Violence or apathy? Rugby league at a crossroads

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Paul Gallen and four of his Sharks teammates have a lot of head scratching to do. AAP Image/Action Photographics, Renee McKay

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On Monday night’s Q&A program, serial ranter and former Labor leader Mark Latham turned heads with his attack on the “tut-tut brigade”, who, in his view, are trying to push violence out of rugby league.

At first glance, it is easy to dismiss this as one bloke trading on the blokey culture of the game as a way of trying to prove that he is, in fact, just one of the blokes.

Surely the only thing worse than a politician trying to prove that he’s ‘one of us’ is a former corporate lawyer turned politician turning up to a television program in a leather jacket. Mark Latham is no ordinary bloke, and Malcolm Turnbull, try as he might, is no Marlon Brando.

Neither is fooling us.

According to Latham, if you love rugby league, you would have loved watching Paul Gallen reign blows on Nate Myles’ head. Gallen’s only crime, says the former Labor leader, was that his punches connected.

Amidst all the outrage about those punches, Latham’s forthright views went straight to the heart of the issue.

While I don’t consider myself the violent type, and have never had an enduring appetite for blood sports, he has a point. Without condoning the incident, it is difficult to make sense of all this anti-violence rhetoric in rugby league.

The fact is, violence, brutality and physical toughness is woven into the very fabric of rugby league culture. Get rid of it, and it’ll be hard to know what’s left.

I don’t get along to many league games, and these days only occasionally watch it on television. The sport lost me in my mid teens to other pursuits.

But as a child, I loved the game, brought up on a diet of Brisbane Broncos and Queensland by my dad, who often referenced the game in his own writing.

I never played league. I would never have been brave enough to face the physicality of the game.

But as a child, like many others I suspect, what drew me to league was it’s sheer physicality and no-nonsense culture.

There is something to be said for a bunch of extraordinarily ordinary guys cannoning into each other with such ferocity.

It wasn’t a culture that I could ever belong to in a meaningful way, but it was still fascinating.

Players like Gorden Tallis had me captivated, not because of his skill, but because of his courage and his ruthless physicality.

His famous collar-slinging tackle on Brett Hodgson typified all that I loved about league.

Friends of mine that played the game would tell stories of broken noses, dislocated shoulders and other traumatic tales which always seemed to end the same way – they popped it back in and kept playing.

Clearly, physical toughness is a characteristic that is drummed into league players early on.

The first game I went to as a kid was between South Sydney and St George, back when Nathan Brown had curly long blonde locks.

I have only two memories of the day out. The first was of a player having a spasm on the field after copping a sickening knee to the temple, but playing on anyway.

The other was the sheer roughness of the fans. A fat guy in a ill-fitting old Souths jersey sat in front of me, slowly tipping his beer out onto the ground as his attention was held hostage by a Rabbitohs attack.

Further down an even fatter man yelled obscenities at a Channel Nine helicopter that flew overhead.

I’d never seen anything like it. It was a little scary, but very genuine and very enjoyable.

But league is a strange game now, one that seems determined to constantly parody itself.

Like our other football codes, it’s been caught up in the quest to be all things to all men.

These days, AFL is supposedly the beacon of multiculturalism, soccer doesn’t want to talk about wogs and rugby union isn’t just a game for private school boys.

Rugby league is similarly trapped between two worlds.

On the one hand, it’s a profoundly working class game with working class roots. But on the other hand, it’s now a commercial juggernaut, with little time for any of the excesses of it’s former self.

Not that long ago, pretty boy Craig Wing was the outlier. Now it seems everyone is a walking work of tattoo art, complete with the waxed chest and the show muscles.

The Nathan Hindmarsh “cheap schooeys at the leagues club” type seems rarer by the day.

Players don the pink jerseys, but there is always another sex scandal just around the corner.

The players are meant to be gladiators and risk-takers on the field and pillars of the community off it.

South Sydney play in a pre-fabricated, soulless suburb in Homebush, which is both culturally and geographically well outside their traditional heartland.

The game just seems confused by itself.

It all comes to a head in State of Origin, where RnB artists with white moonboots share the space with our favourite over-excitable bogan Phil Gould.

The whole thing becomes a bizarre and thoroughly amusing spectacle.

Paul Gallen’s punches on Nate Myles weren’t particularly impressive or shocking.

As far as I’m concerned, fretting about violence in rugby league is akin to complaining about noise at a rock concert.

However primal and unexplainable it may be, if you don’t get some kind of enjoyment out of it you’re in the wrong place.

The punches might have been stupid, but they weren’t what worried me. Since he infamously took a drunken dump in a hotel hallway in 2009, I’ve always thought Nate Myles deserved a clip around the ear.

What worried me was how staged the whole incident seemed. It certainly wasn’t Artie Beetson mate-on-mate stuff.

Fights in Origin have lost all meaning. We’ve been so overfed with footage of guys belting each other that we know it’s just a matter of time before the players go through their routine slugging matches.

The players seem to know that we expect it of them. Paul Gallen certainly does anyway.

In the end, Gallen’s one-two on Myles caused a bit of bruising, but there was no real harm done.

Calling it “a great Origin moment” might be stretching it a bit, but worse damage has been done by crunching tackles that are considered fair and within the rules of the game.

Like most sports fans, league lovers know that their game is best at it’s rawest. I don’t envy the job of rugby league administrators.

How are they supposed to balance the fans willingness for blood with the pressure to stamp out violence? How do you legislate in such a complicated environment? Where does violence in rugby league start and end?

Joe Gorman is a football journalist with a particular interest in sports history. After completing his thesis on football in Australia, Joe started with The Roar in October 2012. He tweets from @JoeGorman_89.
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