How do you fix a game that doesn’t acknowledge it requires fixing?
Young journalists fortunate enough to be mentored at the knee of the late, great editor of Inside Sport magazine, Greg Hunter, would often hear the missive: “Don’t pick at your own scabs”.
What he meant is that it’s not wise for journalists to bang on about journalism, because outside of those one percenters actually in the game, who gives a damn?
The Huntsman would also have disapproved of journalists talking only to other journalists, and so being cocooned. His mantra was that you had to spread the love, spread the net, and squeeze the husk out the lemon, baby.
So it goes without saying that quoting other journos in a piece was anathema.
And the man could make a case. For sure it’s a slow enough old news day if journos are eating their own.
But of course, there are exceptions.
Exhibit A: the Rugby League World Cup
Yes, the good old Rugby League World Cup is upon us and so far fairly muted in its marketing. There are a few reasons for that.
There’s a horse called Winx taking up column inches given it’s a lay-down misere to win a third straight Cox Plate. Curiously such domination is considered good, unlike that of Australia’s rugby league team which is Winx-like odds on ($1.10) to win the World Cup, and people think that’s bad.
As one former footy man told me over coffee this week, there’s a “manufactured” feel to the RLWC. Lebanon, Scotland, Italy, Ireland, the USA, Canada… There are three ‘Groups’ and none of death. They’re keeping the minnows from the sharks.
Sure, Tonga has recruited a decent lick of NRL talent and might even sneak into the final. And it’ll be fun watching Samoa bash the Kiwis and Papua New Guinea do the same to Wales in Port Moresby.
But for storylines, there’s an English maths genius, a Lebanese fellah who trains humping logs in the tundra, and players who paid for their own flights in a tournament for which Australia’s players will receive $50,000 each. And only this when, and not if, they win.
But as a wise man wrote in this very space last week, let us not dwell on the sour low-hanging fruit. Let us instead try to make sense of the thing.
And to do that let’s blow the Huntsman’s edict out the water and corner old mate ‘Mascy’, Steve Mascord – the leaguiest league journo in the land.
You could do worse.
For to say our man Mascy merely loves rugby league is akin to suggesting Imelda Marcos had a bit of a thing for shoes.
Mascy loves rugby league like a monk loves to beat a gong so he can go to monk heaven. Mascy loves rugby League so much he wrote a book, Touchstones, which chronicled a year-long journey of self-discovery to find out if so loving rugby league had cost him too much of everything else.
(It seems it did not. But a bit of balance isn’t the worst thing.)
So, yes, Mascy’s a bit of a nut, but in a good way. He’s a good egg, a top seed, a fine and shiny blue-black chunk of coal from the rich seams of the Illawarra escarpment.
And Mascy knows everything. That’s not a throwaway line. He does. He knows everything about rugby league there is to know.
Consider: Mascy’s been a journo for over 30 years. He used to kick the pill back to John Dorahy at Steelers training down the Gong. There’s a picture of him from 1982 or so, this beaming kid, running out with Peter Peters, old mate ‘Zorba’, a great shaggy beast in small footy shorts. They’re smiling together. It’s a cool pic.
In many ways, Mascy’s remained that kid and you should buy his book even if you, like me – sorry mate – think heavy metal is squealing Dracula music for pot-heads.
And so! With the Rugby League World Cup so far sort of hard to really love like a man loves a particularly loyal and super-fast greyhound that’s been blooded on the most nimble of opossums, it behoves us to ask our man Mascy what he reckons.
So, what do you reckon, Mascy? Bit excited?
“I can’t remember ever being this excited about a rugby league event,” he says. “I remember the tournament in 2002, there was an ad that showed rugby league wasn’t just western Sydney and Brisbane. It showed all the players coming from different countries. And we all bought into it.
“Even the Sydney tabloid media, which had always given short shrift to international footy, had actually bought in.
“And then in the final, big crowd, 30,000, anticipation about the game… And Australia won 64-10. Scored thirteen tries. The game looked ridiculous.”
Next day the Sydney Morning Herald cranked up a headline, describing “the death of international rugby league: 1908 – 2002”. Mascord felt downcast, even “betrayed”.
“We all felt let down. It felt like being conned for giving it publicity.
“But mate, that ad is on the television again. And a lot of what I’ve been banging on about for 20 years is actually happening.”
There’s a way to go, adds Mascord. “The RLIF has one employee. There’s an office in London, Fitzrovia. It’s the headquarters of rugby league in the world. It’s below street level, which is symbolic.”
Fun fact: The Global Association of International Sports Federations has accepted arm wrestling, dodgeball, foot golf, kettlebell lifting, poker, pole sports and table soccer.
But not rugby league. In many countries there’s no differentiation between rugby codes. In Morocco, league matches are shut down. In the United Arab Emirates, rugby league is illegal.
So what needs to be done so that by the 2025 World Cup there are four or five countries that can actually win? And for the likes of Italy, Lebanon, USA and so on to be second-tier nations with a genuine chance of knocking over the giants?
More of the same – but lots more, according to Mascord.
“It is difficult,” he says. “But consider Tonga. You talk to [Italy coach] Cameron Ciraldo, he says the thing that’s overlooked in the Tongans’ talk of ‘family’ and ‘pride in the jumper’ and so on is that the players actually think they can make the final. That was a reason those guys decided to play for Tonga.
“Ciraldo reckons that when his players, James Tedesco and Paul Vaughan, actually believe they can make the final, they could choose Italy over Australia.
“I mean, there hasn’t been a game yet but plenty of people think Tonga can make the final. So there’s four countries that can, which is an improvement.
“I also like the trend of countries bringing more domestic players. It’s happening more than it has this World Cup. Ireland’s brought a few, the USA has brought a lot. Lebanon has five from Lebanon.
“If the trend continues, the people who’ll say it’s a joke will have to say it’s less of a joke! [Laughs] In order for the World Cup to be less of a joke we need a few more jokes. We need to raise money with more jokes.”
It’s estimated this World Cup will earn the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) between $7 and $10 million. It’s not huge money and it won’t last. Mascord reckons the international game has to divest itself from the NRL to generate income between World Cups.
“There’s international Nines that are RLIF property. We could do what World Rugby did when it built up Sevens. There’s nines tournaments in the world that RLIF don’t know about. The RLIF can’t lose control of Nines. That’s the ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. If rugby league loses control of Nines, it’ll be stuffed.”
Mascord laments that the NRL has finite resources and that self-interested clubs and players demand the largest cut of the pie. But gee, NRL could put one guy on, surely…
“The NRL doesn’t have a strategy for engaging the rest of the world. People out in the field involved in the game don’t have an ‘in’ at the NRL. There’s no-one they can call. There’s no contact between palace and peasants.
“They need someone who can answer the phone to the world.”
They could do worse than S Mascord.