, and around the world too, but not in such number and with such density.
While the second half of the NRL season was something of a write off, the first half gave me more rugby league experiences than I could have dreamed of. I stood on the hill at Leichhardt Oval when the Tigers broke the Panthers’ streak—tell anyone there that night that it was Penrith’s reserve team and see how much they care.
I was in the dressing room as the Kaiviti Silktails sang their victory hymn with tears dripping down their faces. I spent too many afternoons at the eighth wonder of the world, Henson Park, enjoying the game as a game, rather than a multimillion dollar business. I even saw Russell Crowe smile from his box.
The NRL Outsider will return next season for more coverage of rugby league in Australia. In the meantime, he’ll be covering cricket and other sports over the Australian summer.