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The Sydney Morning Herald

Forget history ... the real winner will not be rugby league

Author: Paul Sheehan
Date: 23/08/2000
Words: 772
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News And Features
Page: 24
Despite the injection of billions of media dollars, an increasingly international Sydney is leaving its traditional game behind.

Violence. Passion. Courage. Blood. A capacity crowd, a furnace of emotion and a hundred years of tradition. For thousands of people, this weekend will be the most emotionally charged of the year.

Yes, the climax of the Sydney football season has arrived.

By coincidence, the rugby league grand final will also be played this weekend at the Olympic stadium. But more people will care really care about a game played on a suburban school football ground and a Test match played far away in the early hours of Sunday.

If the weather holds, about 15,000 people are expected to watch undefeated St Joseph's College meet undefeated King's School at Hunters Hill on Saturday. Standing room only. Admission free. King's are the reigning champions, favourites and most star-studded side in the GPS competition. Joey's are Joey's.

The match will be televised live on ABC. Eight hours later, at 1am, Australia will play South Africa in the finale of a Tri-Nations tournament that has already yielded three stupendous internationals and continues an 80-year Test rivalry.

The league grand final may prove as thrilling as last Saturday's semi-final but despite enormous media exposure the match will probably not be played before a capacity crowd at the Olympic stadium (soon to be gruesomely renamed ``ANZ Stadium" in addition to the ANZ Stadium in Brisbane). The big venue will probably not generate a blast furnace of emotion (owing to a shortage of Roosters). And it will certainly not have much heritage.

The Brisbane Broncos, part of Murdoch Inc, were created in 1987, given an American name, and first played in 1988. Sydney City Roosters is an old club rebranded in 1995 and now partly propped up by Packer Inc. The National Rugby League is a competition created two years ago by and for Australia's two largest media groups.

Even though I am a Roosters fan, as my father was before me, and intend to be at the grand final after a 20-year drought, I am not blind to the darkness at the heart of rugby league. If you were to look past the gloss created by Packer Inc and Murdoch Inc and commercial radio and the ABC look past the lot of them you would see that rugby league's dominant media position is a castle built on sand.

Twenty-five years ago, when league really was the dominant game in town, a large media apparatus fed off this dominance. The apparatus is still there, but Sydney has changed fundamentally. It is now a largely middle-class city with internationalised appetites. In changing, Sydney is leaving rugby league behind, despite more than a billion media dollars in media money and free publicity in the past decade.

Lying at the dark heart of rugby league is a multiple delusion, a fantasy that (1) the game has not been reduced to a cultural cul-de-sac; (2) that the league ``World Cup" in October will involve more than a handful of regional enclaves; and (3) that the game itself has not been reduced to a simple formula.

When I returned to Sydney early in 1996 after 10 years in the United States, I came back as a neutral who looked forward to going back to the footy. What I discovered shocked me. Rugby league had gone to war with itself; rugby union had transformed into a faster, more complex, more open game with a superb new international competition (financed by the Murdoch octopus).

A few other people also noticed. In July, when the Wallabies played the All Blacks at the Olympic stadium, it was a magnificent Test before an enthralled capacity crowd of 109,000 people and a peak national TV audience of 2.9million, a record for rugby. In the wake of Australia's victory in the 1999 World Cup, the ranks of senior rugby players have jumped 12.5 per cent to a record 32,500.

In April, when rugby league staged its Australia-New Zealand ``Anzac Test", it was a debacle.

Rugby league will stabilise. It will remain strong in its strongholds. But even before the civil war and the lies and lawsuits, league was on the wrong side of a great demographic shift even bigger than the combined persuasive force of Murdoch Inc and Packer Inc.

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