Sledging is as much a part of Australian sport as mullets, moustaches and ‘taking it one game at a time’. Here is a look at sledging throughout the ages.
Sledging is the term sportspeople use to describe an insult or attempt at verbal intimidation. Basically, to sledge is to try to annoy an opponent to the point of putting them off their game.
In professional sports, any possible advantage must be explored and thus a good sledger can potentially rattle an opponent as much as a solid shot to the ribs.
Whence did the sledge originate?
Cricket commentators claim that their sport invented the art and coined the term, but my own careful research has revealed some countervailing clues buried deep in rugby league’s storied past.
Rugby league was very popular during the fourth dynasty of the Egyptian Empire.
According to Egyptologist Dr ZQ Fudgebutter in his seminal work “rugby league Among the Ancients”, match report hieroglyphs from the Giza Necropolis details a sledge from one player to his opposite, apparently ridiculing the size of his chariot.
An extract from his book takes up the story:
“The “sledgee” lost his cool and threw one of those “walk like an Egyptian” punches in retaliation. Unfortunately for the Giza Giants, he was sent off for conduct unbecoming.
“Emperor Cheops, who was coaching the Giants at the time, was enraged and had the referee’s village burned to the ground and the soil salted by way of revenge.”
Puritans played league after their Sunday church service. For some reason Puritanical men were always very uptight and rugby league was a good way to blow off some steam.
Documents recovered from a crypt beneath Roslyn Chapel in Scotland tell of a winger named John Forsythe.
During a typical Sunday match, Forsythe palmed off Pastor Thomas Llewellyn and raced away to score in the corner.
A frustrated Llewellyn sledged:
“And the man that will do presumptuously, and will not hearken unto the priest that standeth to minister there before the LORD thy God, or unto the judge, even that man shall die: and thou shalt put away the evil from Israel.”
This zinger subsequently made it into the Bible (and almost into Pulp Fiction).
Age of Reason
Gentlemen scholars of this period took their leisure any way they saw fit, and more often than not, a brisk game of rugby league was just the ticket.
As head of the Royal Society, Joseph Banks moved its headquarters to Somerset House in 1780, because it had a good footy field out the back.
The minutes of the proceedings of the Royal Society show that during the first match played on this ground, early in the second half, Sir John Pringle sledged opposing hooker Archibald Alison with the immortal line:
“Hearken to me young Alison. Thy headgear hideth the span of thine ears; to wit, without it thy neck wouldst be spun athwart should the north wind blow a gale!
“Indeed ’tis unfortunate yon girlie helmet doth not cover more of thy piggish countenance. Thy mother dons the heavy tread of the common soldier and thy father hath been noted wearing yon ladies ballroom slippers.”
By the time his sledge had finished, full time had been blown.
Early 20th Century
As rugby league established itself in the working suburbs of Sydney, it attracted some of the toughest men ever to lace a boot.
However, the social mores of the time were decidedly conservative and what we would today consider to be a bit of light-hearted banter would have led to simmering blood feuds during this period.
One notable case was the famous story involving Cecil Merkin, the tough front rower for the Glebe Ostriches.
Merkin had a long-running rivalry with his Balmain Dachshunds opposite, Cyril Gusset.
During a tense match, Merkin enquired after the health of Gusset’s wife. Enraged, Gusset started pounding Merkin’s face with his fists.
These two stood trading blows while the fans from both sides began the mother of all in brawls. Hours later, the two props were still hammering away at each other’s faces while the surrounding streets burned to the ground.
Old men still recall the resulting police action fondly.
Thus we have seen that the art of sledging has always been a part of our great game and rugby league would be the poorer without its barbed sting.