Friday Night Fights: Rugby League, An Obituary

So for the first time this year I sat down to watch a game of Friday Night Footy, for little other reason than I had nothing in particular to do.

Roosters vs Bulldogs. East vs West. Two rivalries, who, as a Knights fan that grew up in Brisbane, I really don’t give a fuck about.

At first I was enjoying it. Poured myself a generous glass of McLaren Vale Shiraz and dipped my spicy, gluten free, multi-grain “Snack Chips” into some home made guacamole (well, half of a soft avocado) – and only realise now as I write this how very un-rugby league I was being, but still, I was wondering why I didn’t do it more? I was genuinely looking forward to the next two or so hours on the couch.

The game started as rugby league games are prone to do; a lot of big blokes beating the hell out of each other; a bit scrappy due to the heavy rain, but it genuinely had the potential to be a cracker between last year’s premiers and a Bulldogs team on the rise.

Then the commentary started to register a little bit more. It took until around the fifteen to twenty minute mark before I really started to pay attention to Ray ‘Rabs’ Warren’s dulcet tones. Before then I had been too drawn in by the delicacies in front of me and throwing out some fairly average Supercoach heckle to my admittedly superior foe, to really listen.

The reddest face in the biz
The reddest face in the biz


But my ears were pricked and skin became immediately prickled by the familiar caterwauling of an old married couple that stay together merely because they know no other way (and no one else will have them?). Even more aggravatingly, they weren’t even arguing about something from the game we were watching!

I immediately became irritated and remembered why I had given up watching Friday Night Football.

Fast forward to Sunday afternoon. I turn on the TV to see the West Tigers surprisingly giving Manly a bit of a touch up. But what are ‘Rabs’ and ‘Gus’ talking, or rather, arguing, about? What the body of water behind Leichardt is. They were both wrong in the end. It is neither the Harbour, as Gus thought, or a river, as Rabs supposed, but Canada Bay. I turned the game off.

Phil ‘Gus’ Gould is a very intelligent bloke. I can’t stand him generally, but there was a time when Phil Gould opened his mouth, you listened – because he was usually spot on. Now he just warbles on, saying little of value, and appears to be genuinely trying to get under the skin of Rabs. Why? Has he suffered a mild stroke? Or is it something more calculated?

It would not surprise me if it is all a deliberate and canny ruse on his part to get people turning off the television and going out to games. A diabolical scheme! But what he is overlooking – and this applies whether or not he is doing it deliberately or has just lost it – is that he and Rabs are the game.

Rabs and Gus after another domestic
Rabs and Gus after another domestic

It’s not just the to-ing and fro-ing of 26 blokes with a ball. Rugby league is the people who watch it, the individuals on the paddock, the commentators, the journalists who write about, the coaches and their mind games. The way Rabs and Gus go on at each other is not only pathetic and frustrating, it is highly unprofessional.

Here’s a thought: I propose that the real reason crowd numbers and ratings are down is not due to wrestling in the play-the-ball, or the success of other codes, but that the personalities of rugby league have become so grating and unlikeable that people are turning away.

‘Sterlo’ and ‘Freddy’ are the only part of the Channel 9 team I can honestly say I like. Sterlo must hold his magnificent head in his hands while listening to those two idiots go at it. Freddy, on the other hand, just seems such an excitable pup he probably has little to no idea what is going on, he just knows he is at the footy and is therefore having a great fucking time! With Ray Hadley calling the other game like a horse race and throwing his weight around to get rid of Andrew Voss, a bloke most league fans actually liked, the games have become almost unwatchable.

Then there are the players. The loveable larrikin is well and truly dead. I am loathe to bring up Willie ‘Fucking’ Mason again in one of my articles, but when he retires who have we got? A bunch of Tweeting twits with about as much personality as brown rice. David ‘Wolfman’ Williams seems alright, but he’s got to be getting on too. The rest are either quietly spoken Mormons or just plain fucking pricks. It is a broad stroke, but I stand by it.

Yet another wonderful 'sports smile'
Yet another wonderful ‘sports smile’

Todd Carney, Josh Dugan, Paul Gallen, Michael Ennis, Sam ‘Squirrel Grip’ Burgess – some of the biggest names in the game, and some seriously questionable blokes. I used to think Cameron Smith was a statesman of the game, but I found it sickening to see him arguing against Newcastle being awarded a penalty as Alex McKinnon lay prone on the ground. I acknowledge Smith couldn’t have known the full extent of the injury, but he should have shown better judgement as a) referees never, never, change their decisions; b) they’re certainly not going to do it when a guy is lying critically injured on the ground; and c) sometimes you should just show some good fucking taste and let it go, Cameron.

League powers that be have always been delusional enough to think that ‘The Greatest Game of All’ will survive anything because it is, inherently, the greatest game of all, but the harsh reality is it’s not even close. Still, how do you make blokes more likeable?

In this day and age there is a lot of talk about athletes becoming cardboard cutouts, but it’s a two-way mirror, and when the media lambasts them for even the slightest misquote or misdemeanour how can you blame them for retreating into their shells? The gossip columnists that mask as sports journalists in this country are as much to blame as anyone. I wonder how long it is before Rebecca Wilson starts wandering around Darlinghurst kicking players in the shins hoping to get a reaction and a good story?

Photoshopped within an inch
Photoshopped within an inch

So I am laying the blame of the impending death of rugby league as we know it (I’m calling it) at the feet of the very people who are meant to be promoting and cultivating the game.

The whole system needs an overhaul. Channel 9 needs to be stripped of the rights and its team of rodeo clowns put out to pasture. The Daily Telegraph and News Limited, well they just need to be burned to the ground. And a new bunch of people need to step up and take the reigns. Along with Freddy and Sterlo.

By Alasdair McClintock