BONDI BEAT: August 2014


JOURNALISM is full of new experiences, even after 400 issues of this esteemed organ. For the first time in my career, I am about to write a column which attempts to rebut another column written by the guy paying me for this column. 

Most of you will know the back story.

I recently wrote a yarn saying rugby league had a terrible image. League Publications chief Martyn Sadler responded on saying – I think – that I was wrong. Or that I shouldn’t have written that, anyway.

Rather than make this tit-for-tat throughout, which will age very quickly, I’d like to develop this column into a discussion about what is really at the core of rugby league, what its soul means to you and how that differs from myself and Martyn.

That is something people might still find interesting when the 800th RLW rolls off the presses.

This debate has laid bare the fact that some people believe the game is being “taken from them” by poorly behaved players, while others believe pandering to the media and moral outrage would take it from them.

But first, the good thing about Martyn’s piece, which I liked very much, was that he posed a series of questions to me.

Firstly, the story was not prompted by a Tweet from a player agent. His language simply gave me a way into the subject. His comment was made several hours before the Todd Carney photo emerged.

Secondly, I did not “put the boot into rugby league players generally”. There is a paragraph there, which Martyn excludes, where I point out I have praised the behaviour of most players many times before.

The column is about rugby league’s image, mainly in Australia, and the influence of player behaviour on that image.

Martyn completely misses the point when I say a development officer in Hobart suffers when an NRL player stuffs up. It’s not that the development officer thinks less of the sport, it’s that everyone he is trying to sell it to is scared off!

Since the column appeared, grassroots people In Tasmania, Germany, Greece & Thailand have contacted me to thank me. Shannon Crane from Thailand said a 14-year-old boy came up to him and asked “what’s bubbling?”. Simon Cooper sent me a German language clipping about Carney.

These people believed their largely unrewarded efforts were being undermined by badly behaved professionals.

I was also contacted by two extremely high profile former coaches, two well-known former Test players and an ex PR at a pro club. They said I had not gone too far. The PR said the behaviour he witnessed put him off the game “for life”.

Martyn the SMH is a sister paper of  The Age. They print the same stories. Rugby league is a mainstream sport in Australia. All stories are written with the expectation they will be read by the wider public, including those who dislike the game. As a writer, if it’s what you believe to be the truth, the opinions of the publisher and the reader do not matter.

You, however, usually write for the converted. My aim was deliberate  – to upset insiders by pointing out to them the way the product of rugby league was seen by everyone else, in front of everyone else.

Someone said to me that Martyn’s main error was to confuse the game with the product. I have chased the game all around the world. I’ve seen and experienced all those wonderful things Martyn speaks about. Visiting a Filipino orphanage with young men who had never been to their  parents’ home country will live with me forever.

But I firmly believe the product of rugby league is poorly positioned in Australia.More of that later.

Martyn asks if I feel ashamed of rugby league. Yes Martyn, at times I do. And despite your belief that I was playing to the gallery of AFL and rugby union apologists, if you look at comments at the bottom of the column and elsewhere, you will see many other rusted-on league fans in this country feel the same.

One fellow even felt inspired enough to write an open letter to David Smith, detailing the extent of his embarrassment.

Do Rolf Harris and Andy Coulson make me ashamed of being Australian and a journalist as well? Yes! They do! But I remain both nonetheless.

Martin mentions scandals in other sports, as others have. But in Australia, rugby league would already have a down-market image even if players behaved, because a history we all have some understanding of.  It’s the lower class rugby here, too.

What bad behaviour does is confirm those prejudices.

That’s where I want this column to go, if there’s room. The huge question we face is: do we just accept our place in the world as a fact of life or do we move to alter our entire demographic?

The AFL aren’t trying to win over rugby league and rugby union fans. They’re trying to convert their kids. They built infrastructure, visit schools, give things away and they have an aura of being cool, genteel and family oriented.

And parents in NSW and Queensland see them as being less “bogan” than rugby league, which is always in the news for badly behaved players. Sure,.it’s in the news because it’st he biggest show in town – but every times someone stuffs up, it plays into their hands.

I believe the AFL will win this war unless we dramatically overhaul our image. The NRL can either be the flagship for a community pursuit or an extreme sport.

A Canberra fan answered some of Martyn’s comments for me. To the point about Ed Ballis: “Yes I can Martyn. It happened after Carney led police on a high speed chase through Canberra after running a red light, while having a suspended licence, then running away from his car to leave Steve Irwin carrying the can – what happens is Carney got let off by The Raiders, The NRL and the courts, as long as he didn’t do it again. ”

To the point about Richard Scadamore:” Barking at women outside All Bar Nun wasn’t particularly complimentary. But then again, nor was pissing on someone else’s neck in the men’s room.”

Martyn once wrote that players who take performance enhancing drugs should not be labelled cheats – which I frankly found outrageous – so we are not going to ever agree on many of the points raised here.

But I believe rugby league is a sport of noble origins that has a fatal flaw. It’s biggest strength is that it is a working class game but its biggest flaw is that for 119 years it has been a gravy train for too many people with no other way of making a quid.

Decisions have been short term-selfish and narrow-minded.

Somehow we have to not only amputate those on the gravy train but also those who facilitate or even ignore them.

The answer to the question of what makes it “our game” is straightforward: it’s not. By the time we get to 500 issues, maybe we’ll have realised it’s everyone’s and have eliminated those who want to keep it mired in a past which NEED NOT have any relevance to the next generation.


I was going to write this column about Jim Savage, who is my closest friend and who I first met as an Open Rugby penpal in 1986. 

Jim is now a bartender in Boston, Massachussetts.He buys a season ticket at Warrington every year, even though he can’t go (and if he does, he buys another ticket).

His father stood on the terraces at Wilderspool, so did his grandfather. He was disgusted by the Carney episode.

He inspired my original SMH column.




  1. Steve,
    I am 21 years old and am from outside of the traditional Rugby League ‘heartland’. I am from Wales. I am a 100% converted fan from another code, that code being Rugby Union. I was always aware of Rugby League (British Rugby League) whilst I was growing but never really bought into the game emotionally. All that changed one day when I was about fifteen or sixteen, I was flicking through the TV channels as all teenagers do and I came across something that I had never seen before. The ‘something’ that I am referring to is Billy Slater. I was captivated by his ability immediately. After I finished watching the game I immediately knew I am coming back to watch this guy play again. As time went by I became aware of the other Superstars in the NRL, Hayne, Inglis, Marshall and the likes. These are the players that have hooked me in to the game for life and I can safely say that I am not going anywhere. Rugby League is going to be the Number 1 sport in my life for the rest of my life.
    Because I was not born in to the Rugby League fraternity, I have always believed I have a different take on the game than some of the small minded people that seem to inhabit our great game across the world. The players that have brought scandal to the game, be that Todd Carney, Andrew Johns, Matthew Johns, Blake Ferguson, Robert Lui, Craig Gower, Sonny Bill Williams, Josh Dugan (long list by the way) or what ever name that we mention are in my opinion the product of incredibly poor leadership at the top of the game.
    What self-respecting sports administration allows Robert Lui to return after his domestic violence scandal on women in league round? Why would we give Immortal status to Andrew Johns when his scandals are so fresh in the memory? Don’t get me wrong, I have done my research and know that Johns is without doubt more than worthy of such an accolade, but couldn’t they have waited 10 years? Why would we bend over backwards to accommodate Sonny Bill Williams after the way he has continuously disrespected the game?
    My main concern in the game is that people who make the important decisions in the game don’t really seem to take the game seriously. In Australia the flagship TV programme for the game (in Australia) is Channel Nine’s Footy Show. Ask yourself this question, ” Am I comfortable with Paul Vautin being the face of my sport?”. My answer to the question is a resounding no. I hold no grudge towards ‘Fatty’, he seems like a pretty good guy, but I don’t think anybody from outside of the sport will ever take us seriously if we don’t take ourselves seriously. This means more debate about what is actually happening on the field rather than stupid and crass jokes over and over again in-between plugs for the betting companies.
    I feel the way that the game is covered is completely disrespectful to the people that love our game. The television format for the games just doesn’t work. The plan seems to be to sacrifice the crowds at the games in exchange for high TV ratings, when in fact a poor crowd takes away from the television experience. It makes you think ’empty seats? Why should I watch? I remember getting up one morning to watch an NRL game and I came across an AFL game, it was Adelaide Crowes vs Port Adelaide Power at the Adelaide Oval. There wasn’t an empty seat in the house, it was broadcast on Channel Seven in Australia (ESPN in the UK) and it was a Saturday afternoon 3oclock kick-off local time. (I might be wrong on the time but the sun shined from start to finish). I remember thinking why can’t Channel Nine do the equivalent for Rugby League, Pick a rivalry game of your choice Parramatta vs Canterbury, Souths vs Roosters, Melbourne vs Warriors, Cronulla vs St George.
    Another thing that gets my goat regarding the constant talk of crowds is when Dan GInnane, (I always listen to the Triple M podcasts) says ” disappointing crowd here tonight at the SCG.”
    Is that really surprising when the all the Rugby League media is talking about is Gorden Tallis and Robbie Farah instead of talking up the South Sydney vs Manly clash? People get distracted by the soap opera surrounding the game rather than paying attention to the game itself.
    One more thing I’d like to add before I finish my rant is that in my opinion the comments made by Steve Roach last Friday were indicative of the small- mindedness that plagues the game. Who in his right mind thinks that Wayne Pearce should be running an NRL club? Wayne Pearce was a great player but please excuse my ignorance, how in any way shape or form is he qualified to run a club? besides being a great player, isn’t Wayne Pearce also known for selling hot dogs at Leichardt Oval? I think we all have to realise that ex-players shouldn’t be running clubs unless they are qualified to do so.
    Thanks for taking the time to read this, Steve. I am a big fan of your writing and appreciate the fact that you don’t just cheerlead for the game but provoke thought amongst fans like myself.

  2. Rugby League can have this thug or bogan (que: chav in the UK) image which frankly puts many off the sport including sponsors and media. The NRL and RFL both seem oblivious, especially the latter when it comes to cultivating a positive subculture which RL is. The biggest issue to me seems to be the problem of individuals at games who cannot control their alcohol intake but this is reflected much in the wider social arena. In my opinion, ban alcohol at all matches.

    Rugby union has a far more level headed culture. A sport originally geared for and by the upper classes yet in many pockets caters for the working classes. For me being a person with working class roots but enjoying middle class values and interests, I am slowly starting to get turned off RL when the media want to publicize and portray RL to the lowest common denominator or in the RFL’s case: mediocrity. We used to enjoy quality, now many put up with a chocolate covered t*rd.

    I look forward to the day when RL and RU do amalgamate and only then will we encounter a more balanced cultural experience.

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