The off-season brings withdrawal pain which must be soothed. I chose to learn about the sport of rugby league.
RobC told me to watch the 2015 NRL grand final, for my first exposure to the cousin of union.
Here is how I saw it. The Cowboys and the Broncos: an evocative mascot battle. Who will ride who; who will break the other?
Big fellows on both teams, but not as much difference in height or weight inside the squads, as in union.
Only one anthem is sung, by a lovely lass wearing a blazer and no detectable shirt.
The water boys stay on the pitch until the very last second.
The kickoffs are hoofed high, long and straight up the middle, all game.
The Cowboys send three tacklers at the Bronco ball carriers: one high, one low, and one to do some Greco-Roman wrestling.
I am amazed at the energy expended in the post-tackle. The carrier scoots and slides and crawls, then writhes in painful contortions, humping the earth as if it is a mistress; while the tacklers grapple and grope and molest him, but take their leave one by one, with parting fends and lazy knees. It is a tackle orgy.
For a while, the hit-ups are just runs, at full speed, with full facial contact between upright behemoths. It is a fearful and wonderful sight, in the heat, and I wonder how long they can continue in that manner.
In the first few ‘series,’ there are no second passes, just flips without spiral from the ‘dummy half,’ and then at 3:09, the first second pass happens, and it is knocked on. The next one is spilled, too.
And the teams go back to full frontal charge and post-tackle wriggle.
These pumped up boys just keep bulldozing, and James Tamou, who looks like a tall Damian de Allende, looks impressive. I start to think who in union would do well in this code, and de Allende does come to mind, with his strong frame, quick feet, powerful leg drive, and thirst for collisions.
The commentators are wildly wordy; there is no moment of contemplation or silence. They are outraged when a big grey-haired man named Corey bangs over a penalty for two points, but it seemed logical to take those points from 40 metres out.
Then, immediately afterward, a quick offload and a lanky guy also named Corey was set free on the wing on the simplest of overlaps, with no apparent burner speed to track back and cover, no Beauden Barrett to run down Willie le Roux, the big lad slid in (on his face) to score, and it was 8-0 for the Broncos after eight minutes.
The Cowboys’ body language seemed fine, to me, though. They look calm, and the amount of regular possession each team is bound to receive is reminiscent of US sports like basketball.
The tackle five, last tackle options are like little crescendos, much like the NBA shot clock, and just like in the NBA, you can sometimes get a rare offensive rebound and win a repeat set of six.
A guy named Johnathan Thurston is getting adulation from the commentators, but in truth, he didn’t have a great first half, except that his last tackle options were the most surprising and diverse.
I soon realise there is no marking of the ball when fielding an up-and-under, which means there are absurd collisions.
A Bronco spill leads to a Cowboy ‘scrum’ in a deep attacking position. It seems as if you can pack the scrum however it suits your first phase attack plan, because no scrummaging is needed.
Sure enough, the ball is fed in and a hooker picks it up, dummies two Broncos, breaks the line, pops up to a number three who carries three Broncos over the try line, and quick as you like, it’s 8-6.
I notice that league post-try celebrations are efficient, because everyone is the same height.
The 10m separation rule and the fact that being isolated in the tackle is no danger results in sickening momentum.
The teams joust back and forth.
Then, a fifth phase up-and-under by the Cowboys, and their no one remarkably claims it clean right under the noses of the Broncos, which I believe wins the Cowboys another set of six but a great corner tackle by that man Corey Oates saves the try.
After a while, the Cowboys launch a backline move that looks exactly like a Wallaby first phase movement. It’s lovely.
But then the Broncos march right back, using a 76-metre gain.
Stalemate: both teams are gaining 50 metres easily, but can’t punch through in the red zone; Thurston experimented with stab kicks but none worked.
The tackles are starting to resemble Krav Maga.
The Broncos looked a bit more fluid than the Cowboys when they launched the occasional backline move, but knock-ons killed their plans.
The Cowboys used shorter passes and relentless support runners who appeared on time, with great lines.
The TV would show a stat simply named ‘ERRORS.’ Broncos three Cowboys two.
I liked that madness; no analytics, no category. Just errors.
After getting the holy mess knocked out of him, the little Thurston guy with scrum cap won another set of six cleverly, and set big Tamou free. He was too big and strong and it was 12-8 for the Cowboys.
From then, Thurston tried to be Dan Carter or Jonny Sexton and keep the Broncos pinned in their own half. The Broncos retaliated by using sevens-style passing, and got back into the red zone, but the Cowboys survived with good spot tackling in space.
Thurston was doing his best to be involved in everything, both good and bad. After he lost the ball in contact, and showed his disgust, the Broncos had a fresh set of six deep in Cowboy territory, and a David Pocock lookalike with great hands scored a try. The TMO was sponsored by KFC.
14-12 to the Broncos, who probably deserved a lead.
Thurston tried to compensate for his lapse with a searing break and pass, and then a speculative cross kick.
But halftime came after five more bashes and a futile kick.
Cheerleaders! A good thing.
A big Bronco interviewed at halftime: “We gave them too much opportunity.”
The commentator: “A brilliant exhibition; selling our game to the world.”
I wasn’t blown away, but it was entertaining. I found it easy to look away from the 300 tackles after a while, because of the ‘sameness’ and the NBA-style change of possession. But it was definitely better than watching soccer.
The Cowboys started the second half with malice. But an error gave the Broncos the ball. A Cowboy twisted the arm of a Bronco, who acted like he’d been armbarred by Ronda Rousey.
The Broncos took the two points which seemed like a good outcome for the Cowboys, really. 16-12 Broncos.
Handbags ensued after a Cowboy forearm to a Bronco jaw. It was just like union – a lot of sparring, but very little in it.
For about 10 minutes it was big hits, big kicks, both sides just waiting for the other to make an error.
Salients and skirmishes, but only 50 metre gains, and then a kick.
At 58 minutes in, the TV commentators said Thurston kicked a grubber to “get some thinking time.”
For three minutes, the Cowboys were camped on the Bronco tryline, but then a big runner ‘spilled his lollies.’
The game tightened up. The players seemed nervous now, given the stakes, the score, the scene, and the clock.
A double movement ruled out an attempted Cowboy try that came from a botched offload.
The errors were Broncos 6, Cowboys 7.
With ten minutes to go, it was still 16-12 Broncos, and then nine minutes to go, and then eight.
Thurston was making a lot of errors, but they didn’t seem to be counted as errors – the commentators just kept calling him a genius.
With five minutes to go, I was thinking the Cowboys would have to do something different to score.
The TV guys said: “Next try wins.”
A scrum, then a tip tackle by the Bronco named Ben Hunt, a crunching tackle of Thurston who was crabbing sideways and running in circles, but then …
“A giant fairy tale!” screamed the commentator.
A superb back-handed offload to the wing, and there it was: a try.
And all that was needed was a conversion.
Teammates talked to Thurston. A coach, too.
He removed his scrum cap, fixed his hair, put the cap back on.
He moved people away.
He placed his tee incorrectly; the ref corrected him. He replaced it, still incorrectly.
“Crowning glory; fulfillment of destiny.” The commentators were sure the plot was set for a majestic Thurston winner. “This is for immortality. Give him silence, people.”
The wait was at least three minutes; which in any sport, does not help the performer. Lactic acid, and so forth. Mental yips.
Apparently, Thurston had a groin injury, because his low, ducklike kick was shocking. He was lucky to hit the posts, really. That Cowboys’ shotgun needed realignment.
And so, it was extra time.
“Ask the football gods why they denied him. HIM!” The commentators seemed very sad.
But then the gods taketh away, and they also giveth.
Ben Hunt dropped the kickoff.
And Thurston dropped a field goal over for the win.
Errors: Broncos 13 Cowboys 10.
Tackles made: 626.
The golden point seemed unfair to me; but the game was highly entertaining.