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.