ON Friday, I took a spin out to St George Leagues Club for an audience with the great John Raper.
The reason for our chat was an upcoming RLW Immortals special – so I won’t spoil that by going into what was discussed with the tape recorder – sorry, digital voice recorder – on. But as we chatted afterwards after being moved from our first location by the kick-off of housie, something of a fog lifted and a stark fact became apparent to me, like some sort of epiphany.
In rugby league, we do a terrible job of honouring our past.
That’s not just a glib statement for another column-by-numbers. I’m not finished making our point. It’s in our CULTURE to do a bad job of it, it’s ingrained in us to be obsessed only with the present. I’ll give you an example: how many historical facts about rugby league can you repeat, straight off the top of your head?
I’d say the only one common to 95 per cent of readers is that St George won 11 premierships in a row. Aside from that, the others will be many and varied and depend mainly on which club you support. If you follow Canberra, you’ll know they entered the comp in 1982, if you follow Parramatta you’ll be aware their first premiership didn’t come until 1981 … etcetera.
But I’d be willing to wager that the average AFL or NFL fan knows at least five things not involving their favourite club or player, right off the top of the bat. Those sports seem to inspire different literary output too, books that aren’t just about the current pin-up and can be thrown away as easily as this magazine (recent tomes on Jack Gibson and Bob McCarthy are notable exceptions). Other sports have more reference books, for instance.
Whose fault is that?
I could go all amateur sociologist on you. I could say it’s a working man’s game, it’s the opiate of the masses, and there is no demand for scholarly introspection. I could tell you (again) that rugby league is a giant gravy train and that the powerbases of the game see no mileage or profit in promoting the past when it’s this weekend that keeps the cash registers ticking over, the advertising revenue coming in, the turnstile doing what it’s named after.
The same arguments apply to international football. Why should we align ourselves with barefooted Pacific kids in parks and overweight part-timers in Serbia, Russia and Scotland when there is premier league soccer, the NBA, MaJor League baseball? They’re OUR people because they’re elite and here in Australia, so are we. Right? They’re winners and so are we!
But that’s a whole other Big Issue.
In the end, it’s our fault that the past doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. We say “that was the best try ever”, we don’t actually go and find out when the last try like that was scored. We say it was the refereeing blunder of the decade. So, what was the stuff-up last decade that was worse? We don’t bother to find out.
When Sam Burgess or Gareth Ellis show up on our doorsteps, we are astounded they can actually play. We don’t bother watching Super League, we watch premier league instead because it’s “the best”.
And in doing so, we diminish ourselves and we diminish our champions of the past and we diminish those who are giving up their entire lives to try and start our game in virgin soil. We lick the cream off the top of our game and have the arrogance to turn our heads as we swallow it.
Next time you have a footy conversation with your mates, try to go back a bit further than Richard Villasanti and David Trewhella when you reminisce about the past. Don’t snidely dismiss those who saw Gasnier or Churchill play. They were lucky – ask them questions. We only know that Dally Messenger was a good player because people said so.
Maybe even acknowledge that Salford City and Catalans play the same sport as the Broncos and the Panthers.
“I’m glad I always treated old people well,” Raper said after chatting with a well-wisher last Friday, “because now I am one.”
We can change the way our game thinks – in this generation – if we really want to. Don’t let people tell you what you like, what you’re interested in. Decide for yourself.
You shouldn’t have to be an Immortal to be noticed when you walk into a football ground. It shouldn’t be hilarious that Vanuatu are playing Greece.
What all this shows is that deep down inside, were are extremely insecure. We are like teenagers, unsure of our place in the world, trying to impress the big kids.
But by the time we grow up enough to respect our elders, my friends, they’ll be gone.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK