Origin I: Rude Awakening

p1a_coverBy STEVE MASCORD

IT’S 8.30, the morning after New South Wales beat Queensland 14-6 in the opening State of Origin match, and the phone rings.

Your correspondent is not in the best of moods after a stuff-up on radio the previous night (more of that later) and has little patience for the ABC Canberra producer who is doing that thing producers’ do – “auditioning” talent.

“There has been a lot of outcry over Paul Gallen punching someone in the head and getting away with it,” he says. “There has been a bit of a moral shift and self-examination in sport recently with the banning of live odds in telecasts.

“You would go to jail if you did that in the street. What do you think?”

I am not being paid for this radio appearance he about to request I do, so I am not going to audition for it. “Look,” I say wearily, “if you want me to talk about it on air, I will. What time?”

Twenty minutes later, I am on air with Genevieve Jacobs, who explains that she doesn’t watch rugby league but it was on the previous night at home because there were “young blokes” around.

She’s not as bolshy as you might imagine by that but says she found it unbelievable Gallen was not sent off and thought it had undone the good work of Canterbury appointing a female chief executive and Tom Waterhouse’s omnipresence being limited by federal government legislation.

As someone introduced as a rugby league writer, no doubt my friend the producer hoped I would pig-headedly defend Gallen, who just before halftime used a swinging arm on Queensland’s Nate Myles before repeatedly striking him in the head.

“He’s been twisting my knee all night,” Gallen told referee Ashley Klein after being placed on report. “He’s been doing it series after series, head-butting…..”

Later, Gallen said the Blues were “sick of being bullied” in the previous seven series defeats. Clearly, this had been a rallying call under new coach Laurie Daley, who described the stoush as “a great Origin moment”.

But I am not about to read my lines as knuckle-dragging mungo hack. In fact, I agree with Genevieve. The idea, expounded for the nine millionth time the night before – this time by Daley – that Origin “is different” is illogical and ridiculous. How can a multi-million dollar competition like Origin be run according “implied” rules that no-one has ever written down?

How can referees feel too intimidated to send off a player or give penalties because of “the occasion” when it’s the same sport they referee each weekend? Is Origin sport’s biggest see-no-evil, speak-no-evil conspiracy? But each year, an incident brings us closer to sanity, transparency and consistency. This year, it was Gallen and Myles.

One thing though, about the old ‘you’d go to jail if you did that in the street’ line. You’d go to jail if you crash tackled someone, too. They have fights in ice hockey and, well, boxing. So the rugby league field is not quite the cave of Neanderthals some of Genevieves listeners would have us believe.

But I found my conversation with my friends in the capital interesting on another level.

As big as rugby league is in New South Wales and Queensland, there are swathes of the population that ignore it completely. Yet even these people can’t escape Origin.

When they watch it, they judge it by society’s values, not rugby league’s. And there is almost always a disconnect.

As journalists, we are kind of conditioned to believe we are the guardians of community standards, pulling the rude, the corrupt and the anti-social into line at ever turn. But that’s bollocks.

Two nights before Origin, Warriors Russell Packer had relieved himself on the field, in full view of television cameras (although without exposing himself) in Monday Night Football. Personally, I had found the incident funny and was far more concerned with a fan sign that read “Let’s Gone Warriors”.

But the Warriors were fined $15,000 over the, ahem, indiscretion. Similarly, the outcry over Gallen surprised me.

As it transpires, I am a terrible barometer of community standards. You might be too. But who is a barometer? The Canberra radio announcer who never watches rugby league? The gay couple down the street? The immigrants next door?

Certainly, those of us without kids seem to be behind the eight ball. We have no idea what is acceptable or offensive and are frequently surprised, as detailed above.

One thing’s for sure, the most conservative elements of society do seem to win in the end, particularly now. Rugby league can refuse to make a punch to the head an automatic send-off but rest assured, it will happen eventually.

So, what was my stuff up? I was told Nate Myles, not Gallen had been charged and reported same on the radio.

Suspended for head butting someone in the first immediately? Hey, don’t be so sure it won’t happen one day….

Filed for: FORTY-20 MAGAZINE

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