Clash of the Codes - rugby union vs rugby league panel discussion
Tim Gavel, Nick Smith, Ben Pollock and Guy Hansen, National Museum of Australia, 2 March 2008
TIM GAVEL: Welcome to this very special occasion at the National Museum of Australia [NMA], the battle of the codes. I guess rugby league and rugby union have battled each other in the media over the years, but the reality is that they are quite closely aligned. In a moment we will hear from Guy Hansen, the curator at the National Museum of the League of Legends: 100 Years of Rugby League in Australia exhibition [shown at the NMA from 8 March to 11 May 2008 and now traveling around Australia]. It is fantastic. I have just had a sneak preview, and it is worth having a look at. Guy will tell you about it in just a moment. We will also hear from Nick Smith, the spin doctor from the Brumbies, and his counterpart Ben Pollock from the Canberra Raiders. [We’ve separated them quite extensively on the table here. Guy is going to be the moderator in the middle.]
Over the last week or so, just thinking about rugby league, when I first came to Canberra in 1988 it was very much a league town, and everybody was talking about the Canberra Raiders. Then the Raiders won the premiership in 1989, people put green dye in the fountain and thousands lined the streets from Queanbeyan to Canberra to welcome the team home after they beat Balmain in the grand final in extra time. Rugby union to a certain extent was shut out of the picture as was Australian Rules. In fact, rugby union at that time was playing at a very small ground where Ainslie Oval is now. The grass was growing through the seats, and it was almost impossible to get into the change room because nobody could find the key. That was the situation that existed then for rugby union. When the ACT played New South Wales there in about 1992, New South Wales at one stage couldn’t get out of the change room because somebody had locked them in and there was no running hot water.
That was an indication of where rugby union was going at that stage. Then in 1996 they decided to start the Super 12 as it was known then, now the Super 14, and the Brumbies came into existence. It happened at the time when a split came in rugby league with the Super League and the ARL. People became disenchanted with rugby league and decided, ‘Well, let’s support something else,’ and they jumped on board with the Brumbies.
The rugby league people, especially the Raiders, didn’t like it. You had chief executives at the time ring you up, wondering where you were, why you weren’t at training; how come the Brumbies were getting more media time than the Raiders? The Brumbies were getting the huge crowds at Canberra Stadium. You had to explain, ‘Well, listen, the support at the moment is for Brumbies. It’s not for the Raiders. We’re not totally disbanding the Raiders, but the mere fact is that you are getting 22,000 at the Canberra Stadium for the Brumbies and you’re getting 7000 for the Raiders, an indication that possibly support has shifted away from the Raiders.’ The Raiders didn’t like it because they had been the top dog in the town for a number of years.
In recent times things have started to even out a little bit. Brumbies got 15,000 last night to a game against Queensland, and possibly with Gregan, Larkham, Paul and Mortlock, they might have got a few more last year. It is starting to even out a little bit, the Raiders with a lot of young players coming through. It’s very interesting the way the dynamics have worked in this town, but I will tell you more about that as the afternoon progresses.
We will first hear from Nick, Guy and Ben. Then at the end we will allow you to ask them questions and possibly have a debate amongst yourselves and take up some of the things that have been mentioned by Ben, Nick and Guy. [We are going to record your questions. That’s just a bit of a warning if you don’t want to find yourself being recorded.] Just on rugby league, another funny thing that comes to mind is that when rugby union started with the Brumbies in 1996, the ‘leaguies’ got stuck into the Brumbies because they said they couldn’t tackle and the huge score lines et cetera. So the Brumbies then hired all these rugby league players - Peter Ryan, et cetera - to come along and teach them how to tackle. Now the rugby league says that Union is too defensive, so who knows what is happening.
I would first like to call upon Guy Hansen to tell us about the League of Legends exhibition which opened on Friday at the National Museum [8 March 2008].
GUY HANSEN: I think I can start by declaring my interests in this debate. I played both codes of football when I was a boy at school and have continued to enjoy both of them. I suppose spending the last 18 months working on this exhibition has given me a bit of a tendency to like rugby league right at this particular point in my life but I do have a particular fondness for both codes. I know amongst my friends and my family just discussing the centenary creates debates as people often want to express an opinion as to what is the superior code. It was that which led us to the idea of having a debate on the clash of the codes, and that is why we are here today.
This year, 2008, is the centenary of rugby league. Rugby league actually got going in 1907. The New South Wales Rugby Football League was formed in August 1907, but the first full season of rugby league was 1908. That is why there is the centenary this year. The Australian Rugby League, the National Rugby League and the New South Wales Rugby League have cooperated with the National Museum of Australia to present a centenary exhibition. They have opened their doors to us, and we’ve been able to get some wonderful football treasures out and on display.
[As Tim mentioned, that exhibition opens next Friday. There is a big Canberra Raiders Fan Day next Saturday and it will run through until May. I think, it will be a fantastic exhibition.]
It does celebrate a major anniversary in Australian life and sporting culture. Whatever side of the debate that you fall on, you can’t help but agree that rugby league has been a very major part of Australian life over the last 100 years; particularly in Queensland and New South Wales.
This is the League of Legends logo which we developed for the exhibition. I know most people will know who’s up there but, just in case, Dally Messenger is on the left-hand side and Darren Lockyer is the right-hand side. The symbolism there is the first star of rugby league and perhaps the current Australian captain and star of rugby league today, so that spans the 100 years, connected by the ‘V’ of the Kangaroos jersey.
How did rugby league get started? It was a New Zealander who really triggered events here. In 1907 a professional New Zealand team were travelling over to play against the new professional code in England called the Northern Union - at that stage they hadn’t taken up the term ‘league’ – that had begun in the late 1890s. They had reduced the number of players from 15 to 13. They had started some of the rule changes which differentiated the new code. But the big difference was that the players in the Northern Union were actually paid. [shows image] This young man, who was a postal clerk in New Zealand, decided to take a professional rugby side over to play the Northern Union and make a bit of money along the way. Of course, if they are travelling over to the UK they decided to stop in Sydney on the way and they wanted to play a team in Sydney.
There was already considerable disaffection in Sydney amongst some rugby union players that they weren’t compensated for their time and didn’t receive medical insurance, and particularly for players who relied on income to survive, if they received a bad injury their family could be in a very bad way. There was some disaffection amongst rugby union players who wanted more compensation and wanted medical insurance. There was also another strong side of the debate which was that the code should remain amateur at all costs: it was all about the spirit of the game and amateurism. Those two forces were at work in Sydney in 1907.
But the arrival of these professional New Zealanders created an opportunity for some money to be made. A group of rugby union players and officials got together and created the new organisation, which was called the New South Wales Rugby Football League. That is a poster of the New Zealand side who went on to play in England [shows image]. We know the New Zealand side is the All Blacks. This particular side, because it was a professional side and was playing for coin of the realm, was nicknamed the All Golds. This was the team which came through Sydney and played some matches in Sydney in August 1907. Interestingly enough, the rule book had not yet arrived from England as to how the new code should be played and so, as a result, the first rugby league matches played in Sydney were actually played under rugby union rules.
The key men in the founding of the New South Wales Rugby Football League included JJ Giltinan, who was an entrepreneur and a man greatly interested in sport - not only in football but he later went to have a big role in establishing 18-foot yacht racing in Sydney as well. He was quite a sporting entrepreneur. Victor Trumper, a cricketer, played a big role. He was another leading sporting figure in Sydney who threw his weight behind the establishment of rugby league. And a politician Henry Hoyle who was a Labor politician involved with the trade unions. So you see an interesting alliance between Labor politics and rugby league and perhaps the beginning of the idea of rugby league as the working class game. Clearly that impetus where players wanted to be paid and to be compensated was part of the reason why rugby league was very popular amongst working people who perhaps didn’t have the income to play the game just for the sake of it.
This controversy, this clash between amateurism and professionalism, hit rowing and a range of other sports as well in Sydney at that time. It was a big debate within the community.
How did rugby league succeed? One of the key moments for rugby league was the recruitment of the star New South Wales rugby union player Dally Messenger. He was the up-and-coming star in rugby union. He had a capacity to pull a crowd in his own right: If they knew Messenger was playing more people would come. So once rugby league managed to persuade Messenger to sign up, that helped ensure their success.
This is an object from the exhibition. It is the RAS [Royal Agricultural Society] Challenge Shield, which ended up with Dally Messenger. It was the first shield of the New South Wales rugby league first grade competition. After Eastern Suburbs had won it three times in a row, the shield was presented to Eastern Suburbs who then gave it Dally Messenger, their star player. Eventually the Museum purchased the shield from the descendants of Dally Messenger. It is one of the icons in our collection.
In addition to Messenger, another part of the story which in popular memory is often forgotten is the role that the Wallabies played in promoting rugby league. In 1908, there was a very successful Wallabies side that went to England and played in the Olympics and actually won the gold medal. They played against Cornwall, interestingly enough in the Olympics. This is a photo of the match. [shows image] That side, upon their return to Australia, were persuaded to play the Kangaroos, because the Kangaroos had just returned from England as well. A series of very successful matches were held in 1909 in Sydney between the Wallabies and the Kangaroos. It goes to show you how close the codes were that they could actually meet on the football field at this time.
All of those 1908 and 1909 Wallabies went on to join rugby league. That was a massive injunction of star power and also of player power to rugby league. By 1910-1911, rugby league had transformed itself from this struggling, breakaway rebel code into being a real force in Sydney. It had completely began to dominate Sydney rugby football supporters and also had grown in Queensland, in Newcastle and other parts of Australia.
That is a very quick thumbnail sketch of the early history of rugby league. I think the most important thing to remember is that the two codes were very close when they started, obviously branches of the same tree. Perhaps the thing which has made them grow in different directions is that rugby league very early on, in adopting a professional ethos, needed to ensure they had large numbers of people come to see the game. That began a process of rule changes which were often about making rugby league a more enjoyable spectacle.
That is something we have seen over the last 100 years. Rugby league has aggressively changed its rules right throughout its history in order to provide a better spectacle. There has been a lot of experimentation with things such as the unlimited tackle rule, the four tackle rule, the six tackle rule, the five yard rule, the three yard rule - a whole series of rules over time to try to make the game more attractive for the fans. That might be one of the key differences between the codes which we can explore later on today. I’ll throw it over to our fellow talkers today.
TIM GAVEL: One of the things that I noticed in the exhibition that is worth having a look at - I will just give you the details. In the 1930s there was this player who was playing rugby league in Sydney and every time he scored a try he combed his hair. They’ve actually got the comb that he used to put into his socks on display. I don’t know where they got that from.
On display is the original card table where Frank Hyde used to call games from from the sideline. Let me tell you that I used to call games from the sideline in group 11 out in Dubbo. It’s very hard when you’ve got a pitch that goes sloping on the other side. You can’t see over to the other side of the field, and often the ball gets kicked toward you and things blow everywhere. They’ve also got the headphones used by Frank Hyde, his seat, his binoculars, and also the ball used in the 1989 grade final. Interestingly enough, it is a leather ball that is totally different from the balls they use today. They are all worth having a look at. [See Media moments for more information.]
They’ve got the Goodwill Cup on display, which I have read about in the past. A lot of people have described it as the most over-the-top trophy in the history of sport and, when you see it, you’ll understand exactly what I’m talking about. They couldn’t have put any more intricacies on this trophy than they have. It’s just totally over the top.
They have also got the Winfield Cup, which Laurie Daley dropped on the way from Queanbeyan to Canberra in 1989, before it was hastily re-patched and taken to The Lodge that night, and celebrated in front of Bob Hawke when the Raiders won the grand final. That was a magic moment.
We have two people here today to extol the virtues of rugby union and rugby league. I think it was in 1997 when Super League came into being. One of the rules of Super League clubs was that every club had to have a media operator so that, when journalists phoned the coaches, as they had done in the past, the coaches wouldn’t tell them anything. A classic case is that many times for the Raiders you’d ring Tim Sheens up and say, ‘Hi Tim. A bloke came off with a broken leg,’ and Tim would say, ‘Oh, it’ll be right next week,’ only to find out that he’s out for two seasons.
The role of the media operator or the PR person for the club now is to make sure that the media gets the correct information. For instance, Nick, Julian Huxley was knocked out last night. We would call it concussion, but Laurie Fisher is very keen on calling it a head knock, because if you call it concussion apparently he has to be out for three weeks. I mean the bloke was convulsing on the ground - but apparently if you call it a head knock he only has to miss one game. So Nick’s job this week will be to ensure that the media says that Julian Huxley suffered a head knock and not severe concussion. Anyway, our first speaker to extol the virtues of rugby union is Nick Smith.
NICK SMITH: I would like to thank the National Museum for this opportunity to come and speak today in this Clash of the Codes debate. Ladies and gentlemen, I will be putting forth the case for the magnificent code of rugby union today and I have agreed to speak very slowly and where possible in single syllables for my league counterpart Ben.
In the lead-up to this debate, I’ve had a number of panicked phone calls from Ben asking me - nay pleading with me - to change sides so that he could debate in favour of rugby union. However, after convincing him that I didn’t think it was in his best career interests to publicly concede that rugby union was a far superior sport, and after several minutes of explaining to Ben that ‘de bait’ wasn’t something that you put on the end of the hook when you went fishing, he finally came around. But it’s all right - I see he’s got a number of picture cards with him today [laughter] and I’m sure he’ll put together a very convincing argument.
We’re here to celebrate the centenary of rugby league. I must admit that rugby union had a fantastic centenary when we celebrated it more than 85 years ago - I guess that’s neither here nor there today. But before I get too involved, I would like to congratulate rugby league, which is commonly regarded as rugby union’s little sister, on reaching 100 years.
There were many cynics who thought that it would never survive a century. But rugby league, which has now developed into a nice little suburban park game and is now flourishing in Manchester, Port Moresby and Ingleburn has certainly proven them wrong.
For those who don’t know, rugby league in Australia, as Guy mentioned, was founded in a little sports shop in Market Street in Sydney by JJ Giltinan and Victor Trumper. Now, I’ll let you in on a little Smith family secret here that Victor Trumper was actually my great-great uncle on my father’s side. That’s a true story. While he was credited with being a great bloke and an even better cricketer, my relatives have had to carry around the emotional baggage and family shame that he was directly responsible for bringing rugby league into this country. That’s right - this legend of Australian cricket was responsible for introducing this weed that has infested the sporting landscape of this otherwise unblemished country.
Today I’ll be taking a more holistic approach to telling you of course what you already know: that rugby union is far superior to rugby league. I have chosen to focus on three of the thousands of aspects that illustrate this extremely well-known fact: that rugby union is a better preparation for life; that rugby union is a passport to the world; and that the quality of the actual sport of rugby union is vastly superior to that of its little sister.
It’s a simple and undisputed fact that rugby union is the definitive gentleman’s game. It teaches the importance of vision, perseverance, tenacity, camaraderie and working within the rules. And once you’ve been inducted into the rugby community, you’re a member for life. While rugby league is driven by more sinister and mercenary ideals, rugby union is internationally united by a common set of values: teamwork, pride, respect and mateship. These are the values that not only define the sport but also can be employed in life after rugby.
Rugby union abides by the motto of ‘what happens on the field stays on the field’. After each match players universally join in the bar to enjoy the brotherhood and community of rugby, sharing happy times and revelling in the friendliest game on earth. Unfortunately, league’s counter phrase of ‘what happens on the field can usually be sorted out in the car park’ doesn’t lend itself to the same jovial culture. This mentality was perfectly demonstrated with Wally Lewis and Mark Geyer and their spat after the whistle had blown in the 1991 State of Origin.
While rugby union is totally dedicated to upholding their fine values and welfare of the sport, it is also committed to the welfare of their players. Rugby union is served by some of the most active players unions around the world. In Australia, the Rugby Union Players Association is bound by unanimity and provides a united front on behalf of the playing group. Alas, rugby league is a game of individuals driven by self-interest. The Super League ordeal was a perfect example of this egocentric nature and resulted in the self-destruction and self-cannibalisation of the sport.
When rugby was presented with professionalism and a similar challenge in 1995; rather than divide and be conquered, the players took one voice, thus leaving the game intact and allowing the sport to evolve into an even faster, sexier and increasingly global entertainment spectacle. This involvement with the various national players associations around the globe has also ensured that players have fulfilling careers mapped out for when their playing days draw to an end.
The 2007 Sweeney sports poll showed that not only do 87 per cent of all rugby union players go on to tertiary education but 95 per cent of rugby league players own a Play Station, which is up on the national average of 22 per cent of all Australian homes that own computer gaming consoles. Some of the former rugby union players that have gone on to fulfilling high-profile careers include: former All Blacks captain David Kirk, who is the current chief executive of Fairfax Media; former Grand Slam winning Wallaby Michael Hawker, who is the CEO of the Insurance Australia Group; Dr Brett Robinson, who was the foundation captain of the Brumbies and who is now the General Manager of the Insurance Australia Group; and Peter Fitzsimons, former Wallaby, is one of this country’s most read journalists and authors.
The 2006 Who’s Who of Australian business includes more than 150 former rugby union players from the elite level. There are only six former Australian rugby league players listed in that book, two of whom, I believe, are being investigated for embezzlement and tax fraud. What’s more, you can only expect this number of former rugby union players in these sorts of publications to increase with individuals like Joe Roth currently studying at Oxford University, and current Brumbies squad member Daniel Guinness recently receiving a Rhodes Scholarship.
The final point I would like to make in regard to rugby’s superior preparation for life is that it is a sport that encourages participation. Regardless of one’s body shape, rugby union has a position for you. Unlike rugby league which supports elitism, rugby union promotes inclusion, which I think you will agree is another one of life’s very important little lessons. To illustrate this I have taken an average of each of the common positions between rugby league and rugby union in the Super 14 tournament and the National Rugby League. In the Super 14 the average prop weighs 126 kilos; the average backrower weighs 110 kilos; scrum half, 87 kilos; winger, 92 kilos; and centre, 99 kilos. In rugby league, the average prop weighs 94 kilos; the average backrower weighs 94 kilos; a halfback weighs 93 kilos; centre, 94 kilos; and winger, 94 kilos. If variety is indeed the spice of life, then rugby league is a very stale game, and I think those numbers clearly speak for themselves. The bottom line is to compare the glorious code of rugby to rugby league is like comparing a five-course Cordon Bleu banquet cooked by a five-star Michelin chef with a stale packet of Vita wheats.
As far as passport to the world goes, rugby union is a truly global sport. A rugby union tour can take you to the elegance of the Eiffel Tower in France or the beauty of Buckingham Palace in England or even the splendour of Japan’s Mount Fuji. Rugby union players are treated to the architectural and engineering marvels that are Twickenham; Millennium Stadium, which is the former Cardiff Arms Park; Le Stade de France; Maryfield in Edinburgh; Ellis Park in Johannesburg. All these modern coliseums have been built as contemporary temples to the game they play in heaven.
What about rugby league? Well, I’ve heard that the pokie lounge at the Penrith Leagues Club is supposed to be quite breathtaking. I’m yet to receive a postcard but I’ve heard that the beer garden at Brisbane’s Caxton Hotel is supposed to be quite good. And if you’re lucky you’ll get to play a match on the hallowed turf of the Campbelltown Sports Ground or even Redfern Oval.
Ladies and gentlemen, to suggest that there is even a comparison between those two codes is completely absurd. While we are discussing the ability of rugby as a portal to the world, it would be remiss of me not to mention the Rugby World Cup. I can fully appreciate that Ben is probably shifting uneasily in his seat at the moment as he realises that his game has absolutely no answer to the third largest global sporting event.
Before I go on, I would just like to take a second and ask everyone to remember their favourite moment from the last Rugby League World Cup. Well, why don’t you just take a moment to reflect on any moment from a rugby league world cup. Can anyone actually remember anything from any rugby league world cup? No? Well, for those of you who are unaware, the last Rugby League World Cup was actually held in the year 2000. But don’t beat yourself up over it because they are not even a regular event. Some of the highlights of that world cup included Lebanon’s epic 104-0 win over Morocco; the United States’ 68-0 win over Canada; and who could ever forget the Welsh rugby league’s emotional 38-6 win over the Cook Islands. Just so you know the Welsh had a terrific World Cup that year making the semi-finals. Something else that you probably should know is that rugby league doesn’t even figure in the top 10 sports of Wales. Naturally, rugby union is regarded as its national sport, then comes soccer and cricket, and even darts gets a mention. I don’t know if your alarm bells are ringing, Ben, but when one of rugby league’s poster countries would rather go and watch someone throw a triple 20 than go and watch one of their national players score a try, I think it speaks volumes for the international appeal of your code.
While we are speaking of people watching and international appeal, perhaps we should cross check the attendance records for the last Rugby World Cup against the last Rugby League World Cup. Both were held in France and the United Kingdom. The 2007 Rugby World Cup averaged in excess of 47,000 people per match with more than 2.5 million people passing through the turnstiles over their 48 matches. The 2000 Rugby League World Cup had an average attendance of just under 8000, attracting almost 250,000 to their 31 games. Now, I’m no mathematician, but there does seem to be a bit of disparity there. No matter what anyone states about those two codes, this figure alone is a game, set, and match for rugby.
Let’s be honest: even as a national game rugby league struggles. Whatever happened to the Western Reds? Where are the Hunter Mariners now? And does anyone remember the Adelaide Rams? But before you rubbish the idea of a rugby code being able to survive out of Brisbane, Sydney or west of the Great Dividing Range, I would like to remind you that the Adelaide Sevens are now a part of an established part of the South Australian sporting calendar and brought almost $20 million to the local economy in its first year, and the Western Force is doing extremely well with a membership of 32,000 people - that’s four Rugby League World Cup crowds, for your benefit, Ben.
There simply is no question that rugby union is a far greater sport. It’s a more stimulating contest than its little sister. Rugby league is predictable. It’s a lesson in mediocre repetition. It’s about hitting it up for one tackle, hitting it up for another tackle, hitting it up for another tackle and on the fifth tackle they kick. Just as an aside, during my research I found out that they introduced the four tackle rule in 1966 because players were having difficulty trying to count unlimited tackles on their fingers.
But as I was saying, rugby league is not about running into space; it’s about running into people. It’s a mindless 80-minute demolition derby that is painfully devoid of any of the thought or tact of rugby. It still pains me that there are actually spectators who go to this sport knowing exactly what is going to happen.
Then there is the greatest joke in international sport: the rugby league scrum. I have never seen a more pathetic display than what these contests have degenerated into. In rugby union unpredictability is the only certainty. Possession is constantly up for grabs with even more contests and more excitement generated through the introduction of the new ELVs. The sport thrives on the use of deception to create space and to set free athletic ball runners. It’s a thinking man’s game full of elaborate tactics, skills and athleticism.
In the last seven years, rugby league’s top players have crossed codes each citing the need for a challenge as their reason for converting. Wendell Sailor, Loti Tuqiri, Clinton Schifcofske, and Timana Tahu are but a few who have acted on their epiphany and jumped from the sinking ship to finally understand the finer and tactical side of contact football. Simply put: rugby league is a game for boofheads.
We don’t expect the rugby league fraternity to understand every rule and law of our wonderful sport and, to be honest, the beauty of rugby is in its complexity, and it’s not a game for simpletons. Rugby can be enjoyed at all levels, from the casual spectator who enjoys watching tackles being made and tries being scored through to the ardent supporter who thrives on the angles of a scrum engagement, the effectiveness of each clean out or the success of each running line. Put simply, each rugby union contest is a riveting, breathtaking physical drama of Shakespearean proportions.
No doubt Ben’s rebuttal will be as predictable as the pastime he’s here to defend. He’ll get up here and make backless claims that rugby players can’t tackle, that the sport is for leather patch-wearing toffs and that he can’t understand any of the rules. He will get up here and he will quote people out of context, and he may even make up a few facts and figures in the absence of any substance to his argument. He will get up here and try to persuade you of his wafer-thin case by throwing out the exhausted and hackneyed anomaly that league is the greatest game of all. Unfortunately, that is nothing more than a bumper sticker line and a pitiful statement for a sport that 99 percent of the world doesn’t even know exists. It’s embarrassing that a suburban pastime like rugby league can make such a pathetic claim when their entire sport can only aspire to be as remotely professional as rugby, despite paying players from the outset, and the pinnacle of their game could only dream to be as internationally renowned as the Rugby World Cup.
State of Origin is the highest level of rugby league - always has been; always will be. How then can you have such an absurd game where achieving for your club or state is more important than representing your country? Test football in rugby league, if you can call it that, is an irrelevance and an embarrassment.
I admit that there are thousands of points that I’ve been forced to omit for fear of completely ruining this celebration for rugby league and, as I said initially, let’s give league some credit. For the suburban pastime that it is, it has done extremely well. It is just unfortunate that it will never stack up to the grandeur and magnificence of rugby union at any level, whether it be the contest itself or any of the values or benefits surrounding the game.
Rugby union is unquestionably a better sport with international appeal and an ideal preparation for life. And if it is indeed the game they play in heaven, then it would seem it’s a better preparation for the after-life as well. My message to all the leaguies: Congratulations on 100 years, but make the switch while you still can and avoid an eternity in sporting purgatory. I apologise that this discussion, while it was meant to be a debate, will be a very one-sided affair and simply confirmation of what you and millions of others already know that rugby union is a far greater sport than the suburban pastime of rugby league.
TIM PAVEL: We might have to extend the room booking. It says here seven minutes, not seven hours but, anyway, well done Nick, son of Brian and brother of Jason Smith and Tim Smith. I had a bit of a laugh there. Talking about the great highlights from the last World Cup in rugby union, plenty there in 2007 in France, and also the mateship in rugby union. Now let us hear from Ben Pollock from the Canberra Raiders.
BEN POLLOCK: One word to sum that up, Nick, ‘predictable’. You have come out and based your argument on the elitism of rugby union and all that it can provide for the after-life, which absolutely has no bearing on the fact that it is a rubbish sport and it’s not fun to watch. That is probably the most catalystic point I could bring forward today.
You mentioned the [Rugby League] World Cup. I had forgotten about how good the matches were that involved Namibia, Japan and Tonga during that. They were fantastic matches and not lopsided at all.
You mentioned preparation for life after football. If you’d taken any notice in what is happening in rugby league this year; they are actually making it compulsory for all their under-20s players to focus on career. They can’t train during the day hours. That is something there.
You mentioned the car park stoush, and Tim alluded to Matt Henjak - fantastic ambassador for rugby union there - and the Western Force who doesn’t just pick on each other, they also pick on our native animals, the poor little quokkas.
You mentioned that rugby league players are all 94-95 kilograms and thus it’s not a game for everyone. Well, I would turn you to the magnificent ambassador for youth and childhood obesity, Matt Dunning. What a fantastic role model for youth he is.
And your beloved ACT Brumbies, which of course are no longer the ACT Brumbies, they are just the Brumbies. Why they dropped that off I’ll never know.
Let’s talk a little about rugby league versus rugby union and what it really is and the fundamentals of the sports. Let’s look at rugby league first. It’s more exciting with more tries, bigger hits, bigger crowds and a bigger spectacle of sport.
Rugby [yawning] ‘Yawn-ion’ [laughter], as I like to call it, has more whistles than a sheep-dog trial; you need a degree in law to understand the rules; and it is about as exciting as watching John Howard on one of his morning walks.
Scoring in rugby league: four points for a try, two points for a goal, one point for a field goal. In rugby union you always get as many points for kicking a goal and for kicking a field goal. I know that one of my favourite parts of going to watch rugby union is going to watch this [demonstrates a move] for 40 minutes out of 80. It’s really exciting stuff! You mentioned the rules and the complexity of rugby union and you alluded to it being a more complex, intellectually-based sport. Well, sure rugby league is simple: you make kick off; you’ve got six tackles to get down the other end and score a try; you score a try; you kick a goal; you come back. It’s fought out. It’s tough. It’s physical.
Then you’ve got rugby union. Just to understand a little bit more about the game I decided to go through the rules. I found on the website the laws of rugby union - 182 pages of drivel. I will read to you a couple of my favourites. Imagine explaining this to a 120-kilo tight-head prop:
When a teammate of an offside player has kicked ahead, the offside is considered to be taking part in the game if the player is in front of an imaginary line across the field, which is 10 metres from the opponent waiting to play the ball or from where the ball lands or may land. The offside player must immediately move behind the imaginary 10 metre line or moving away the player may not obstruct the opponent.
I know footballers from both codes and they are not a smart bunch - I’ll admit that. But I can’t see some of your big boys understanding some of the complexities such as that one. One of my other favourites was the tackle:
Rule 15.1 Where can a tackle take place? A tackle can only take place in the field of play -
I’m glad they put that one in there. It goes on for pages and pages. Here’s another:
All players forming, joining and taking part in a ruck must have their heads and shoulders no lower than their hips.
I don’t know if Gandhi has been playing rugby union, but does that mean that that is not allowed? [demonstrates move] Seriously, I won’t bore you with more, because it is quite… that’s rugby union though.
Now, apart from the rules, when we look at the sport these days rugby union turned professional back at the start of the ‘super rugby season’, I suppose you call it. And with that came commercial factors and sponsorship. You’ve got TV ratings and TV ratings are a huge part of sport in Australia. I managed to come across the TV ratings in 2005 for the official ratings week, which is weeks seven to 48 of the year. Let’s have a look at some of the results: 4th on the all time of the year’s programming was the Rugby League Grand Final; 17th was the pre-match entertainment of the rugby league; 21st was State of Origin game three; 28th was State of Origin game two; 29th was State of Origin game one; and this goes on. In regional Australia, the heartland of the nation, the top four programs were rugby league - the Grand Final, the three Origins - and it goes through all the way.
Just searching through this list for a rugby union match... No, we’ve got the Happy Days 30th anniversary reunion coming in at No. 37 and we’ve got Big Brother’s ‘Letting intruders into the house’ at No. 40, but there is no rugby union match. You might say, ‘That’s fine, because most of our matches are played on pay TV.’ Well, I also have the pay TV stats: 39 out of the 40 top-rating shows on pay TV were rugby league matches, which just goes to show that nobody really cares.
Nick mentioned player-poaching - you didn’t mention ‘player-poaching’, that’s what I’ll call it; you called it ‘seeing the light’. Rugby union has this sick fetish with chasing rugby league players such as Wendell Sailor, Loti Tuqiri, Matt Rogers, Clinton Schifcofske and Timana Tahu - it’s all pay back for trying to get back at when we took Dally Messenger, your greatest ever player. Matt Rogers came out and said it was great to be back in rugby league because he could score a try again. I can see where he is coming from because tries are very few and far between in rugby union.
You mentioned the State of Origin being the pinnacle of rugby league and, to be truthful, it is. It’s New South Wales versus Queensland; state versus state; mate versus mate; the cain toads versus the cockroaches - fantastic spectacle and huge audiences both at the games and on the TV. Then, you look at the equivalent in rugby union, the magnificent clash that is the Waratahs versus the Reds - two highly recognisable sides -with the Waratahs unleashing the most ordinary mascot in world sport otherwise known as tar man earlier in the week, invoking a lot of passion there.
Probably my favourite part of the rugby union fraternity in the last few years was the ARC or the Australian Rugby Championships. This was the ARU’s [Australian Rugby Union] attempt to try to make rugby union the national sport. They probably should have named it the ‘Football Australian Rugby Union Enterprise’, otherwise known as the ‘farce’, because that is exactly what it was. For a starter, how are you going to get grown men and their families to go out and support teams with names such as the Central Coast Rays, the East Coast Aces, the Perth Spirit and the Sydney Fleet? I can just picture a few of you boys up the back waving your Sydney Fleet flags on a Saturday afternoon. I’m sure it would be very exciting for you.
Looking at TV for the ARC, the ARU actually had to pay the ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation] to get this thing on TV. There was no fight for TV rights; no big clash of the networks; the ARU actually had to put their hand in their back pocket and pay for it. As opposed to this year in the NRL [National Rugby League] where we had the new Toyota Cup Competition for the under-20s. Fox Sports will be showing two live games each week which they have paid the rights for.
After the 2007 championships the ARC was around $2.5 million over budget and it was forecast in 2008 to be a further $3.5 million over budget. That’s around an $8 million loss for the ARU. They canned the championships because they described it as being ‘fiscally irresponsible’, and I agree.
That brings me to the point of leadership between the two sports. The NRL has a great man now by the name of David Gallop, who brought rugby league out of the ‘Super League’ era, if you like to call it that, and turned it into one of the most commercially and prosperous codes in Australia. The ARUs counterpart is John O’Neill, a fantastic man also. He took the World Cup ball and ran with it after the Rugby Union World Cup and he took the Socceroos through to the World Cup in soccer as well - a fantastic entrepreneur. He knows his stuff. He’s come out and said this after the Rugby World Cup - this is from your boss, Nick:
Rugby league went from unlimited tackles to limited tackles; it went from three metres to five metres and reduced the value of a field goal to one,’ he said after arriving back from France.
I think the boss of the ARU has hit the nail on the head there by saying that fair enough, rugby league actually knows what they’re doing.
The most important part of any sport is fans. Who here is a Brumbies fan? Who are the Raiders fans here today? Yeah, we thought that might be the case. Raiders fans are out having a beer at a pub in the afternoon. They don’t come to this. Anyway, the fans are most important. Rugby union fans go to the game to be seen. They don’t go to watch the game. They clap when the ball gets kicked out. They wear Wranglers and RM Williams despite probably never having even set foot on a farm. They don’t even know the players on their own team, let alone the names of the players in the rest of the code.
Rugby league fans are the heart and soul of the nation. They’re the working people, the fighters, the little Aussie battlers. They go to see a scrap; they go to see the thrill, the excitement, the agony and the ecstasy of the sport. Fans in rugby league don’t only know their players, they know their players from the last decade. They know the players in all the competitions all around the world. And they’ll walk to the end of the earth to see their team hoist a trophy at the end of the season.
Ladies and gentlemen, that is why rugby league is better than rugby union.
TIM PAVEL: Rugby league, the game for working families across Australia. Let me give you a tip, Ben, rugby league nicknames aren’t all that hot - the Storm, the Titans, the Dragons, the Knights. Television ratings as well. Rugby union people are busy people - remember that.
We are going to have a debate facilitated by me. We’re going to allow you to ask a question to any of the people who have spoken here today. We have a microphone, remembering that we are recording proceedings. If you’d like to ask a question, simply put your hand in the air.
I’ve got a question to Nick to start with. You’re talking about self-interest with rugby league players. The catch cry now in rugby union appears to be: take the money and run to Japan and the UK. A lot of good players are leaving, aren’t they?
NICK SMITH: We are losing a few players at the moment. Obviously, they’ve looked at the welfare of the sport and we’ve got people looking out for their best interests.
TIM PAVEL: Ben, do you have an offer here, mate?
BEN POLLOCK: Sport’s a business now, and it can be very competitive in the markets. We’re seeing the same thing with the Canberra Raiders at the moment with the situation around Todd Carney. Teams from not only Australia but also overseas in rugby league in particular are looking to score the best players. I can see arguments from both sides on why players should stay or why they should go, but in the end it is a business and sometimes you’ve just got to live with it.
NICK SMITH: But they’ve also got to take into account more than just money as well. We’ve just re-signed Stirling Mortlock, something that we’re very happy about, and he was being offered ridiculous amounts of money overseas. As Ben was saying, they’ve got two things to weigh up, lifestyle versus money. Let’s hope that lifestyle and loyalty will keep a lot more of the players in the country.
TIM PAVEL: You blokes are supposed to be arguing with each other.
NICK SMITH: I’ve still got plenty of points to pick Ben up on, so don’t worry about that.
TIM PAVEL: There are a lot of rules in rugby union, aren’t there? Last night with the short arm penalties that were given by the referee, it was almost at every ruck and breakdown that the bloke had his arm in the air. It’s a real problem in rugby union, I think. Even though they’ve decided to speed the game up with the experimental laws and the variations.
NICK SMITH: Have a read of this [holds the rules up], it’s great reading. But as I said, Tim, the beauty is in its complexity. If you want to get really involved, I know that I and a number of rugby union enthusiasts - ardent rugby-flowing-through-our-blood enthusiasts - keep a copy of those rules by our bed. Every time we travel we ask them to take the Gideon Bible out of the hotel room and put that in instead. We love our rules. But, as I said, rugby can be enjoyed on a number of various levels. Those who want to come just for the face value of watching a few tries being scored or a few goals being kicked, then it can appeal to them as well.
TIM PAVEL: And Ben, rugby league is a simple game and not necessarily played by simple people.
BEN POLLOCK: It’s just a great sport. People go to be entertained, and you are going to be entertained if you come to a rugby league match. It is as simple as that.
NICK SMITH: As I said, the pinnacle of the sport is state of origin. Should we bring up that state of origin a couple of years ago when the score was 2-0?
BEN POLLOCK: And that was a hard fought contest.
NICK SMITH: Like every rugby union game.
QUESTION: I’m actually a left-wing radical feminist who loves my sport but I’m not a league fan. I have been to one league game and, I’m sorry, but cheerleaders are not an acceptable part of Australian sport. I love the game itself. I love watching the game and I really enjoyed going to see the boys play as a spectacle. But the cheerleaders are not a great attitude towards women. I know that the Raiders are taking steps to address the issues of women and how we can be incorporated other than consumer as a product, but you have to do something about them.
I love going to the union games. I love my Brumbies and the Wallabies and I think women get treated a whole lot better by the ARU. It’s a serious issue and I know that you are taking some steps. But how can we be incorporated into league as 50 per cent of the paying public?
BEN POLLOCK: Women in sport is an area that rugby league has been targeting now for a few years. They are starting to ramp their efforts up in that. They have conducted and this year in the centenary year they will be conducting a number of women in sport seminars - there is one in Canberra in May, so I invite you to come along to that. There will be guest speakers of women involved in rugby league. I know that the Manly club has a group called the Eagles Angels, which is a fantastic group of high-profile women in Sydney that support the Sea Eagles. That is something that we are looking to incorporating on a game-wide basis. We have a very strong female fan base. I can see your point with the cheerleaders. Cheerleading is always going to be a topical subject when it comes to sport. I think if it is done tastefully it is not a problem.
QUESTION: Russell Crowe got rid of cheerleaders out of South Sydney.
BEN POLLOCK: Russell Crowe also threw a phone at someone.
QUESTION: I know, but he has also taken a stand against pokies as well, making them more family-friendly and women inclusive environment.
BEN POLLOCK: The poker machine issue is a very touchy one. With that particular club that they took the poker machines out of it wasn’t a very financial gain for the club. So it was bit of a PR stunt, I suppose. I understand where you are coming from with the cheerleaders. I know particularly with the Raiders we’ve assembled a new squad this year and the emphasis will be on entertainment rather than just dancing and waving pompoms. One of the girls is actually a singer and she will be singing at matches this year as well. So there are steps that we’re taking.
QUESTION: Yes, she had the navy last night and it was quite good entertainment. The singer in the band was great. We have some really good entertainment, but it doesn’t involve women in the way that the league presents us. I just think that if you want to get people involved and want more fans at the games, I won’t go back to a Raiders game until you’ve changed your attitude towards women, and that’s getting rid of the cheerleaders.
TIM PAVEL: A couple of years ago I took your point up and actually took it to the rugby league and I said, ‘Listen, you’re turning a lot of women away by having cheerleaders.’ I put it on air and had a debate with the rugby league hierarchy. This was about seven years ago. I got a call from one of the cheerleaders. She took task with me and said, ‘Listen, the only professional dancing gig that we get in Canberra is being a cheerleader at the Canberra Raiders. Otherwise we’ve got to go to Sydney if we want to dance.’
QUESTION: Then they go to Sydney -
TIM PAVEL: Yes, I know. But I’m just saying to you that it has been taken up in the past, and the cheerleaders themselves have come out and said, ‘Listen. If we want to be professional dancers and we want to do this type of display, it’s the only place that we can do it in Canberra,’ which is a little unfortunate. But I agree that it is a bit of a throwback. There’s no doubt about that.
If you go to South Africa and watch rugby union, it’s even worse. You’ve got girls in hot tubs on the halfway line; you’ve got girls jumping on the ground in bikinis at halftime, before the game and after the game. I’m not condoning it in rugby league, but I’m just saying it does exist elsewhere. It’s not just rugby league. I agree with you but I’m just saying to you that there is an alternate argument that has been presented by the cheerleaders themselves in terms of wanting to be dancers.
QUESTION: Because women who are health professionals are involved in managing all aspects of the health of the team. They’re on the board of the NRL. They’re involved in the clubs in administration and in a whole bunch of really professional ways. How can you raise the profile of women? Have you thought about doing something to raise the profile? Are we actually included in the exhibition and women who play rugby league?
GUY HANSEN: There is an exhibit of women’s rugby league players in the exhibition. There is also an exhibit of a cheerleader costume as well. I can assure you that amongst my staff this issue has been discussed at great length as to whether we should be covering this issue and how to approach cheerleaders.
We did that thing, which Tim mentioned, which was we actually talked to cheerleaders and asked what they wanted and what they felt. And exactly the same response was received that they are professional dancers who see themselves as plying their trade and doing a good job, and they want that celebrated. So that is a perspective which is out there. But we also showcase women who actually play rugby league in the exhibition. There is a growing women’s rugby league in its own right being played in New South Wales and in Queensland.
BEN POLLOCK: We have a fair contingent of female employees as well in all those areas including our dietitian. We also had a female doctor for the last year. Women are very involved in our club for sure, such as Norelle who is here today is part of our sponsorship team. It’s a part of the game that I know the Raiders are very fond of keeping that going.
GUY HANSEN: I think the Museum is actually hosting the women in league dinner. It’s been an issue which the Museum’s been interested in.
TIM PAVEL: The thing with rugby league is that they recognised a while ago that, to broaden their supportive base, they needed to make sure that they treated women properly and part of that was looking at all aspects of women being involved in rugby league. Twenty years ago, rugby league was dominated by men being on the board, men being in administration, sales, marketing, etc. Now I think you’ll find that a lot of clubs have a lot of women involved in rugby league in the running of the game to ensure that they do appeal to women because, let’s face it, if they stop appealling to women that’s half their supportive base gone.
GUY HANSEN: And I should mention that we asked two women journalists who have covered rugby league for many years, Debbie Spillane and Tracey Holmes, to write two of the chapters in the exhibition catalogue. You might want to look at those chapters.
QUESTION: Tim, we have been dealing rather at the elitist level of both codes at this stage. I wonder if each of the protagonists would like to comment on the real amateur area - the club football, the guys who play football just for the love of it and the country guys. Would you like to talk on those?
BEN POLLOCK: Definitely, coming from a country background myself. I come from a town called Gundagai, and rugby league is Gundagai. Gundagai is rugby league. That is what they do. They train during the week; they play on the weekend; and the whole town goes down to watch. It is a huge part of any sport, I suppose, the grass roots level.
I know in Canberra that the Canberra Raiders are actually owned by the Canberra District Junior Rugby League, which encompasses the Canberra Raiders Cup and all the junior level sport here. The Raiders in particular see junior sport as a huge thing. [And you will notice at our fan day next weekend, the first two hours of the day will be junior registration stalls will be set up before any of the first graders come in. We are going to be focusing on getting kids out here and signing up for sport. Something we are really focused on is getting people involved at the lower levels not just getting them out to Canberra Stadium.
TIM PAVEL: I would like to take exception to Ben there, because I reckon that rugby league is really neglecting the bush at the moment. I come from Candoblin and Dubbo in central western South Wales. Let me tell you, rugby league is struggling out there because they are not funding the development officers that they used to have in those areas any more. It is very hard to get any support out there for rugby league. A lot of the money is being spent in the city areas. The country rugby league is now based in Sydney. It is very much Sydney and Brisbane - not necessarily Canberra - centric at the moment and I think it is a real issue for rugby league.
AFL is spending a lot of money in areas that have traditionally been rugby league centres. I think it is time that rugby league have a really close look at what is happening in the bush. I am sure you would agree with that, Ben. David Gallup has certainly said, ‘Listen, we’ve got to do more.’ Arthur Beetson, one of the greats of rugby league, has come out and said, ‘Listen, we are neglecting the bush. Our focus is too much on the NRL.’
BEN POLLOCK: I suppose, the NRL development team are a little bit stretched in that regard, but they do have officers assigned for certain areas. We have one here in Canberra, Brad Donald, who does a great job and we have them scattered out throughout country New South Wales.
There is a lot of factors to not only what rugby league is dying in the bush, it is sport in general. I suppose it is the changing face in culture where all there was to do on a Sunday afternoon back in 1952 was to go down and watch the local rugby league or rugby union side play; whereas now they are competing for a lot of time and with other aspects of life, I suppose.
TIM PAVEL: But part of the problem now is that you are taking the good young players straight out of the bush into the city. In the past they used to be able to play in competitions like the Amco Cup. Western Division won it one year against the big city sides. Now the young stars of the bush are going at 14, 15, 16 years of age to the city. It is drying up a lot of talent in the bush. The competitions are not as strong as they used to be.
BEN POLLOCK: Yes, it is a tough one, because teams at the elite level are competing to try to get the best players. And to get them, you have to get them at a young age otherwise you won’t get them. It’s a tough one. It’s something that the NRL is going to have to look at, I suppose.
GUY HANSEN: There is an object in the exhibition which captures this debate quite well: the Maher Cup which in southern South Wales was a really important country trophy and was incredibly popular from the 1920s through to the early 1970s, where country towns would stop to watch a Maher Cup match. [See Treasures of the game.]
But, of course, the sting in the tail is that it stopped in the 1970s. People celebrate the Maher Cup and there is a bunch of Tumut old boys who are coming down next weekend to celebrate and I am sure will celebrate long and hard. But it is true that it is 30 years since the Maher Cup was a force in rugby league.
NICK SMITH: I might just answer that on behalf of ruby union as well. Ben touched on the Brumbies dropping the ACT from the front of our title. That happened in 2005 when we also took on the Far South Coast and Southern Inland. So we dropped ACT because it wasn’t reflective of the Brumbies’ rugby region.
That was an area that was really struggling and was being neglected by New South Wales Rugby Union, so we have taken that on. We have got development officers in both the Far South Coast and Southern Inland. Since 2005 we have noticed a growth in numbers in Far South Coast, Southern Inland and also locally as well, particularly in junior numbers. Our senior club competition has a stable pool of players there.
TIM PAVEL: The other thing about taking the ACT out of the Brumbies logo is that I think it really disenfranchised a lot of people who are very proud of Canberra. People thought, ‘Well, does this mean the team can go to Melbourne at any stage, because you have taken the ACT out of the logo?’
NICK SMITH: We are not going to Melbourne.
TIM PAVEL: I know -
NICK SMITH: [emphatically] We are not going to Melbourne.
TIM PAVEL: It simply created a lot of unrest and a lot of unease among supporters who had that in their mind. And it simply solidified that thought. My personal point of view was that they probably could have done it better. Taking the ACT straight out of the logo simply heightened people’s fears to a certain extent.
NICK SMITH: That is one way of looking at it but, as I said, it probably wasn’t reflective of the Brumbies rugby region that we had now taken on with the Far South Coast and Southern Inland that had been neglected for so long. It was just a matter of including them as part of our brand as well.
QUESTION: Let me declare my interest. I never played good rugby union but I played rugby union and managed first grade for 30 years. I then got in to Golden Oldies and managed to play until 55-56, something like this. All my best friends came from the rugby union teams that I played for. In your talks you talked about the crowds and whatever but you really said very little about the players. You said in rugby union they are all shapes and sizes. Ben, you really didn’t mention the players and the players’ enjoyment very much.
Having said that, perhaps to address a comment to Tim: I have a son still in the UK who was playing for the local town fifth team. The town went professional. The first team players were paid 50 pounds per game: 50 for a win and I think it was 25 for a draw. I said to my lad, ‘Well you are in the fifth team. How has it affected you?’ He said, ‘Training is shit. All we are now is cannon fodder for the guys being paid to play.’ So I said, ‘What does it mean to you?’ He said, ‘Well, what it means is we don’t go training anymore. We go ten-pin bowling.’ So we have the team spirit for the game but we are not actually developing the skill set through training. Because if you are not a professional, if you are not in the first team, the coaches really aren’t interested. I see that as being a huge union problem.
NICK SMITH: Well, it is a problem in all sport actually at the moment. The ‘win at all costs’ attitude that has been brought in by professionalism and because people are playing now for their livelihoods. Before 1996 rugby union players weren’t paid for their trade. A lot of them had jobs and a lot of them went to university, as they do now. But you noticed almost immediately in 1996 the change in attitude from rugby union players because suddenly it became their profession. Their whole outlook on the game changed. It was no longer a sense of enjoyment. You got the feeling that a lot more was riding on it.
Certainly speaking to the players now, they talk about the fact that they have only got a limited life span in the game, therefore they have got to take $700,000 a year in Japan. And to me, do you want to go play in Japan or do you want to play in Australia? The argument is always, ‘Well, I would love to stay in Australia, but I can’t afford to play here any more.’ To a certain extent, if you have a look at the behavior of a lot of sports people these days and you have a look at the sportsmanship that sometimes is missing in sport, I put it down to the fact that there is so much money now available in sport and there is so much more riding on it. I will talk about the fact that we are playing test cricket. But really you think to yourself, ‘Does that suddenly mean that you have got to drop standards in behaviour just because you are playing for a lot more and higher stakes?’ It is an issue that I could talk about for hours. But I understand what you are talking about. As soon as they start paying players, it becomes a totally different kettle of fish.
QUESTION: Both of you mentioned superficially about what you do for young players. Could we hear from both about what you do for developing young players not just as players but as contributors to society? And also we have heard about the Golden Oldies tradition with rugby union. What does league do for its aging players? Is there a tradition? Is there a pathway for them? So if we could hear what you do for the developing young players and what you do for the oldie brigade, the retiring players. Do you have things in place to help them along the way?
BEN POLLOCK: As I mentioned before, the Toyota Cup is a new under-20s competition in the NRL’s umbrella. It is now a national game, so if the Raiders are playing the Storm, the under-20s will play the Storm; if the Raiders are playing the Warriors, the under-20s will go to New Zealand and play the Warriors as well. Part of the way that it has been set up is that they have employed a full-time education welfare officer for the Toyota Cup. All under-20s players are only allowed to train early in the mornings or late in the afternoon. During the eight-hour working day they either have to undertake some form of study or go to employment. A lot of our players have trades. There is probably half a dozen that are involved in university here in Canberra and study part time there.
It is an area of the game that rugby league has picked up a lot from what it did in the past. As far as the senior squad is concerned, again, a lot of those guys are doing things part time to not only get themselves away from football but also prepare themselves for the future. I know that Alan Tongue is studying to become a PE teacher at UC; William Zillman is doing a nutritionist course at UC; and Mark Herbert is doing sports media at UC - and that is just to name a few. There are definitely pathways for the future. I know that our football manager, David Sharp, is starting to implement a lot more Raiders based programs in that area.
As for the oldies, the NRL has a foundation called the Men of League Foundation where ex-players can become involved in rugby league. They hold a number of charity events and things to raise money for local football clubs and for ex-players that may be doing it a bit tough. That is a good way for that to come about as well.
SPEAKER: I can only speak for what we are doing at the Brumbies but, in terms of junior player development, from the playing point of view we have a national talent squad which is run by the Australian Rugby Union but based at the Brumbies. Each of the provinces have their own sort of wing of the national talent squad. We have also got a Brumbies academy, which is basically an introduction into a professional program for these players. We have also got a full-time careers advisor at the Brumbies. She assists them with studies, trades or anything like that that they want to get involved in. I would say at the moment the vast majority of players in our senior squad are doing university courses, mainly by correspondence. In terms of other skills, we also do things like media training with them as well, just in case that is something that they want to pursue after they finish their career.
TIM PAVEL: One of the real issues in this is - and I have spoken to many players about it - that you have got a player on $230,000 a year but suddenly he gets injured and he can’t play any more, or he is forced into retirement and he has suddenly got to go into the workforce and finds out that most of Australia earns $90,000 a year or less than that. They find it really hard to come to terms with that. That is why a lot of them kept trying to play until they are 35-36 years of age. It is a problem that exists in both rugby league and rugby union in trying to ease footballers into the workforce. I don’t think that either code has successfully done it at this stage. It is a major issue.
NICK SMITH: It is hard. As I mentioned, there are some who do it a lot better than others. As I mentioned, someone like Brett Robinson might be a bit of a different case because he started in the amateur code and then came across into professionalism. But that gets back to what we were saying why players believe it is so important to make the most of this rugby window financially, which is why so many are being lured overseas, and that is because of the money that is being offered.
TIM PAVEL: What about you, Ben? You have had issues with the Raiders where players have suddenly been cut from the club and they have had to find jobs and go into the workforce.
BEN POLLOCK: Yes. At the end of last year we scrapped the premier league from our club, which forced a number of players to leave. We did our best to try to find them somewhere to play football next year and we have a relationship with a club in Queensland, South Logan Magpies, and a lot of our former players that were taken out of our top squad are now playing up there and have been found jobs. I know Brad Cross who played a few games of first grade last year has gone back to his trade as an electrician up there. We try to help them to an extent, but where do you draw the line on responsibility?
TIM PAVEL: That is right. I mean, the here and now is what you are looking at, isn’t it? I mean, if you suddenly had to take on the responsibilities of 40 ex-players as well as the 35 that you have at the moment, it is almost a full-time job for 10 people, and you really can’t afford that.
NICK SMITH: I would like to give Ben credit for one of his points - just one - in his talk, and that was bringing up Tar Man, the Waratahs’ new mascot. I have absolutely no defence for that.
QUESTION: Mine is really two comments. As a long-time Canberra resident and also a dyed-in-the-wool rugby fan, I think the Raiders did a marvellous thing when they came to Canberra. Before they came there was said to be no heart here. They arrived on the scene and even dyed-in-the-wool rugby people went along because they seemed to draw people in. They had good PR. The reason they lost favour and the Brumbies came up was that the Raiders started losing and the Brumbies started winning. And Canberra is notorious for only liking winners.
NICK SMITH: Noooo!
QUESTION: The other thing is that professional rugby has changed the whole thing. In the amateur days you are talking about crowds. When I played with a winning premiership team in Sydney we would have had 30 people there watching a game. And they were usually wives or sweethearts or some dyed-in-the-wool parent that was coming along.
At University Oval we used to have a man on the gate to collect money. Well, he never collected anything. We all just streamed in and out. We had to do our own washing. We had to supply our own jerseys. We had to get some friend to sew your number on the back. It is a totally different game now, and I don’t think you can compare the old rugby to the present-day rugby because they are not the same. The two codes are very similar now.
BEN POLLOCK: I suppose both codes are competing commercially as well. They are out there in the market trying to get sponsorships for their teams and trying to get people through the gate to drive sponsorship to pay the players the money. So it is a vicious circle and it happens in both codes.
NICK SMITH: I agree.
GUY HANSEN: On the point of the Raiders winning the grand final and Canberra going lime green, I think one of the most positive things about rugby league is the transforming nature that having a grand final winning side has on a community. You go to people at Campbelltown when West Tigers won or you go to people at Parramatta when the Eels won for the first time or you go to the people at Penrith when Royce Simmons managed to score that try – it completely changed those communities. It may have been only for a short while but in some areas which sometimes are a bit rundown and sometimes the self-respect might not be what it all should to be; a victorious rugby league side can really pull a community together and give it a big backbone. I think that is one of the most positive things that victorious rugby league sides have done in suburban communities around Australia.
TIM PAVEL: I reckon that in the last 30 years 1989 was possibly the most positive thing that has happened in Canberra with the spirit that was generated, people started talking to each other and suddenly people appeared on the streets. When I arrived in Canberra in 1988 you would drive down the street on Sunday and be flat out seeing anybody for 30 miles. But suddenly people started appearing on the streets, talking to each other in just sheer celebration. It was quite remarkable. Certainly a lot of the Sydney media who had been bagging Canberra for many years suddenly said Canberra had discovered its heart. I thought that was a real positive from sport, especially rugby league. Yes, the lime green in the fountain and Laurie Daley dropping the statue - there were many, many aspects to it.
GUY HANSEN: I think in Sydney in the western suburbs when Parramatta won its first grand final and Penrith won its first grand final; they really helped those communities, because those areas often get slagged off in the context of Sydney. So I think it was very positive.
TIM PAVEL: I can tell you that in country towns when the local rugby league side used to win, it was a galvanising thing. All the shops used to decorate their windows and people would be putting stuff in the windows of their houses.
BEN POLLOCK: That was the case for Yass a couple of years ago in rugby league.
TIM PAVEL: How are we going to decide this debate, do you think – a passing competition or?
BEN POLLOCK: We’ve already established that there are more Brumbies fans here, so I don’t like my chances.
TIM PAVEL: What about an arm wrestle?
BEN POLLOCK: Are we arm wrestling?
TIM PAVEL: My oath you are.
NICK SMITH: For the good of rugby league, and I know they need a leg up as much as they possibly can get at the moment, particularly with their celebration, I am happy to concede on this.
BEN POLLOCK: I’m happy to call it a draw, mate.
TIM PAVEL: I was ready to commentate it too, because Ben in the left-hand corner, the blue corner, is 94 kilos; and what are you - 87 or 88?
NICK SMITH: Close enough.
TIM PAVEL: Can you please thank Ben Pollock, Nick Smith and Guy Hansen.
GUY HANSEN: On behalf of the Museum, I would also like to thank the speakers who have given up their time to come in today. [Next week the exhibition will be open and there is plenty in it for rugby union fans as well as rugby league fans.
There is going to be a great day next Saturday with the Canberra Raiders fan day. We’re also holding the first rugby league film festival. I believe it is the first time in the world. We will be showing a series of rugby league films during the exhibition on Sundays, some great films including 1963 This Sporting Life with Richard Harris. We are going to get that out as well as more contemporary Australian films like the Final Winter and Footy Legends. So there are some great films coming up and hopefully what will be a very popular exhibition. Thank you everybody for coming today.
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Date published: 30 March 2009