Brisbane Broncos tyro axe-man Tevita Pangai Junior was curiously forthcoming for an NRL player when he said of Jaydn Su’A, heading off to play for Souths mid-season, that he and his teammates didn’t give a stuff.
I’ve paraphrased that poorly, for effect.
Pangai Jr did give a stuff. He wasn’t saying he didn’t care if his mate left the club or not.
He is not some sort of monster.
Junior was saying that a player leaving mid-year and another one coming in, it’s just a fact of life in a pro sporto’s life.
“We just do what we get told and work with the players that come in,” said Pangai. “[Player movement] is out of our control. Our job is to do what we do and that’s play footy.”
He also said: “We don’t have a LeBron James here controlling the market and controlling the player movements.”
Which I didn’t get.
Adding: “We get paid pretty well to put our best foot forward. That’s Paul White and Peter Nolan and [Anthony] Seibold’s job, not ours.”
Which I did get.
For it spoke a truth of professional sports that for the players, the club is employer. Their teammates are colleagues.
And whomever they run out with they’ll do their best with.
Footballers see themselves, in part, as employees on contracts. They can be like actors, constantly auditioning for a role. Going gig to gig.
And with the NRL’s June 30 transfer deadline, this time of year’s a hive of activity as agents and clubs man-trade their people.
“Waddya need? Big bloke on the edge? Got just the man. Good family. Couple years, couple hungee? Sold.”
And the players, as Taylor Swift would tell you, just play, play, play.
Professional league players perform in a glorious show each week. And they do it with colleagues who become mates. And teammates.
The feeling within a footy club is like family. These people spend more time with each other than actual families.
Close to, anyway. And thus they become so tight. And they play for each other, for sure. You have my back, I have yours. It engenders love.
But for the club? The colours? For the little emblem on the chest?
Johnny Sutton, for sure.
Jimmy Roberts? Dane Gagai? Even Sammy Burgess? Not so much.
Not to say these worthies wouldn’t love Souths and all it represents. But do they really feel that it’s ‘their’ club?
They can’t love it like fans love it. They’re employees. Do you love the company employs you?
Would you feel any loyalty to that employer if another one offered more money?
Fans, meanwhile, pay to be fans. They support the footy club by supporting it.
The fans are the footy club.
The players are employees on contracts of various lengths.
The longer a man’s around, the more the fans love him.
But ultimately he’s there for himself.
Bit cynical, for sure. And there’s plenty of players you’d call clubmen: Sutton, Josh Jackson, Cam Smith, Chris Lawrence.
But most NRL players’ careers don’t run two years. It’s a competitive market. And clubs are always looking to transition, regenerate, to assemble the best squad for a decent crack a title in a certain window.
And players know it. They know the clubs will punt them if they’re deemed superfluous. They’re not bitter about it – again, fact of life for the pro sporto.
But it doesn’t engender love for the club, the colours, all that.
Israel Folau doesn’t play for the colours, be they gold or sky blue or whatever the Giants get about in.
Old Izzy plays for Israel Folau. And Israel Folau Inc. And God. And God knows what else.
And we will not speak of him again.
Shane Warne’s manager James Erskine once told me: you can’t be successful unless you’re selfish.
Erskine had been Greg Norman’s manager, Nick Faldo’s, a bunch of other singular figures with singular focus on themselves.
Harry Kewell was a cynic and professional from his teenage years. He knew he was a commodity, he knew his worth. He wasn’t playing for Leeds or Liverpool, for the cities, the fans therein. He was playing for Kewell Inc. He was a pro.
The clubs – meaning the suits who control these billion dollar corporations that are EPL clubs – would punt him if they didn’t want him. Kewell knew it. He played in Turkey for Galatasaray, outside training or games, he barely left his room.
American pro sportos are traded all the time. They’re like very expensive human meat.
The NRL is not as bad as that. But its a microcosm of it.
Robbie Farah was considered a great clubman. But when the suits wanted to punt him he wasn’t prepared to go. So he played reserve grade on however much a year.
Then he went to Souths with a big chunk of his salary paid by Wests Tigers.
Was that good for Wests Tigers or bad?
Now he’s back and Wests Tigers have a couple of young fellows they’re grooming for Farah’s hooker spot and our man hasn’t definitively said this is it.
And in all that, as cracking a fellow as Robbie is, he’s in it for Robbie Inc not Wests Tigers.
And that, among his peers, is understood.
And maybe that’s just pro footy.
Amateur sports, like fandom, you’re there because you want to be.
I just attended my old rugby club’s 70th anniversary. They got 500 people, very few of whom had played for anyone else.
Even fewer – like about three blokes – had played against the club. And when they came back they had to skull a beer on the bar in the nude and apologise.
And it was a coming together of like minds. And a cracking couple of days.
Not sure pro league can engender the same thing. Not right or wrong – just how things roll.
The allegiance for our rugby club came through tribalism. You played for your region with your people, against the region from over hill.
Pro leaguies – and AFL, football, rugby players – go where the next pay cheque’s coming from.
Players play. And do their best to play the next week. And repeat.
And whoever’s playing alongside them, as Tevita would tell you, they’ll do their best with.
And just play, play, play.