The last time I was in bed and could hear people celebrating a sporting victory in the street, it was September 24, 1993.
That was a ‘sporting victory’ in the loosest sense; Sydney had been awarded the 2000 Olympics and I lived in The Rocks, where they’d celebrate the opening of a can of VB.
Nevertheless, as a tireless contrarian I’d gone to bed early – I had a full day of rugby league to cover the next day – and I heard hootin’ and hollerin’ half a day before I was exposed to ‘the winner is Sy-dah-nee’ on the news.
Since then, I guess the closest thing to hysteria I’ve experienced first-hand was during the 2017 Rugby League World Cup. Yes, people cruised Auckland all night after the semi-final loss to England brandishing Tongan flags (‘The Swiss are quite big around here,’ a tourist joked) but it’s a sight the next day on the way to TV gig that has stayed with me.
It was a child, standing alone in her front yard, waving that Tongan flag to passing traffic. Who knows how long she had been there, or how how long she stayed. She’d been swept up in a defining moment for her community and didn’t want it to end.
So, on Wednesday night, it was a real cultural experience to watch the Euro football semi-final with neighbours in south London and then be kept awake by the horns and screaming and singing into the wee hours.
As an Aussie expat living in England (where, the Screaming Jets contended, you “don’t have to act like you’re having fun”) I could attempt to dissect the English psyche over many webpages.
But this is a rugby league column, so to blow the discussion back on track: Wednesday night was a vivid illustration of why it’s so important to a lot of people here that the World Cup goes ahead this year.
I’ve sighted many on social media who’ve said they’d walk away from the game if it didn’t, that they’d demand a refund for tickets already bought and refuse to go next year.
The English see themselves as the downtrodden would-be giants of world sport; they see in sport a purity that frankly I don’t think is there. They codified all these pastimes, exported them with empire and now they are regularly beaten at them. It’s like being consigned to indentured servitude by your many illegitimate children conceived on 1000 summer holidays.
I guess that’s why ‘Football’s Coming Home’ doesn’t sound twee to them. Football’s coming home to release them from this misery.
Within this downtrodden sporting subclass, there is no more downtrodden sub-sub class than rugby league fans.
They had their moments in 1990, 1992, 1994 and perhaps even 1995, when an intercept here and a kick there could have rocketed them to domestic notoriety as a community whose national team did what others could not – actually win something.
Oh, so close. But the Aussies won those Ashes, those World Cup finals and the Olympics and even those Hooray Henrys from Twickenham subsequently actually lifted gold-, silver and bronze-ware.
Now, they see the British Lions playing, Wimbledon on the tele, the football team causing traffic jams and their World Cup, which has been paid for by £25 million out of the public purse, is being threatened by NRL players leave entitlements and the clubs’ pre-season training programmes.
Twenty years on from just failing to beat the Aussies, the Aussies don’t even want to play them. Injury, meet insult.
We all look at the Premier League from Australia as such a behemoth but I see as much rugby league merchandise on the streets here in Balham as Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester United shirts.
The expression “international sport cuts through” just seems like a soundbite to an Australia because outside of the Olympics, it sort of doesn’t in Australia. If it’s an international sport, you follow the international team. If it’s a state sport, you follow the state team. If it’s a club sport, you follow your city or suburb.
Not here. International. Sport. Cuts. Through. It’s everything; a jungle full of Three Lions on every street when England plays.
Rugby league fans – routinely ignored by the national discourse – look at that, know they have a home World Cup this Autumn and instinctively know how much it means. That’s not just to the sport, it’s to them as people and to their communities.
For it to mean so little to their alleged fellow ‘rugby league family’ members in the southern hemisphere … I sense it wounds them. It wounds them deeply.