As I near the end of the writing of my book Two Tribes, about the divided 1997 season, my tiny keyhole view into the soul of rugby league widens by a millimetre or two.
I am 97 interviews out of the target 100 down, and 95 per cent of the 80,000-word manuscript is complete. I can let you in on a couple of secrets. One is that the book ends by asking the great and the good three key questions about the Super League War: what was it about, who won and what did we learn from it?
Two is that, 25 years on, there is no consensus on any of the answers. You would think the first question would simple posit a response of ‘pay TV’, and it’s true that was the most common answer. But it was far from unanimous. Just the other day an interviewee said it was about expanding and improving rugby league.
What I’ve drawn from this is that rugby league culture is resilient but otherwise chaotic. It has no unifying narrative, and rugby league people can’t really agree – if they’ve even bothered to contemplate in the first place – what rugby league is.
Many people walked away from the sport 25 years ago when power and greed descended and have not come back – many of the 97 people I’ve spoken to had family members, neighbours and friends in this category.
At first that seems dramatic, right? You grew up on the game. You disagreed with some stuff that was going on. You stopped watching it and still don’t, a quarter-century later.
If you followed North Sydney, Gold Coast, South Queensland, Hunter, Adelaide, Perth or any of the clubs forced to merge in the aftermath of the war, it actually makes sense you might give the entire sport the flick rather than will yourself to stay interested. Te Torontonians who still tweet enthusiastically about rugby league are a testament to why that club was so special.
And I have come to realise that if I had been 52 in 1997, and not 26, I would almost certainly have gone right through the exit gate with fans of those axed or merged clubs.
Today? There are multiple reasons why a rugby league fan might decide not to be one anymore.
Some liked the fire and brimstone of punching, shoulder charging and sledging. Thanks to Will Chambers, the last unpleasantness standing seems about to fall.
Some enjoyed closer games than the current flood of points, caused by knee-jerk rule changes made to keep sucking on the teat of a disappearing resource called broadcast rights income.
Some believe they have higher aspirations for the sport than its administration seems to at the moment and aren’t up for another few decades of international football being muzzled and expansion clubs being set to fail and then fulfilling that objective spectacularly.
Administrators are smart enough to know, however, that if they keep our favourite club around, we’ll find it hard to completely sever our ties and keep our money to ourselves forever.
The Friday night game might become background noise, as I saw one tweeter lament a few days back, but if our team recruits well in the off-season, we’ll take an interest next year even if there’s a new rule awarding points for farting in a scrum.
We may stray, but the colours, the home ground, the memories of players past and the shared history we have with our friends who follow the same team are all things that are difficult to shake. Not following the sport actually requires more effort than to keep following it – it requires changing the subject when rugby league comes up in conversation, switching the channel when a story about the sport comes on the news, actually calling the pay TV company to cancel our subscriptions.
If we want to rub rugby league out of our lives, it requires a lot of erasing, and friends, family and acquaintances become collateral damage. It’s very, very hard.
What I’ve learnt from asking everyone what they learnt from the Super League War is that our administrators, players and coaches can stuff up a helluva lot and we’ll forgive them if they just let us keep our team.
My team merged in 1998. I’ve got 20,000 kilometres between myself and most of the friends with whom I share a history with the sport. Where I live, the game is almost invisible.
Unlike you, I don’t need to take crap from rugby league and let it into my home on my day off. That’s a pretty liberating feeling.