By STEVE MASCORD
ONE day, the Jarryd Hayne story will be held up as one of the great sagas of Pacific Immigration, a touchstone for all Melanesian people.
Manoa Thompson, the father of the San Francisco 49ers recruit who you cannot escape hearing about every day (no matter how hard you try) in Australia, was born in Fiji.
In a recent interview, the former Warrington centre recalled how he raised in idyllic conditions, playing barefoot on rough fields without a care in the world.
‘But I had an auntie in Sydney who couldn’t have kids – so my parents sent me here when I was 11,” Thompson told Rugby League Week magazine.
“I lived with my auntie as her son and she eventually adopted me.
“Luckily I played a little footy while I was in Fiji and got straight into it when I arrived, which helped me make friends and adapt.”
You can already see the sprawling movie shots of rough Fijian jungle and the poor south-western suburbs of Sydney, of broken noses and cold nights at training before Manoa had a child when he was barely a man himself.
“Looking back, I wasn’t as professional as I should have been,” Manoa, who made his name at South Sydney, continued.
“I cut corners and didn’t look after my injuries well enough. I didn’t push myself to the max at training. I didn’t enjoy it.
“Those are the lessons I learned and I can’t change the mistakes I made in my career but I tried to pass on those lessons to my son Jarryd when he was young and I think he got the message.”
Thompson played for the Auckland Warriors on their momentous opening night against Brisbane in 1995, before – in his words – being “shipped off” for an ill-fated stint with Warrington. He finished in reserve grade with Penrith and had two stints in France, one with Carcassonne.
Meanwhile, young Jarryd was growing up in Minto, south-western Sydney, mostly without his semi-famous dad.
“I was only 20 when he was born and it was hard – I was playing at Souths and working and he was living with his mum,” said Thompson.
“I didn’t get to see as much of him as I would have liked but we have become very close over the years.”
Jarryd’s journey has obviously already eclipsed even the colourful adventures of his dad. From smashing Darren Lockyer while played for Fiji (Thompson also played for the Bati, against the 1996 Lions) to being shot at in Kings Cross, it’s going to make a helluva second half for that movie.
In trying to figure out what it means, the migration from Fiji to Australia and onto the US over the course of two generations can be seen as a metaphor for the changing face – and increasing globalisation – of professional sports.
Or, as always, it’s the other way around. Sport is a metaphor for life, and for the trends in wider society.
A generation ago, a young Fijian played rugby union for nothing and grew old in Fiji. Manoa Thompson had the opportunity to move to Australia at a time when most islanders didn’t migrate further than Auckland.
Jarryd, in turn, saw an opportunity that his father could never have dreamed of, and took it – in much the same way kids in all walks of life are doing just that now. It might just mean being the first person in the family to study at university or live overseas.
Or it might mean earning millions of dollars as an NFL star.
With each passing year, our horizons in the west get broader and geographical boundaries come down (as these from war-torn and poverty-stricken countries aspire in greater numbers than ever to emulate us, and risk their lives to do so).
Enough of the philosophy, right? What does I mean for rugby league?
The only reason our rugby league players live in Widnes and Campbelltown and Mount Eden and settle for whatever money we pay them is because their skills are not transferable. Rugby league is a specific game with specific attributes and specific historical, geographic boundaries.
In this way, rugby league exists within its own false economy. Regardless of how commercially successful or otherwise the sport is in its various cities and towns, it does not have to pay players the same as a soccer club or a rugby union governing body or … an NFL teams.
That’s because the vast majority of rugby league’s workforce does not have to the option of playing those sports.
But Hayne, Sonny Bill Williams, Sam Burgess and Brad Thorn do not want to be restricted by this quasi-monopoly. They have worked hard at adjusting their skills so they may enter the more lucrative, wider labour market for athletes.
They are breaking down barriers for those who will follow.
When assessing the impact of this trend on rugby league, we need to look at it from the point of view of athletes and from the point of view of fans and the general popularity of the game.
From a playing point of view, it is fair to say more players will look to follow in the footsteps of those above and adapt their skill sets in order to earn more money.
This is where the parallels with economic migration are apt. Economic migrants moving from countries like Fiji to somewhere like Australia will do more menial jobs in the hopes of working their way up the food chain.
Jarryd Hayne was willing to walk out on a sport in which, it could have been argued, he was best in the world – forgoing guaranteed financial rewards – to climb up the sporting food chain. Broadly speaking, over the course of the last 50 years, social and economic boundaries have been coming down for a large chunk of humanity; Thompson and Hayne how quicky this process has accelerated.
But if we accept the NFL is above rugby league in the food chain, what does that mean for our game?
I would submit that depends very much on the vision and courage of our administrators.
Let’s imagine the global popular culture is like the global, homogenised English that everyone speaks now. Local dialects and slang, you may have noticed, are disappearing. When I first traveled abroad in 1990, there were many things I said that locals did not understand, and vice versa.
Now … not so much.
Let’s say 45 per cent of this global English comes from the UK and 40 per cent from the US, with the rest contributed by Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. “No worries” is one of Australia’s very few contributions to global English.
Now let’s imagine pop culture the same way, with the US contributing 65 per cent, say, and the rest of the world throwing in the rest. Global is all that matters, since local customs and tastes are being eroded by technology at an alarming rate
I beleve rugby league can buy itself a seat at a giant room full of seats and tables if it tries. As a curiousity, perhaps. As a niche sport for people who sit up all night and watch whatever is only Channel 57. As global sport’s answer to “no worries”.
But that’s a small piece of a gargantuan pie, a piece that would propel the sport far beyond where it is now.
Put another way, the river channels that flow into the soup of the world sports market are much wider from Los Angeles, London and New York than they are from Wigan and Brisbane. And the flow goes both ways – so the force of what’s coming from those cultural hubs pushes back into our tiny ponds.
If we don’t stop fighting amongst ourselves, putting club football ahead of internationals and sticking our hands out for as much TV money we can get from the governing body, instead of allowing them to pump our product back, we will eventually be swamped by globalisation.
We have to make sure we focus on that central reservoir and accept that soon there will be nothing truly local – even the sport we once used to define where we are from. That’s if we don’t want more kids from Fiji who merely see Parramatta as a step along the road to San Francisco.
The mythology of the US, of Twickenham, of the All Black jersey … they are as powerful as the cash one can earn by chasing them
As Jarryd Hayne’s dad said in the interview: “His little brother Julian cried when Jarryd said he was going to the USA.
“But then I said to him ‘Don’t worry – we will go and watch him play and go to go to Disneyland too.
“And then he was OK.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD