Regional Life and the Importance of Rugby League
The regions of Australia house around half its population. These are places variously removed from big city life, often without the sort of opportunities and the sheer mass of people that make metropolitan living the advantage that it is. Mention in a job interview that you were educated at Anonymous University in Innocuous Town and you’ll never compete with an Oxford graduate or even someone who attended a well-known public school in Sydney. Perception is everything, and the regions are largely out of sight.
But consider for a while the flip-side of this argument. What could it be that makes the regions somehow important to national life, aside – of course – from their mineral wealth and agricultural benefit? What is it about small towns or smallish cities that can enrich a country’s intellectual endeavour? The answer, or at least the way in which we seek the answer, could well surprise you.
This is a story about rugby league.
From the mining towns of northern England just before the last century began, rugby league has spread only to the British home countries, Australia, the Pacific islands, Papua New Guinea and, in fits and starts, to France. As much as I love the game it’s difficult to imagine it alongside football as a global sport. Rugby league is a quintessentially regional pursuit, and it was born when working class players could no longer afford to beat and barge in the amateur game of union.
Although it has made efforts to expand, and has its own World Cup of sorts, it tends always to contract back to its traditional areas of support. In Australia, since its inception in 1908, those areas have been New South Wales and Queensland.
Hong Kong is my home now but I grew up in Townsville on the eastern coast of Queensland. It’s a big town or a small city, depending on where you’d place a population of 150,000 on a scale of minute to metropolis. When someone leaves town they inevitably head to the state capital Brisbane, and some beyond. They’re spoken of in tones that don’t quite, but almost, suggest defection.
“Where’s Dave living now?”
“He’s gone Down South.”
Pause, and then the conversation begins again.
So the scene is set – we have our regional attitudes and our game. How could that enlighten the country? Well, it happened like this.
In 1980, drawing on an innovation in Australian rules football – quite another game altogether – rugby league experimented with a state of origin format in its yearly series of representational matches between the powerhouse New South Wales league, based in metropolitan Sydney, and the poor-brother Queensland league in regional Brisbane. The idea was to bring home the Queensland players who’d moved Down South, to have them represent the state in which they first played – and in most cases grew up – for just one game. Where you lived would no longer matter, where you belonged was what counted.
The format, applied only to the final of three games in the first two years, became the enduring symbol of rugby league in Australia, the pinnacle of the sport. From 1982, the State of Origin series, now devoid of the standard representational format, produced names and feats that will live on in the sport as inspirations for its players, and comfort for its fans. The deep maroon of Queensland, the sky blue of New South Wales, these are the gangland colours of eastern Australia, worn but three times a year.
There is something of a debate amongst players and fans that people from New South Wales feel for the series, understand what it means, in the same way as those from Queensland. And many do – New South Wales has it share of small towns, though not to the same extent and with the same isolation involved as Queensland. But I’m interested in what the series says about where I came from, because I lived the aspirations that it implied as I grew up, and carry them with me now as I begin to grow older.
So what is it about the Queensland team this year that make it special?
The series is one-all and the final game will be played tomorrow night. But I’m not particularly worried about the outcome. Leave aside individual skills – the greatness of half-back Jonathan Thurston, the promise of centre Greg Inglis, the experience of front-row forward Steve Price. They’re not so important in the bigger scheme of things.
Rather, consider what the team says about Australian life, something often shouted, sometimes whispered against, but never really taken as something that benefits us all. Of the 17 players – 13 in the main team and 4 reserves who will cycle on and off the field – one grew up in New Zealand and could have represented that country, the father of another captained the Fijian rugby union team, yet another comes from a small island in the Torres Strait, two grew up in New South Wales and four are indigenous Australians.
This is the face of my homeland, people from around and about, people who should never be forgotten – a multicultural, multilocality team.
But perhaps even more important is the attitude that these men take to the field. They are the inheritors of unlikely feats, of winning – or at least trying to win – against the odds. The Queensland team won the inaugural game against the grain of popular opinion in 1980, and did so again the next year. It won the first full series too, and a majority of series in the 1980s.
During the next decade New South Wales dominated, but some moments remain engraved in memory – those in which the team refused to accept that near enough to the game’s end was good enough. The last minute try that won the second game for Queensland in 1994 even though the team lost the series will be the epitome of determination for many years to come. And it provided a hushed prelude for what would happen the next year.
In 1995 Australian rugby league began to split into two rival competitions, with only those players remaining loyal to the traditional league allowed to play for their states. The result, by chance, was an experienced New South Wales side against a Queensland team with little hope. One member, reserve back Ben Ikin, was still a schoolboy. The half-back was the Papua New Guinean captain, given special dispensation to play because he had lived in Queensland most of his life. The coach, though a former representative player, was a television commentator.
A recipe for sporting disaster? Certainly, but by half time the score was 2-0 Queensland. And when Billy Moore – a New South Welshman who was only on the team because he played in Brisbane during his university studies – ran back onto the field shouting “Queenslander! Queenslander!” we knew they couldn’t lose. It wasn’t about prowess, but about knowing that where you belong shapes the way you think, that being on the edges of life allows you to come up with new solutions, better ways of doing things than other people could imagine.
Queensland won that game 2-0. And even more improbably, they won the series 3-0.
Times have changed, series have come and gone, but that remains.
Being a Queenslander isn’t about where you live, or where you go to die. Regionalism manifests in the way lives are lived beyond the state of origin. It’s about attitude, determination and ingenuity when opportunities are limited, when circumstance scream ‘you will stay here, you will work here, you will not leave!’ Some people arrive, others depart and never return. Still more drift home and move away again. Many never think to go. In regions around the world, and in the other regions of Australia, it’s really much the same. The people believe that distance makes a difference, that the edges of life just might produce the sort of alternatives needed to make living all the more worthwhile.
Tomorrow night two teams will take the field, but only one will wear maroon. We’ll watch and cheer them, we’ll agonise and despair. Win or lose we’ll know that most of these men came from small towns, and one day they’ll return to ordinary lives. In the meantime – for a fleeting moment – they’ll be extraordinary. And in our optimism we’ll know only one thing.
They are just like us.