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The Sydney Morning Herald


Date: 01/04/1990
Words: 917
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Sport
Page: 56
The world of Rugby League is not round anymore.

It is flat and the two sides are win or lose, good or bad, sweet or sour, thumbs up and thumbs down.

Yesterday's BalmainBrisbane game at Leichhardt Oval, with its accusations of gouging and the boiling onfield hostility of players seeking winning bonuses and places in the forthcoming State of Origin teams, typifies the win-at-all-costs mentality.

Coaches, pressured by administrators, who in turn are pressured by sponsors, promulgate the idea that competition is the behavioural equivalent of gravity, a force that makes the world go round.

This ruthless Darwinianism means that the less gifted, the less lucky -football's equivalent of the lumbering dinosaur - are eliminated, like early losers in a tennis tournament.

It is a system which forces players to look inward, focussing on their own club and their own status.

After yesterday's Leichhardt game, Brisbane caught a bus to the airport, hoping Balmain would catch a cold.

Terry Matterson, of the Broncos, was the only player to enter the rival dressing-room and the player he sought for a friendly chat had long gone.

Today's players are encouraged to think of their teammates as "ours" and the opposition as "them".

The Broncos admitted the hype before yesterday's game was the most intense in years and Balmain captain Ben Elias said: "You could tell before the game that this would be an intense game.

"You couldn't hear a pin drop and at half-time, no-one said a word."

Balmain coach Warren Ryan said: "There was a lot of feeling in that game. They want to beat us because they never have. We want to ensure they never do."

It is a case of "we", "us" and "them".

But what of "ours"?

Danny Shepherd is one of ours.

He belongs to us all - the players from the 16 clubs and the hundreds of thousands who follow the code.

Shepherd is attached to a life support system at St Vincents Hospital and an Easts official said last night that his condition is not expected to improve.

"It was sad to see him tonight, lying there almost lifeless with his wife, Sue, a 10-year-old son and an 18-month-old daughter at home," the official said.

"A sheer lump of a lad with a strong heart but damage already occurring to his pancreas and his liver showing signs of collapse."

Cardinal Sir James Freeman will celebrate a Mass for Shepherd at 10am tomorrow at Mary Immaculate Church, Victoria Street, Waverley.

The long-term Easts supporter will leave his retirement home of five years to say the Mass.

Theories on the cause of Shepherd's condition extend from heat stroke to a bite by a funnel web spider.

"We've had all sorts of experts to St Vincents and they have no idea," the Easts official said.

"The doctors say that if they knew the problem, they could reverse it.

"We want as many players as possible at the Mass, both as prayers for Danny and a show of encouragement for his parents who have flown down from Townsville."

Irrespective of the outcome of tonight's judiciary on the claims of gouging by Wally Lewis and John Elias, both men should pledge to attend the Mass.

Their quarrel demonstrates that the Rugby League world is not only flat, but incredibly small.

Their hostility dates back to 1985 when they were opposing players in the Brisbane grand final.

Elias played for Wayne Bennett's Brisbane Souths team, while Lewis captained Wynnum Manly.

It seems time has not diminished their rage, such was the fury of words exchanged yesterday.

Elias has a high regard for Bennett who removed Lewis from the captaincy of the Broncos.

These, and other thoughts, were echoed on the field yesterday.

The referee of yesterday's contest admitted "there were occasions when I asked the players of both sides to drop off with their abuse".

Compared to Shepherd, it all seems so petty.

His tragedy is a salutary warning that the theory of direct, unrelenting competition, as a long range force being "good for the game", has become over stated.

Such a scheme always has fewer winners than losers.

It is at odds with the fact that through the ages, life forms on earth have become increasingly numerous and various, rather than follow the lead of the dinosaurs.

As a matter of historical record, many of the most notable human accomplishments have come from co-operation rather than competition.

Cathedrals, constitutions and colleges are monuments to cooperative behaviour while the internecine warfare between the two branches of the Players Association is an example of how competition can destroy a code.

Tomorrow's Mass is an occasion for our footballers and coaches to think of the organisation for whom they play as the Sydney co-operative rather then the Sydney competition.

A chance to make the world of Rugby League round once more.

And most importantly, an opportunity to pray that Danny, age 28, wakes up to see Sue Shepherd before he sees the Good Shepherd.

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