Frankly, it’s a little embarrassing. To read breathless Australian media copy about the triumph of Australian rugby league in the just-concluded Rugby League World Cup, which of course, we won. Where’s the human interest in a virtual foregone conclusion?
Australia’s taken the Paul Barrière Trophy 12 times, been in every cup final bar one since 1954. Only one other country, England, has any kind of track record (three WC wins). The Kiwis have won it once. Where’s the high drama that comes with great sport in beating, as we did this edition, little Fiji by 30-odd points, Italy by 60, or our Scottish brethren, 84-nil?
It must be exciting like watching the French national football Ligue 1: Paris Saint-Germain have won eight of the last ten years. One thinks of Eric Cantona’s comment about Brazilian mega star Neymar moving from Barcelona to PSG. “He will be playing games against [lowly club side] Lorient and [even more lowly] Guingamp,” he told London’s Financial Times. “How is it possible? To be a great player and go . . . somewhere . . . (like that).” A little as if Michael Jordan had quit the Chicago Bulls for the Harlem Globetrotters.
I haven’t seen a game of rugby league from go to woe in years, could hardly name a player (younger than Paul Vautin; well, Wally Lewis, Mal Meninga and Jonathan Thurston, but not many more). Yet I was able to tell my Franco-German wife, who has some awareness of Union but has never heard of League, that we’d win the League World Cup before the first tackle was even made. Why? Because we almost always do.
My vintage is the great era of the late ‘70s, players like Graham Eadie, Bobby Fulton, Arthur Beetson, Teddy Goodwin, Vautin of course. When a Lock Forward, then still number 8, could be lanky and one the best players in the game (Parramatta’s Ray Price). Steve Knight, the Adonis-like centre who played for Manly, Wests and Balmain, taught me and my lily-livered mates “Physical Education”, including a kind of composite rugby, at Davidson High School in the northern suburbs of Sydney. We dutifully called him, “Sir”.
His patience with our quivering non-commitment, was iron-clad until, well, it would break. And he’d come running at us with the ball, shouting, “Tackle me, son!”, as we scattered in all directions like mice. (One counter strategy was to throw the pill in the air, go to ground, and cover your head.)
So I have rugby league history. State of Origin didn’t have the gravitas it does now by all accounts, but the height of a Sunday night sporting ritual in the suburbs was to sit down to dinner with the family, and League commentator Rex Mossop.
An exception was made to the golden rule in our house that dinner was not to be eaten in front of the tele, because Dad also wanted to see the match. I still play the original version of the program theme song on Spotify and You Tube, surely one of the most exhilarating themes in the history of sport on the box: “Theme from Shaft”, by thorax-busting Canadian trumpeter, Maynard Ferguson.
Is international sport about winning or being part of it? The former, truly, but depending on who you’re winning against and the circumstances thereof. I didn’t see a moment of the Kangaroos but will be watching the Socceroos. This will be with my wife and Paris-born kids.
The most likely outcome is that we play our three pool games and fly home. But you never know. Between 1974 and 2006 we didn’t make the World Cup at all, of course. And to return as David to the Goliaths of France and Germany, and Brazil — now that is real human drama. In 2018, the great story was Iranian-born Daniel Arzani’s brilliant arrival, this time that we’ve got three guys in the Squad of Sudanese origin (Awer Mabil, Garang Kuol and Thomas Deng). Mabil was born and raised on a Kenyan refugee camp.
Can’t the best of our Kangaroos just transmute into Wallabies and play Rugby Union, a proper international game? I tell friends here that as long ago as the 1960s the Boston Globe newspaper was telling its readers that Australia was the world’s greatest sporting nation. Football is inevitably raised in conversation, and I’m politely told something like, “But you’re strong in Rugby”. Almost no-one has ever heard of Rugby League.
There’s a web site now. “Greatest Sporting Nation in the world” puts us at six behind France and Germany. The site was congratulating Australia for winning the World Cup last weekend (though well down the page). Or might those congratulations more rightfully have gone to runners-up, Samoa, for their beautiful journey? Anyway, fortunately, there was no highlighting of that win against Scotland.