We’re a land of the ‘fair go’ in Australia.
Whether you just read that in a Samuel-Johnson-Secret-Life-Of-Us voice, or a VB-advertisement-voice, it’s likely this is your truth. And although our country’s egalitarianism has more holes in it than a Panama Papers shell company, it’s still our prevailing identity.
That’s right, in Australia the only laws more important than the written are the unwritten, and our first amendment is that we get behind the underdog.
What’s your Fair Go poison? You might drink to the Eureka Stockade. Simpson and his Donkey: there’s a nice drop! Here’s cheers to Ned Kelly and the boys. What about the America’s Cup? Bob Hawke would have skulled from it – what about you?
In Australia, some think sport is just for the capitalists and the Machiavels engaging in a never-ending festival of alpha showdowns. They’re wrong. The Australian Spirit allows for some romance and humanity too. So sophisticated and poetic is our relationship to sport, we offer a Salary cap of Sporting Emotion: an equalisation measure to ensure that the more you lose, the more you’re liked.
The rules of the emotional salary cap are simple: if you win, you forego ‘battler’ status. If you lose, you gain said status. This is where the sporting ‘soft spot’ comes from. If you can’t win, at least you get to assume the identity of the ‘battler’.
Except in State of Origin Rugby League.
Even after a decade of systematic destruction at the hands of Queensland, the New South Wales Origin team has no battler tag, and no soft spot status. In a country (and article) of lazy stereotypes, this is particularly galling for Sydneysiders, for whom status is everything.
How does it come to pass that a decade of also-ran-ship fails to elicit any sympathy? How come the narrative hasn’t shifted? People may point to a century of Queensland oppression at the hands of New South Wales Rugby League, and they’d be right. But modern Rugby League, as with modern politics, operates in dog years. In 15 years the Rabbitohs have gone from battlers to blue bloods to somewhere in-between. Canberra used to be the upstarts, now they’re everyone’s second team. Even Manly made themselves semi-likeable for a while as a suburban recalcitrant in the shadows of corporate Rugby League after the Super League war. It helped that they were losing. When you lose a lot, being likeable is easy.
The institution that is New South Wales Rugby League hasn’t helped its own cause. Whether it’s their brand of street-brawling football, devoid of any playmaking creativity, or their relentless failure to back players for more than a couple of games, or just by virtue of having the strongest state economy with the highest median family income, every move they make smells of blue blooded entitlement. You suspect that Ned Kelly (Victorian) and Simpson (born in England) would be Queensland supporters.
And there is very little redeeming about this year’s New South Wales team itself. With the exception of Aaron Woods, who seems like a nice bloke who has a crack; Laurie Daley, who is largely pleasant and evokes memories of a better day; and the guys who have never played for New South Wales, the large majority of the rest really do battle for likeability. It’s all underworld cavorters, weird fly-punchers, glassings, Pineapple Cruisers, performance enhancing drugs rumours and Manly players.
New South Wales’ supporters don’t help, either. We are nothing if not splintered. We’re opposing lockout laws, backpacking, pretending we’re Bondi locals, living regionally, driving WRXs, watching the Swans, watching the ‘rah rah’, living in London, negatively gearing our third property, listening to Kyle Sandilands, or living in Melbourne. Culturally we’re all over the place, and despite Buzz Rothfield’s best efforts, we don’t bond as one over our deserved underdog status.
This is to say nothing of the Jedi mind trick that Queensland under Meninga et al have imposed over not just New South Wales, but Australia. Even in their pomp, the public reserved some rankle for their beloved Australian cricket team. Not Queensland though. This state has managed to hijack Australia’s most treasured sporting principle for their advantage – they take underdog, battler status, while relentlessly dominating their opposition.
How did Queensland become so likeable? As a kid I was brought up to believe that they were backward, redneck, isolationist, hillbillies. And yet their talisman, Johnathan Thurston, has emerged as a leader of his club, his state, and his people. Same goes Greg Inglis – a man we desperately mock for his ‘defection’ to Queensland, without ever considering the reasons why he did it. It’s whispered quietly but nevertheless well accepted that Queensland unfailingly provide greater support for their Indigenous players than New South Wales. What about Cameron Smith? All efforts to cast him as the nagging referee-whisperer are as comical as they are contrived. He’s a player that wins ruthlessly, and can string sentences together. Sadly, he deeply impresses us.
This year Queensland are more likeable than ever before. Their bona fide villains – Slater and Hodges – will not feature owing to injury and retirement respectively. Moreover, the common refrain that Queensland only win because of the abovementioned trio is losing lustre as the years plough on. Consider this list of elite Queensland players who’ve come and gone throughout the decade of dominance: Lockyer, Hunt, Folau, Price, Civoniceva, Crocker, Tate. At some stage you’d expect New South Wales to have rebalanced the ledger, but they haven’t.
The scariest prospect is that Queensland’s superiority is now systemic – not built on a couple of immortal players, but a culture and identity that stands to roll on generationally. They have eight guys banned from playing due to a misjudged circuit in January! They’re the next ones we have to worry about.
Indeed, these are dark times for New South Wales fans. Our ritzy, thuggish misfits and upstarts, versus Queensland’s imperious and villainless battlers.
I think New South Wales will win game one 14-12.
Sam Perry will be commentating State of Origin Game One live for The Hill Radio on Wednesday, June 1 from 7.30pm AEST. Head to mixlr.com/thehillradio to stream the game from there.