This year has been abysmal, just dreadful. It’s been stuffed with awfulness of Broncos proportions. Yet the ability to get lost in the NRL season was a small ray of light in an otherwise dreary annum, particularly for this onlooker in HMP UK.
I wrote in May thanks for the resumption of the NRL, and the passage of time has only solidified my gratefulness. We all know the dark, empty feeling that the off-season brings, amplified by this season’s unexpected postponement as a small part of the general shutdowns of society.
It was so good to have something normal, something to look forward to, something to escape with. I could get the blood flowing, let my emotions loose, have something to get up for. Rather than talk of infection numbers or which world leader cocked up worse, we could talk about the race for the top half of the ladder or which fullback was cocking up the most (answers below please).
Such unbridled emotion from the other side of the world may sound odd, particularly as the Premier League and my lifelong love, Tottenham Hotspur, started playing just a few weeks later. But this wasn’t just a case of first back taking all the platitudes.
Apart from a brief sojourn in 2017 I have never lived in Australia, and so I’ve always had to reconcile myself to watching the NRL from afar through the TV and internet. Because I am a ‘plastic fan’, my experience was not too different from true normal.
But watching the Premier League brought me as much pain as joy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m immensely thankful that the Premier League continues – God only knows what I’d do if it was cancelled again – yet it still brings a tinge of sadness because it reminded me that I could not go to the games, meet friends, drink overpriced beer and eat salmonella-infested burgers.
Never minimise the impact live sport can have. A few years ago I was caught in a spiralling depressive state that was very nearly brought to a permanent ending. When you’re in that spot it’s very hard to think straight or remember clearly, but I do have recollections of an upcoming England versus Aotearoa-New Zealand Baskerville Shield international offering a glimmer of hope, a sliver of something to look forward to.
As I’m sure many can attest to, it’s been tough on us mentally this year. So it’s not hyperbolic to suggest that without the NRL, I may not have been in a position to write anything for The Roar this year (whether that’s a good or a bad thing I’ll leave up to the casual reader).
There’s no reason to believe things will get better anytime soon. While efforts are put in place to get on top of the Northern Beaches cluster – the only way the people of Manly will experience finishing on top – life has been cancelled in the Old Dart, and my brother’s girlfriend is due to return to Australia without him.
Arrigo Sacchi once called football “the most important of the unimportant things in life”. Substitute rugby league – or, in my case, both sports – and I challenge anyone to disprove the centrality that sport plays in so many of our lives.
There may be genuine arguments for temporarily postponing sport to prevent a dire situation or civilisational existentialism. And these arguments should take place in good faith, not with mudslinging and insults that such debates often descend into. Those who say it’s ‘just a game’ underestimate that to so many of us such a statement is as out of touch as it is insulting.
I know the present situation is utter crap. I could offer some vague platitudinal comfort like “these days will pass” or “it’ll all be better” but that would just be me telling porkies. I can, however, continue offering up wisecracks about underperforming wooden-spoon chasers, self-deprecation of my Redfern obsessive tragedy, outside perspectives and none-too-smart jokes.
All I want for Christmas is an Australian entry visa for my brother and a proper 2021 NRL season (and also a crate of VB). Happy holidays. And thank you for giving me something to lighten this dark year.