If Rugby League Was A Drug…

The Australian sporting world has been rocked by the news that former NRL and AFL player, Karmichael Hunt – now contracted to the Queensland Reds Super 15 franchise – has been allegedly charged with supplying cocaine.  

In light of this new development, TPA’s Dave Edwards and Ben Shine have joined forces to answer the one question that has baffled sporting pundits for decades: If each of Australia’s four major football codes were a ‘drug’, what drug would that be?

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Dave Edwards: Let’s start with the obvious one, Ben. I believe that rugby league is ecstasy – or, to use the appropriate term, pingas.

Rugby league was at its peak in the 1990s. Incidentally, so were pingas. In the 1990s, Sydney-siders were going out and dumping at a rave club on a Friday night, then backing up for some Saturday arvo footy at Leichhardt Oval.

The great thing about pingas is that you never know quite what you’re going to get. You might get an amazing unexpected high, or you might O.D. and die. You might get a long-lasting, euphoric high, or it might be “smacky” and sweat-inducing. It even might be laced with heroin. Ecstasy is impure, unpredictable and cheap – just like rugby league.

MDMA is becoming increasingly popular in Australia, by virtue of being a far cleaner high than ‘ecstasy’. But MDMA is just of the many chemicals found in ecstasy – the rest is a hybrid of weird shit like heroin, caffeine and dishwashing detergent.

Am I wrong in suggesting that rugby league is an ecstasy tablet?

"If we dump these now, we should be peaking by half-time in the Souths v Wests Tigers game"
“If we dump these now, we should be peaking by half-time in the Souths v Wests Tigers game”

Ben Shine: I think the parallels between rugby league and ecstasy are uncanny; however, while MDMA has had a local resurgence in recent years, we are still waiting for rugby league to reach the halcyon days of the pre Super League era.

Perhaps a closer fit would be speed, or as it is commonly known by bogan Australia, “goey.”

Like rugby league, amphetamines have been on the scene for a long time without ever having achieved dominance of the market – possibly because the drug is only really effective at keeping you awake, and doesn’t really do much else. Both are cheap, accessible and popular with truck drivers.

I feel rugby league falls somewhere in between an ecstasy tablet and a simple line of speed. I believe that if the code had a spirit drug it would be a cheap pinga with dodgy speed as the primarily ingredient.

Now where does this leave the other codes?

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DE: I’m torn on this one. One thing I think we can agree on is that rugby union is not an ‘upper’. The infuriating stop-start nature of the game is what makes it a depressant.

Is rugby union prescription meds? I know that depressants such as Valium and Xanax are prescribed to relieve anxiety, which is exactly what rugby union can induce in some people. Nothing makes me more anxious that watching a scrum be continually reset by a pedantic Northern Hemisphere referee.

Prescription drugs are commonly abused by elitists. Bored, lonely housewives popping pills with a glass of red at 11:00am on a Tuesday, alone and depressed in their Point Piper mansions, longing to just feel something, anything.

Benzos and Burgundy - just the trick on a boring Tuesday arvo
Benzos and Burgundy – just the trick on a boring Tuesday arvo

I guess another (far more common) depressant is humble alcohol. What do you reckon, Ben, is rugby union alcohol, prescription meds – or something else entirely?

BS: You’re dead right: rugby union is certainly not an “upper”.

This is why Karmichael’s coke charge sits uneasily with me. In many ways cocaine should be the drug for rugby union, in a socio-economic sense (it is expensive and union fans are, broadly speaking, richer than other codes) and also in an excitement sense (the adrenalin rush of running rugby can only be compared to the high of a massive line of the white stuff), but it just doesn’t feel right.

For one, I don’t think the majority of union fans would touch illicit drugs. That would be far too common. Plus cocaine is a bit nouveau riche and gauche these days, isn’t it?

Secondly, rugby union no longer embodies the excitement of the running rugby / act Brumbies days anymore. Anyone who watches the wallabies lose 9-3 against the springboks cannot liken the experience to ingesting a stimulant drug.

It is, as you suggest, a depressant. Pop a Xanax, have a glass of red and knock yourself out.

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BS: It feels wrong comparing AFL to a drug. The code is so family-oriented that I just can’t think of an illicit drug to liken it to. Personally, I think AFL is alcohol. Socially acceptable, its consumption is not bound by class distinctions or geography. Everyone has a sip.

Then there is the insidiously harmful side to alcohol. It can be monumentally destructive to the user and wider community. I don’t think we can say the same thing about AFL, although perhaps the code’s impact on rugby league’s grip on Western Sydney can be discussed in those terms.

Everyone has a sip
Everyone has a sip.

DE: I really like how you’ve compared AFL’s newly acquired foothold in Western Sydney to the impact of alcohol on the wider community. AFL has enjoyed a surge in market share over recent years – and has a strong presence in pretty much all the major Australian states. Alcohol, similarly, is pretty damn widespread across the board and all ages – even despite Kevin Rudd’s efforts to curb youth binge-drinking through his ‘alcopop-tax’.

So what ‘drug’ is AFL? I feel like it might actually be meth.

Meth (or more specifically, ice) is a growing problem in society today. According to the most recent figures from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre’s annual survey, 61% of those who inject substances had used ice in the last six months. Interestingly, the biggest increase in ice/meth usage is in Victoria – the traditional home of AFL. Here, in my home town, 75% of drug users reported using ice in the last six months, up from 55% in 2013.

Over the past 10 years, AFL has become the most polished, marketable brand out of the Big Four (AFL, NRL, A-League, Rugby Union).  It’s no coincidence, according to the NDARC, that there has also been a doubling of ice-related ambulance attendances in Victoria, which they have attributed to a boost in ‘purity’.

AFL is “pure” and popular – and nothing exemplifies that more than a batch of Heisenberg’s signature blue meth.

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BS: Football, and the A League, is really coming up at the moment, but in many ways it is still niche.

There probably is a drug that is comparable to the A League, but I just don’t know what it is. I am out of the loop. It could be a new drug to hit the streets (a synthetic quasi-legal high?) or maybe an old favourite making a comeback in terms of popularity (LSD or magic mushrooms?).

Is soccer synthetic cannibis?
Is soccer synthetic cannibis?

Whatever the case, I think the important thing is that soccer is transitioning at the moment. Whatever drug is symbolises now is sure to change within the next five to ten years. So let’s look forward, rather than at the current situation.

Soccer undoubtedly has aspirations to be alcohol: our country’s drug of choice. It may eventually settle for marijuana or MDMA, very popular drug choices in their own right, but not the most consumed in Australia.

DE: You’re right: soccer is our toughest challenge yet. It’s growing in popularity, but a lot of people here are still afraid of it. It will likely never achieve our warm, collective embrace.

As such, I reckon that soccer is heroin. Soccer is the ‘beautiful game’ – and from the literature that I’ve read (basically just Anthony Kiedis’ Scar Tissue) nothing beats the blissful, out-of-body-experience of your first heroin high. You feel elevated and immediately free of all your worries.

Remember John Aloisi’s famous penalty that put Australia into the 2006 World Cup? That was Australia’s first heroin/football experience – and we will never reclaim that high as long as we all live. Les Murray’s facial expression that day was no different to that of the dishevelled junkie shooting up behind a 7/11 near Sydney’s Central Station: a vision of relief, years of suffering swept instantly away at the mere prick of a needle.

Don't let the haunting image fool you; he's having a good time.
Don’t let the haunting image fool you; he’s having a good time.

But while heroin can be a seductive drug, it is nonetheless deadly. The international body, FIFA, is a corrupt organisation ruled by dark forces. Over the years there have been some terrible tragedies, ranging from violent riots to the Hillsborough disaster. Just last week, 22 people died in clashes between Egyptian police and Zamalek fans at a Cairo stadium.

Soccer is tragic, but glorious, in equal measure.

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