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Mason Madness

Expert
17th October, 2006
6

Willie Mason is a fool who gives stupidity a bad name.

There has been endless television, newspaper and talkback radio commentary on what provoked Mason, a dinosaur of man (all body and a pinhead brain), to ostentatiously mouth foul comments during the haka before the Kiwis-Kangaroos rugby test at Auckland last weekend. The player himself, who was born in Auckland, justifies his obscenities, ‘He’s a f—-ing Aboriginal. What’s he doing’, on the grounds that he was trying to make a point about Brent Webb, the Kiwis fullback who is a Thursday Islander.

Roy Masters, the most authorative and readable of rugby league writers, put Mason’s obscentities down to the fact that ‘Big Willie’ suffers from Attention Deficit Syndrome: ‘He must have had the concentration of a gnat not to know the red light of the camera was staring him in the face’. And that is right. Mason is stupid but he is not blind. He knew what he was doing. He knew the camera was directed at him. He knew it would pick up his mouthed words. That is why he articulated them so clearly.

What is the explanation for this stupidity? In my view, Mason was trying to attack attention to himself because he had been relegated by coach Ricky Stuart to the subs bench for the hectic opening minutes of the test. There was a television shot early on in the test of Mason sitting morosely on the bench. He was out of the limelight, from a playing aspect. But by mouthing his obscentities so clearly during the haka he ensured that, at least after the test, he stood in the limelight again in the leadup to the next test at Melbourne on Saturday.

This is all very well for Mason’s insatiable requirement to be the centre of attention, his stupidity has ensured that he remains the unchallenged Paris Hilton of rugby league. But what is the value of this idiotic behaviour to the rugby league code? Aside from Masters most of the rugby league experts condoned Mason’s behaviour. Alan Jones, for instance, suggested on his influential breakfast program that the problem was with haka, which should be abolished, he suggested. During the Channel 9 commentary there was no real criticism of Mason’s obscentities but when he got smashed the commentator yelled out ‘good stuff!’

The intention of the 2006 Tri Nations series, with the Kangaroos unveiling a new logo especially for the event, is to give rugby league the sort of international presence that rugby union and football has. The officials, instead of punishing Mason by dropping him from the squad (something the Wallabies or Socceroos officials would do), have glorified in the thugby implications of the sledging, the illegal big hits and the all-in stouches that marred the game. And this blind eye to the on-field thuggery was endorsed, for instance, by the NZ senior rugby league writer John Coffey, who should know better: ‘Rather than critising Mason, the NZ Rugby League president Sel Bennett, should be thanking him for giving the Tri-Nations match a timely publicity boost’.

This attitude might play with die-hard league supporters of the old school who hold fast to Rex Mossop’s old dictum that ‘a good punch never hurt anyone’. But viewers, especially television watchers of sport, with an increasing number of females, want spectacle not the biff. American gridiron learnt this lesson a decade or ago and took the rugby league-style opportunistic violence out of their game. The ratings went up markedly. Rugby union is doing the same thing. Viewers of the enthralling Cheetahs–Bulls final of the Currie Cup in South Africa would have seen the excellent referee Jonathan Kaplan penalize a Bulls player for sledging an opponent. ‘I won’t have that’, Kaplan told the players.

The result was a confrontational match with exciting running and tackling and an even scoreline after extra time. In New Zealand, there was the same sort of rugby played in the two semi-finals of the Air New Zealand Cup (the old NPC tournament) with vibrant, expansive and hard-shouldered rugby leading the way. There were no obscenities no all-in brawls and tolerance of head-high and illegal tackling that marked the league tests.

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Rugby league’s indulgence of back-to-the past thugby and to foul-mouthed sledgers is a recipe for the game losing support, in time, from the new audiences that pay television is bringing to international sport.