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Rugby League: stuck between a rock like fist and a hard headed place

Roar Guru
13th June, 2013
25

31st May 1993. Game three of that years State of Origin series and two boof heads inevitably find each other.

As a 17-year-old rugby league fan and player I remember moving forward expectantly in my chair as I heard Fatty Vautin utter the words “there’s a blue on”.

Big Marty Bella, or as my brother and I called him sizeable Martin Beautiful, was flailing wildly at Paul ‘the Chief’ Harragon.

Seldom did Bella look anything but cumbersome when on a football field, but his fighting style on this occasion was laugh out loud hysterical in its awkwardness, a fact that led his head to horribly assault the Chief’s fists on numerous occasions.

My brother and I are not only big Blues fans but the chief was also our favourite player, a respect we dubiously displayed in naming our female border collie pup ‘Chief’ after the Novacastrian prop.

The fight raged for an hilarious 30 seconds which had us both on our feet screaming at ‘The Chief’ to knock Bella’s block off.

To quote Laurie Daley, it was a ‘great origin moment’ and one that reverberates through origin promos to this day.

The week after that pugilistic night my schoolboy rugby league team were taking on our archenemies.

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This much anticipated annual match-up was bookmarked each year less for the competitiveness of the games and more for the expected dust ups that inevitably occurred.

The violence that was anticipated was personified in the fact that both schools’ assistant principals turned up and addressed their respective teams before the match, espousing the virtues of fair play and not to give in to the devil that is the biff.

The much hyped and publicised Origin fight was directly referred to as an example of ‘the horrible’ behaviour we should avoid.

It was of course all to no avail. Fifteen minutes into the match all schoolboy hell broke loose.

Much like the Origin ‘fight’ the week before the two teams big men (boys) came noggin to noggin and words were exchanged.

No one knew exactly what was said but being the early nineties it it’s a good chance the words included some embarrassingly concocted, unfunny ‘mum joke’, something along the lines of:

Boof head 1: ‘get off me’

Boof head 2: ‘that’s not what ya mum said last night’

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The ensuing all in brawl was one of those seminal moments in teenage boyhood, as I landed what would be my one and only punch in sporting anger.

My ‘victim’, a large and rather brutish second rower, was holding down a teammate of mine while a fellow assailant was doing his best to crack said teammates jaw.

As I swung my fist I anticipated the punch would have the equivalent power of a megaton bomb landing on the chin of the opposing man-child. It would surely be enough to send the ogre crashing to Earth.

As I metered out my own skinny kid form of retribution I felt the cold spectre of regret suddenly descend, and not because of the damage I had caused this alleged human being.

No, the oaf himself had felt nothing. His only reaction was to flick his large head, much like one does when a mosquito is being annoying.

He continued his dirty work.

The regret was for my inept teenage fists, clearly more Justin Beiber than Justin Hodges. I slinked to the back of the brawling throngs and began to unpick the mass of bodies, sheepishly avoiding the gaze of my intended knock out.

The game was summarily cancelled, principals were called and players were suspended from the rest of the competition.

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But the irony of watching a professional game being promoted and celebrated through fighting while schoolboys were castigated for the same thing was not lost on any of us, even as 17 year olds.

Flash forward to Orgin Game 1, 2013.

When Paul Gallen landed his rights on the cement like noggin of Nate Myles I felt a stirring within my bones.

I was up out of my chair cheering on the Blues pugilistic hero, a remarkable enough reaction as being a Dragons fan requires one to naturally feel instant disdain for any Cronulla Shark.

I’m not one to consider myself a supporter of violence, and as the previous story points out I’m clearly not very good at it.

So as I turned to see Channel 9 leading out of a commercial break with a full highlighted replay of the stink backed by dramatic something-grand-is-happening music, I suddenly thought of all those young minds watching that very sequence.

And It all seemed a bit, well, a bit….dirty!

Not necessarily the fight itself nor its apparent lead up, as both combatants have variously been described throughout their careers as ‘hard men’ at best and ‘grubs’ at worst. They deserved each other at that flash point in time.

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The feeling of uncleanliness had something to do with being embarrassed at my excitement for the prospect of an Origin stink.

It had even more to do with the realisation that a game I love is stuck between the rock solid fists and hard-headed places of its own celebrated historical toughness.

I tried to imagine if other sports used violence to promote and endorse their brands.

If baseball used an all in brawl, football used Zinadine Zidane’s admittedly hilarious head-butt during the 2006 World Cup final.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vF4iWIE77Ts.

Or the NBA used the ‘Malice at the Palace’

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLUbycSKAqY.

I could not imagine it because the games would not allow it.

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Yet as has been constantly discussed this past week, league allows its own violent confrontations to promote its most marketable event.

While many league followers (your truly included) have espoused the virtues of the Origin stink, as the coach and players themselves did publicly.

Far from being a sopping wet doona on the fight club mentality of Origin football, I too will no doubt secretly feel a pang of excitement should their be a part two in the Myles v Gallen rumble, all the while publicly voicing and believing in the detrimental effect it may have on our impressionable youth.

But its this brutalist limbo that the game finds itself in that again highlights the strange position rugby league occupies as a member of the modern day sporting landscape.

It is a landscape where sports are increasingly becoming safety and brand conscious, and public perception is key.

It seems its the game’s public perception that will ultimately need to change, and for rugby league and its fans this will happen for better or worse.