Friday, June 20, 2014

A Sporting Life – Rugby League

Just recently I discovered that one of our ESPN channels shows Rugby League club-matches from Australia and England. It’s the end of a long drought for me, and I’ve been watching avidly ever since. 

There was no football of any kind in our sheep-raising district when I was a boy. My boarding-school in Brisbane made us play Rugby Union every Saturday – rain, hail or shine! Kids of my size traditionally played either half-back or hooker. Yes, I was a teenage hooker – the poor bugger in the middle of every scrum. 

But League was our game of choice in pick-up games. The rules were simpler, and anyway League was far more popular with the public in Queensland. And in NSW. In all the other States, Aussie Rules was the football game – a variant of Gaelic Football.

It was my Dad’s boast that he had been present the day the Toowoomba League team beat the England touring team in the 1920s. 30,000 people were in the ground, he said. That equalled the town’s entire population, but many of the watchers had come in from the hinterland. A very exciting game, he assured me, although the crowd was packed together too closely to let him see much. No CCTV, then. "Nigger" Brown (I blogged about him and his nickname in May 2013) wasn’t playing; he’d retired by then. Dad would have given his right arm to see him play.

And, speaking of right arms… My proud boast is that I was present at the second Test Match in 1958 (“the Battle of Brisbane”), when Great Britain beat Australia. The GB captain broke his forearm three minutes after the start, and for the rest of the game he played his arm hanging loose from the shoulder – packing down in the scrums, tackling and passing as best he could. No substitutes allowed in those days. 

Four other British players were badly damaged during the game; only the one with the broken collar-bone went off. I don’t remember much about the game, but the captain’s absurd bravery is a very vivid memory for me.

Rugby League has always been passionately supported in its home regions – basically, the north of England and the east of Australia. Rugby Union was a posh-Public-Schools game, and an amateur sport for most of its life; League was a working-man’s game. 

In recent years it has become a very “matey” sport, especially in Australia. Referees’ words are broadcast to the crowd, full of friendly advice. “Hold on, Billy: he wasn’t ready. Start that again!” “Stay behind the line, you fellows.” “Give it a rest, Jamie. I don’t want to talk about it.” To the captains: “Come over here, Michael. Josh, you too. Listen, tell your guys – Hey, Michael! Get back here. I haven’t finished yet…!”

Trainers run onto the field at any old time and squirt water onto sweaty faces. The other night I saw both trainers nursing an injured player on the ground, not waiting for the ref to stop the game. Everybody’s supposed to be concerned about concussion, but if a player gets knocked about, they wait for him to find his wits again and make him walk off the field with them. Only wusses get carried off. The spirit of the England captain lives on!

The rules have changed quite a bit since the ‘60s: some for the better, some not. The old-style scrums have been abandoned in the interests of making the game faster. Tackles are limited to sets of six, where they used to have no limit at all. Illegal passes are given the benefit of the doubt more often than they used to be. Players have to be doing serious mischief to be pulled up for offside; three or four tackles can occur before everybody is back behind the ball. As long as they're not interfering with play – no worries, mate!

In my day, Toowoomba teams used to play what was called “contact” rugby, which called for players to pass the ball pretty much as soon as they were touched. Gosh, did that make for a fast game! Naturally, it only worked with players who were light and fast, which our boys were. 

Frank Drake (our magical fullback) once caught a kick behind his goalposts and ran into the back line with it. He stayed with them, handled it three more times (or maybe four; it all happened quite a distance away) as it passed up and down from one side of the field to the other and back again, and again, and scored at the other end. That’s been as memorable for me as the man with the broken arm, in its way.