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It has come to my attention in recent weeks that there are those among my valued readership who have become distressed by the negativity displayed in my writing.
In particular, comments on my last column made it clear that there was a perception that I “hate” rugby league and “have nothing positive to say about the game” and am an “idiot” who writes “crap”.
Frankly, I was shocked and dismayed when I became aware of this. It upsets me more than I can say to think anyone might have got the impression that I do not love sport, and in particular rugby league, the greatest pastime ever invented.
I would like to apologise to anyone who detected a hint of negativity in my past writings on the NRL, and this column is dedicated to those people. I promise it will be an entirely positive column, celebrating all that is great about the game, and not touching on any problems, of which, if we are honest, there are none.
First of all, let’s acknowledge that the game itself is absolutely perfect. It has the athleticism of track and field, the violence of mixed martial arts, the breakneck pace of ice hockey, and the fierce, exhilarating tribalism of soccer. It’s every great aspect of other sports rolled into one.
In fact, it’s not just other sports that rugby league epitomises the best of. The NRL is the showcase for a game that exceeds all other human endeavours in general worthwhileness.
There is no television show, for example, as dramatic as the field goal that won last year’s grand final, nor is there any as funny as the wacky antics of Cronulla’s phone-microwaving class clown Fa’amanu Brown.
No Renaissance masterpiece was ever as artistic as a Jamie Soward 40-20, nor has any musician ever written a melody as sweet as the Melbourne Storm victory song.
Rugby league has, essentially, rendered all the rest of human culture obsolete. You’ve got to think that anyone still attending concerts, movies, art exhibitions and so forth is just being pigheaded.
But it’s not just the perfection of the game that impresses so much: it’s also the proactive approach of the game’s administrators who, even though they’re sitting pretty on the ideal product, never stop working to make sure not even the hint of a flaw could ever creep in.
Consider that aforementioned field goal. It was the result of ‘golden point’, an innovation created years ago to make sure the game maximised its excitement factor at all times. The men in charge knew there was a risk of people getting bored with the constant, tension-free draws that were cluttering up the season, and so they acted.
And they didn’t just settle for ordinary extra-time, because they knew there was a risk of people getting bored with teams playing normal rugby league for another 20 minutes at the end of one of those constant draws. Instead, they introduced a rule that ensured every drawn game would be transformed into a thrilling, action-packed, non-stop rollercoaster ride of field-goal attempts. And so boredom was staved off forever.
The same bold spirit was behind the changes to the rules regarding stealing the ball, striking in the play-the-ball, and contested scrums: they knew there was a risk of people getting bored with teams having a way to use skill to win the ball back from the opposition, and they eliminated that risk.
And we’re only talking about on-field action: off the field, rugby league knocks every other recreation into a cocked hat.
Everyone knows there ain’t no party like an NRL party cos an NRL party don’t stop. And phone-microwaving is only the beginning! When the drinks are flowing and the party’s heating up, you better believe a leaguey is there.
Nobody encapsulates the fun-loving, laidback, good-time, living-life-to-the-fullest, fun-loving, loveable, roguish, fun-loving larrikin that Australia is so proud of more than a rugby league player.
Always ready to down a beer and shout a round and cut a rug and paint the town red and buy a kebab and get punched in the head and wet himself and accidentally use a racial slur, the professional NRL superstar is the genial life of every party. Without them our community would be a hell of a lot duller.
Not that they’re not canny businessmen when they need to be. When you see how much the average player is paid, you can’t help but admire their financial savvy. And when you see how much their club has exceeded the salary cap by, you can’t help but applaud the unstoppable will to win driving that club onward, while also celebrating that anti-authoritarian streak that has inspired Australians from the days of Ned Kelly all the way up to the Parramatta Eels.
And the wonderful thing is that you can celebrate that while also rejoicing once more that those forward-thinking administrators have found a way to stave off boredom yet again, enforcing the salary cap to prevent anyone getting bored with seeing players play for the same team over and over again for up to two years in a row.
But what would any sport be without its fans, and rugby league has, without doubt, the greatest fans of anything in the history of everything. Just the other night I was at Olympic Park, and some of the enthusiasts surrounding me filled my heart with gladness.
It’s not just the love for their team that inspires, but their helpful natures. I lost count of the number of spectators helping the referees out by letting them know when the opposition was inside the ten, or when a tackle was too high, or when it was about time they did something or other. And they helped the players out too, advising them of when it was time to run, or tackle, or get up you weak dog.
Suffused through all their interactions was a genuine love of the game, and appreciation of a good, fair contest. I would venture to say that up to 20 per cent of that crowd loved the game to the extent they had learnt the rules, and what other sport could say that?
Yes, whether it’s the astounding feats of the elite sportsmen on the field, the wacky off-field antics of the irresistible personalities of the code, the quicksilver intellects of the boys in administration, or the gentle humanity of the fan community, rugby league truly has it all.
And you won’t see me saying anything negative about this prince of pastimes, not until that day that someone finds a better way for humans to spend their time. And I don’t expect that day anytime soon.