It’s almost two years since I attended a rugby league event in Australia and the the thing that stood out for me at the World Cup Nines wasn’t what I expected.
Yes, the NRL organisation has gone from about 35 people to hundreds. While it was great to catch up with dozens and dozens of people I’d not seen for yonks, there was an overall vibe of things being just that tiny bit more corporate and impersonal.
I still hate off-the-record briefings for reporters, as we had over the Lebanon eligibility mess. If you’re an official representative of an organisation, I want to quote you. If not, I’m not interested. Keep that rubbish in politics.
If people can’t be quoted they can’t be pinned down on what they said, which makes spin much easier to execute. It’s a terrible, terrible trend.
One thing that hasn’t changed is that Sydney still doesn’t care about rugby league after the grand final.
If the decider had been shifted to Brisbane for a year or two, would that have been a circuit-breaker? Would it have extended interest in the sport beyond the long weekend?
But there is one aspect of the World Cup Nines that convinced me I was watching something completely different to the Australian sport I last saw live in 2017 – the presence and profile of the women.
To stand in the mixed zone and watch these fresh-faced you kids come through and to see the Australia men’s and women’s teams perform a guard of honour for each other was a thing of wonder. That footage of the little girl meeting the Jillaroos on the way to the stadium will melt your heart.
Throughout most of my life rugby league has been swimming in testosterone. That went hand in glove with its image on the field – not just toughness but brutality, a certain bloodthirstiness.
Yes, we had one fight and one dismissal as a result at the weekend but when you take eight players off the field, you remove the close-combat nature of the sport and the skill becomes distilled and vital.
It’s talent and fitness thrown in to the deep end together.
You add women to the mix and the yobbishness dissipates so much as to be almost invisible.
At the Rugby League International Congress, the women’s game was pretty much the number one topic. There are places where the game will start as a women’s, not men’s, sport in the coming years. There is more government funding available for women’s rugby league than men’s rugby league – much more.
Rugby league will, over time, probably become better known as a women’s sport outside Australia, New Zealand, England and Papua New Guinea.
Joanna Lester, who attracted more than half a million dollars in funding for her Power Meri documentary, spoke to the delegates from more than 25 countries about the opportunities presented by the women’s game.
Two years ago I left a hugely popular local pastime with a proud history and increasing commercial clout.
On the weekend, watching these girls go around, I felt that I had returned to find – in its place – a sport.