BONDI BEAT: August 2013


IT is 11.12pm and I am sitting in the Suncorp Stadium press box surrounded by half-empty bottles, programmes covered in scribble and colleagues who are concentrating intently and attempting to meet deadlines that I’m pretty sure they won’t.

This is the only copy I will file from Origin II, which finished in a 24-6 win to Queensland over New South Wales.

I am convinced I saw history tonight. I hope I did. And I feel like I am surrounded by people who insist the world is flat. I almost typed “By Copernicus” at the top of this column.

(The disciplinary just came through. Justin Hodges contrary conduct no suspension, Trent Merrin striking one week if guilty, Billy Slater cleared, in case you were interested).

As I sit here, I am thinking about how tonight may be remembered. This could be a landmark year for our game, regardless of what happens at the World Cup. This, 2013, could be The Year Rugby League Cleaned Up Its Act.

The night before the World Club Challenge, what seems an eon ago, I attended a fans night at Headingley where everyone was up in arms (well, if they used their arms, it wouldn’t be a problem) about the banning of the shoulder charge.

Firstly, I tried to explain, there are legal implications to ignoring the blanket advice of doctors. Secondly, society is slowly becoming more gentrified. Last year before the Autumn Internationals game in Hull, your correspondent visited York where I learned the racecourse had been positioned to take advantage of the crowds who already attended the executions.

It was a double-header – the races following the one that rolled into a basket.

I am convinced, dear reader, that in two or three centuries, rugby league itself will be banned as too brutal and violent. Think about it – in the same time period we have stopped finding the spectacle of seeing someone hung, drawn and quartered a bit of a giggle.

In the meantime, it’s down to how we manage our steady demise along with other body contact sports. Do we want to become like UFC – a sport played only at the top level by highly trained professionals who risk life and limb for our amusement? Or do we want to continue to compete with other mainstream sports as a pastime for participants?

It’s a decision we had to come to eventually. The boffins at NRL Central were faced with it after Origin 1, when Paul Gallen stiff-armed Nate Myles and then punched him repeatedly in the head.

Think about it. A completely new administration. An interstant competition that had always been run on a nudge and a wink and one which turned over a massive profit.

A dilemma for sure and an outsider, Welsh banker David Smith, effectively had to decide between giving up on mums and dads and showing a “don’t try this at home” PSA before State of Origin, or rebuilding a bridge between junior football and the professionals that collapsed in Australia a couple of decades ago.

He chose the latter, saying he wouldn’t tolerate the series turning into a “rolling brawl”. And the referees’ coach, Daniel Anderson, said anyone who threw a punch in the second game of the series would be sent to the sin bin.

But with tensions simmering over Gallen, who stayed on the field after his “indiscretion” in Sydney but was suspended for one match, how would the referees handle it if there was an all-in brawl?

There were whispers that the players would muddy the waters by all rushing in if things got, as Stevo would put it, “tasty”.

But until the 54th minute, it looked like we wouldn’t find out. When tensions rose until that point, players grabbed each other by the jersey and jostled.

But then Brent Tate pushed Trent Merrin, the Blues forward – yes – punched him and players rushed in as if that had been the plan all along. How they reacted moved the goalposts when it comes to violence in rugby league.

From my perspective, I hope they’ve been moved forever.

Four players – Tate, Merrin, Greg Bird and Justin Hodges – were sent to the sin bin. Bird and Hodges were dispatched for rushing in, Tate for starting the whole thing. Merrin actually did what they had all been warned not to and punched someone.

The Queenslanders were pointed off first – and I’m sure a rain of beer cans straight out of the 1980s would have ensued if they were still selling the things.

The reaction from commentators like Andrew Johns and Wally Lewis said “this is Origin, I can’t believe it” while rival coach Mal Meninga and Laurie Daley called for the NRL to re-examine its stance and Gallen described events as “embarrassing”.

“No-one goes out there to fight but it’s a tough game,” said Daley.

I found myself shaking my head, thinking “they just don’t get it. It’s not 1988 anymore”.

A straw poll of journalists as they left this press box (leaving me alone now, at your service, dear reader) found only one who agreed with me. He is a pugilist of some note and said “I watch boxing to see people hit each other. These blokes can’t fight. I watch football to see football”.

One of the others, who I won’t name because he didn’t know he would be quoted, said ‘Mascy, what if they do all this to win back the kids, they don’t come, and all the fans are lost in the meantime?”

But that’s not the point, see? Blokes who are not wearing boxing gloves standing in the middle of a packed stadium punching the bejesus out of each other while drunken bloodthirsty hoons cheer is UNCIVILISED. It’s sub-human. If we saw it on the streets, we should be horrified.

And if we’re not, our children and grandchildren will be.

It’s just wrong.

To me Johns, Daley, Lewis and Meninga may as well have been denying an object heavier than air can fly or that the sun is at the centre of the solar system. How the referees acted tonight (OK, poor Tatey copped the rough end of the pineapple) is self-evidently the way our society and our sport is going.

As I got in the lift to come back to the press box, a colleague told me he saw ARLC chairman John Grant talking intently to operations manager Nathan McGuirk in a small operations room down below.

It’s entirely possible the League will backpedal in the face of pressure from coaches, players and the media. But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. It means they lack the requisite cohunes for the time being.

There is no putting the cleaning up of our game into reverse.

Rugby league is the second or third most popular sport in Australia with regard to television ratings and attendances but ranks seventh for participants.

Why? One, because it is a hard sport to play. That’s not going to change. But two, because it is dangerous and violent and parents don’t want their kids to play it.

This afternoon I spoke to the chairman of a Brisbane Queensland Cup club who said young players were increasingly coming from poor areas with participation rates in affluent suburbs dropping off alarmingly in recent years.

Young Polynesians from modest backgrounds see the game as a career option, maybe one of few before them. Are they the only people we want in our game in future – youngsters who put pressure on themselves to succeed that in a couple of sad cases this year became intolerable?

If we still want people to play rugby league for fun, then tonight had to happen and I’m glad I was here to see it.

Goodnight all. It’s 12:41am. See you at Wembley.


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