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The Sydney Morning Herald

Field of teams

Date: 25/09/1997
Words: 2085
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Metro
Page: 6
Sunday's grand final was to be the last rites of a dying game. But the league war has brought out the passionate rugby league tribes. As MICHAEL KOSLOWSKI reports, at the business end of the season, in the final wash-up, when the fat lady sings ... we still want our footy.

Rugby league isn't dead ... it just sometimes smells that way. "What you blokes don't realise in the city, is that out here in the bush, nobody gives a s- - - about the bloody Swans," exploded one enraged caller to the Herald earlier this month - admittedly a former Parramatta rugby league player.

"Couldn't you guys get a game of league when you were young?" he raged.

In the league heartlands of NSW and Queensland, they still love their league - even in its current fragmented state. And the irony of the split competitions is that as many fans will watch a league grand final live this season as the thriving southern rival, thanks to separate Brisbane and Sydney league finals.

When the Swans made their sudden exit earlier this month, it was the first time this year many rugby league executives on both sides of the divide had smiled.

And as Channel 7 executives begrudgingly vouch, Sydney's support for the Swans is not support for Australian football. Last year, when Sydney made the finals, they attracted for Seven an audience ranging from 500,000 up to 1.1 million for the grand final. The recent North Melbourne v West Coast final attracted an average audience of just 112,700 in Sydney.

Meanwhile, the gentlemen of rugby union have gleefully predicted the end of league as we know it. Not that their self-interests aren't served from such a position.

As far as the struggle for control of rugby league by its pay television masters, Australian Rugby Union chief executive John O'Neill has warned that if the league self-destruction act continues for much longer, there will only be one unified rugby code in the future, dominated by the former amateurs.

While not even the most loyal leaguie would say this season of discontent has been anything less than an utter disaster, there have been some encouraging signs that the game's working-class heart still has the beat of a survivor.

Despite the Brisbane Broncos having lost tens of thousands of regular supporters during the season, the Super League grand final last Saturday night in Brisbane still managed to attract a ground record 58,912 to Suncorp Stadium for a match which history will consign to similar lack of significance as given to one of Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket matches of 20 years ago.

Apart from the late surge of support for the final few matches of the ARL season and the Super League grand final, there were also a few significant signs of lingering health amid this season's general murkiness to suggest that a league comeback is only a pay television deal away.

The Townsville-based North Queensland Cowboys might have finished last in the 10-team Super League competition, but that didn't stop the local tribes from flocking to every home game, with North Queensland averaging nearly 17,000 per game.

North Queensland, like Parramatta, Canterbury, country NSW and Newcastle, is rugby league heartland.

The renewed on-field success of Parramatta after several years of slumber brought with it the return of a 1997 version of the infamous "Parra Army" - the passionate mass of bodies that traditionally has gathered at the old Cumberland Oval, now the site of Parramatta Stadium, and begin the "Parra" chant with a passion more like that bastion of sporting tribalism, English soccer.

Even in the middle of peace talks reaching their mandatory breakdown stage towards the end of the season, Parramatta still attracted more than 20,000 to a home game.

So too did Newcastle, attracting almost 25,000 to another club match in a season which most fans realised meant little, if anything.

Then there was Balmain, one of the ARL's eight foundation clubs which kicked things off in 1908. The consultants said the league-loving tribes around Leichhardt and Balmain had been squeezed out by escalating real estate values, replaced by members of the DINKS tribe.

So in 1995, Balmain tried packing up from old Leichhardt Oval, reinvented themselves as the Sydney Tigers, and became the second footy tenant at Parramatta Stadium.

However crowd support fell even further, the consultants were nowhere to be found, and the Tigers returned to the old Balmain variety, and Leichhardt Oval. As a result, this season they enjoyed a significant rise in attendances, registering an average of 10,355, up from 6,369 the previous season.

This included over 18,000 to both their opening and closing games of a season in which they lost more games than they won. The lost tribes of Leichhardt had been found, reacting, it seems, to the threat of extinction to the Tigers.

When a leaked document late last year showed ABC manage-ment were planning to axe radio calls of rugby league games, the tribes, especially in rural areas, went feral. The backlash ensured an ABC backflip, and league has remained on Aunty's airwaves - and has had a successful year in ratings terms.

Last month, moves by North Sydney to relocate to the Central Coast were confirmed. It appears no coincidence that despite the Bears making it to the final four, support both live and on television during finals matches involving the club was poor, reflecting perhaps, a disenchantment from the Norths tribes to the probability of being abandoned as early as next season should the club move north.

Part of the religious-like football experience was lost when the traditional Sunday night television replay of the Big Game was axed by Channel 9 and the ARL. While the adoption of the US tradition of Monday night football has had its moments of popularity, for many it just ain't the same.

There is also increasing fan cynicism - and detachment - at their former working-class heroes now earning six figure salaries, as high as $700,000. Players swap clubs according to dollar bids, dishonour contracts, drive luxury sports cars, buy harbourfront real estate and generally carry on like gits.

Twelve out of this season's 22 teams made the end of season playoffs - seven out of 12 ARL teams, and five out of 10 in Super League - not bad odds if you can get it. It was straight out of the classic American sporting finals model, motivated purely by financial gain, mostly by the sport's ruling body and televi-sion.

The theory is that finals games attract bigger crowds and televi-sion audiences, therefore simply increase the number of finals, and revenue will rise accordingly. No wonder fans didn't vote with their feet until the final few games.

So what does Sunday's grand final mean?

For the players, it's their last game of the year before they can get into traditional "Mad Mon-day" festivities, which feature assaults on alcohol consumption records and accompanying behaviour to be expected of extremely intoxicated footy players on the prowl.

From Sunday night, stay away from Kings Cross and Sydney casino, or at least wear water-proof footwear should another footy player feel the need to urinate under a blackjack table.

While a grand final victory on Sunday will still be savoured at the moment, it will soon became hollow for both the heroes and their adoring but suffering tribes.

The statisticians are adamant the title of "1997 premiers" always will be accompanied by an asterix in the record books, with a disclaimer to its validity.

The tribes can live with that. They are just desperate that the asterix isn't replaced with an "RIP".

Mystic Fibrosis

Craig Gilliver, 32, can see Belmore Oval from the window of his Croydon Park bedroom and has followed the Canterbury Bulldogs since year dot. The card-carrying supporter of the Bulldogs usually goes to 8-10 home games a year, but this season went to just two.

While he didn't care enough to watch the Super League grand final, he still feels a tribal calling to join the traditional gathering for the ARL's Big One. He has no loyalty to Super League, despite his team playing in that competition.

"I stopped following Super League when Canterbury was knocked out," Gilliver said.

"I did not know until about two days beforehand that the Super League grand final was last Saturday night, or that it was being played in Brisbane.

"I didn't stay home to watch the Super League grand final, but I still wanted to see Cronulla get up only because I hate Brisbane.

"A mate is having a party to watch the ARL grand final, so I imagine I'll go to that."


"It's tradition, I guess. You just have a party for the grand final, you bring a case of beer, sit down in front of the television, eat chips, have sausages on the barbie and watch the grand final on television while listening to Roy and HG.

"That's what we do round our way."

Gilliver said his tribal league urges were stirred by the recent Manly v Newcastle contest, which contained its share of niggle and biffo.

"I was glad to hear Spud [Manly and Australian prop Mark Carroll] got hurt - just because he's a Manly player," Gilliver said.

The one thing that galvanises all league tribes, who can relate to fibro, is a hate of Manly, traditional home of the silvertails.

Doug Mulray's Brookie side

Doug Mulray used to follow Manly back in the days when league players drove Holdens rather than imported high-performance vehicles with personalised number plates. "I'm old and a Manly fan," says Mulray, never ashamed to preach his love of the Sea Eagle to his radio disciples, currently via the 2SM pulpit.

"I grew up in Quirk Street, Dee Why, which is on a hill above Brookvale Oval, and you could hear the crowd cheering if Manly scored a try.

"At North Curl Curl Primary School we got the day off for the Brookvale Show, when Brookie Oval was home not just to the Sea Eagles but the agricultural showground.

"So you could go along and look at the local ladies' cakes and quilts. And as puberty set in, we used to sneak around the back of the strippers' tent and attempt to peer at them by lifting the canvas.

"I actually had my fingers stomped on by a particularly large woman - it was my first encounter with cellulite and pain in the lower knuckle."

Despite such a tribal upbringing, this season has taken its toll on Mulray.

"Yeah, I think to some extent two of the richest men in Australia, if not the world, have demonstrated that they are fallible," he says. "I cannot believe that they would so deliberately, and over such a protracted period, damage such a valuable resource.

"Never mind the people's game and all that, these guys had millions of dollars at stake and I cannot see that a concession here or there wouldn't have saved them a lot of money, let alone a lot of bad feeling and ill will."

But then along came the end of season finals, and not only had his team made it, but they were involved in a good old-fashioned stinkathon against Newcastle. And Mulray, like many leaguies, was feeling the old Monday morning footy horn.

"Absolutely. I was astonished. I had to resist the urge to call Rex Mossop and scream 'Wotdya think about that Rex, the game's not dead'."

Despite the code's diluted state, Mulray's passion is as throbbing as could be expected given the comparative health of both game and fan.

"It's as strong as it can be for a middle-aged man with a prostate problem," he says.

How excited is he that Manly have made the grand final?

"I'll be as excited as a middle-aged man with a prostate problem can be."

Is his Manly tribe as loyal now as back in the days when he was looking up skirts at the Brookie Show?

"Of course we are. We are as committed as the players, even without a legally binding loyalty agreement - at least until we get a better offer.".

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