In the run up to the National Rugby League grand final, with banners proclaiming "the dream" on Sydney streets and an avalanche of media coverage, it is timely to reflect on the current state and future prospects of the game.
It is now over a decade since the Super League War confirmed all the worst fears of those who see contemporary sport as a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate commercial media. Rugby League has recovered on the surface, with a unified league, open competition, respectable crowds, television ratings and sponsorships in the usual places.
The NRL competition is successful in that it does produce a rapid turnover of winners – it rains reigning premiers, with seven different teams having won since 1998 and no team winning consecutive competitions. League loudly asserts that the house rent in twain in the last century is in good order for the current one. But is such optimism justified?
Despite official pronouncements that the Super League cataclysm is a thing of the past, it continues to stalk the code like Banquo’s ghost at a Macbeth family dinner. The scars of the Murdoch-Packer collision are still visible, a constant reminder that the ‘people’s game’ can be turned upside down if media capital with big ego so decrees. Frequent sexual misconduct scandals have required the code to resort to gender re-education and financial improprieties around salary caps commend similar courses in business ethics.
The iconic South Sydney club has been reinstated to the competition - but on public relations rather than on firm legal grounds and is subject to internecine warfare, with few pre-restoration ‘big day out’ demonstrators now witnessing its frequent losses before crowds that mostly struggle to make five figures. The "world game" of (association) football, once known as soccer, is resurgent, with Frank Lowy as a Packer for the new millennium, a ticket to the 2006 World Cup finals and the Asian Football Confederation and a shiny new (if ill-advisedly restrictive) pay TV contract.
Professionalised Rugby Union, with abundant cash and impeccable city connections, raids the ranks of League’s best players (and sometimes gets them back in shop-worn late career), promising serious international competitions that make a mockery of League’s claim to be of much significance beyond eastern Australasia, south-west France and pockets of northern England somehow missed by the football juggernaut. The now genuinely national Australian Rules Football, with even less of an international presence than League, successfully brandishes its socialistic draft and massive $780 million, five-year TV rights contract.
Rugby League, in Australia and a small number of places, then is alive and kicking, but confronting a diminished place in the hierarchy of Australian sport. It is not so much threatened with extinction as sporting subordination.
Yet, if League’s medium-to-long-term prospects are not bright, they are not condemned to darkness. But what can a League for the 21st century look like? Its "project" is somewhat contradictory. It must take from its past the best of its working-class heritage, the cohesiveness that makes playing for and supporting a team meaningful. Yet some of this baggage must be jettisoned, not least the unreconstructed attitudes to gender and sexuality that speak of a time when male class solidarity could hide a multitude of other oppressions.
The NRL has played to its traditions through its "that’s/what’s my team/dream?" retro campaigns, but these have been compromised somewhat by the still-fresh memory of media mogul disruptions that jeopardised the sense of place and collective identity on which all sports rely. Sport history has to be carefully handled and it is easy for feet to be tangled.
Rugby League does have the kind of deep history that is a platform for survival in a crowded sports market – the case of basketball in 1990s Australia is a salient instance of how fashionability and cultural buzz can provide a misleading sense of unstoppable momentum.
League is expanding again within its zonal limits on the Gold Coast, and its toehold in Melbourne is secure for the moment. The Super League fantasy of globalising the game can be safely discarded, and, in coming to terms with the opposition, League certainly has its hands full on the home front.
This is a short extract from the 8th Annual Tom Brock Annual Lecture delivered at the New South Wales Leagues’ Club on 21st September, 2006. A full copy of the paper is available from the author on request.
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