Sins of the NRL

Last week, Wests Tigers’ Tim Simona was handed a lifetime ban from the NRL. He confessed to charges of gambling on NRL matches, drug use and deceiving a children’s charity. The explosive tell-all interview, Sins of Simona, was the Sunday Telegraph’s cover story. It revealed that his punishable gambling was placing $900 worth of bets on 65 2016 NRL games. Simona, 25, also shared his troubled history with gambling which began with playing the pokies as an 18 year old.

And yet, on the same day the story went to the print, The Sunday Footy show continued to provide betting updates on the day’s games.

And yet, in the off-season, Brookvale Oval was renamed Lottoland Stadium.

And yet, all NRL clubs are sponsored by a betting agency, with exception to the Melbourne Storm whose primary sponsor is Crown Casino.

And yet, when we, the fans, discuss who the favourite is pre-kick off, we look to the betting odds and not to our knowledge and love of the game.

The NRL is not only complicit, but is wholly responsible for creating an institution-wide gambling culture. In its present state, it simply can’t be counteracted with the throw-away “and remember, gamble responsibly” at the end of every betting update, or have a government-sanctioned anti-gambling advert run at half-time.

For all of Simona’s poor choices and unethical behaviour, he was set up to fail by an organisation that wants their cake and to eat it too. While the NRL were busy collecting their profits from betting agency sponsorships and Leagues Club pokie machines, they delivered a hands-off punishment to a player who didn’t commit a crime, but messed with the integrity of the game. To reiterate, Simona’s lifetime ban is for 60 odd $20 bets on NRL games; not for his illegal consumption and possession of cocaine or unethical interactions with a children’s charity. There is no doubt that Simona deserves a hefty punishment for all his stupid, unethical and illegal behaviour; and he should also receive the necessary support for his self-admitted gambling problem.

***

The NRL has a chequered history when it comes to handing down punishments to players who commit stupid, unethical or criminal acts. And yet, it’s been proven time and again that what matters most to the NRL is their integrity – they have a whole Unit dedicated to it. There have been numerous players over the years that have “brought the game into disrepute”. The NRL’s integrity is more than its brand, or the administration, or the clubs, and hardly ever about the individual players, their families and victims of their behaviours/crimes. To bring the game into disrepute is to peel back the curtain on a culture that was created by and for men 122 years ago; a culture that fosters and celebrates entitlement, elitism, and excuses for men to behave badly (also known as “boys being boys”).

The NRL picks and chooses what tarnishes their integrity, and it’s usually whatever effects their bottom line. A 2010 Dally M winner, Todd Carney embarrassed the NRL with the “bubbling” incident; he was promptly de-registered (following a slew of other incidents as well). Son of a League legend and, NSW halfback Mitchell Pearce embarrassed the NRL in 2016 with the “terrier” incident; he was banned for eight weeks and fined a quarter of a million dollars. In 2009, the then up-and-coming Queensland forward Nate Myles embarrassed the NRL by taking a drunken shit in a hotel hallway; he was suspended for six weeks, banned from State of Origin, and fined $50,000.

Many believed these punishments were harsh, as these individual acts weren’t illegal but definitely stupid (and gross!) – Surely their personal embarrassment was enough of a punishment? According to the NRL, it wasn’t, as they were embarrassed too. These high-profile players were publicly punished by the organisation that pays their inflated wage. However, that was the wrong motivation for punishing those players, including Simona. The NRL has never acknowledged their own hand in allowing an environment for those players to do what they did. Those players absolutely deserved to be punished (and must take ownership for their own behaviour); not because they embarrassed the NRL, but because their bad behaviour and the culture in which it’s allowed to thrive must be eradicated.

Despite the warranted punishments, it can be difficult to fully accept the outcomes for those players, when other players who have committed acts of violence against women are hardly punished at all; in fact they are often rewarded. Why? Because domestic violence is a private matter that becomes “a matter for the courts”, therefore having nothing to do with the NRL’s precious integrity. Simona received his lifetime ban, yet Robert Lui who kicked and head-butted his pregnant girlfriend received a North Queensland Cowboys’ contract after serving just a one year ban. Pearce was fined $125,000, yet Greg Bird glassed his girlfriend in the face and was welcomed back into the NRL and, continued to be selected for NSW and Australia. Myles was banned from Origin, yet Semi Radradra who was been charged with several counts of assaulting his partner, has continued to play for the Parramatta Eels.

The NRL has failed so many in their piss-weak approach to domestic violence, first and foremost, domestic violence survivors. It’s pointless for the NRL to say that they’ll “offer support to the young lady/female involved” or for people to cry that the NRL doesn’t create domestic violence, but is simply a sub-section of a bigger problem in society. Instead of using their platform to make profits from unethical sponsorships, they must – as one of Australia’s largest organisations – do and be better when it comes to punishing players who commit domestic violence, and of equal importance, offering genuine and tangible support to the survivors of it. An International Women’s Day luncheon is not the answer.

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I’ve previously written about the challenges of being a woman, who by default, supports an organisation and culture that is so messed up – how’s that for a problematic favourite?! But I will love the game of rugby league until the day I die. My club’s 2010 premiership will remain of one of my life’s highlights, I will always check the round schedule before committing to catching up with friends, and I’ll always get anxious before an Origin game – the greatest sporting spectacle in the world.  It’s the game, not the organisation that is part of who I am. That’s not to say the game and organisation can be separated, they can’t. So as long as I’m a woman and rugby league fan, I will not shy away from calling out the bullshit (and demanding more) while still loving the greatest game of all that’s been part of my life for over 20 years.

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A Season in Review: NRL 2016

Just days before the Grand Final, and on the eve of the Dally M’s signals only one thing – starting the countdown until the next season of the National Rugby League. I can’t wait to see what season 2017 brings, but until then, a reflection on the season that was.

The quality of football was mostly lacklustre this season, with exception to moments of magic by aero-acrobatic wingers, some razzle-dazzle by the likes of the Tigers and the Raiders, and Origin-like battles between the Broncos and the Cowboys. Yet, like every year, the NRL made history. For the first time, the top four sides were from four different States or Territories: Victoria, the ACT, New South Wales and Queensland (suck on that, “national football code” AFL). And despite an incredible effort by the 2015 Premiers, we go another year without back-to-back premiership winners – a mantle still held by the 1992/1993 Brisbane Broncos side.

My grand final prediction for 2016 was the Broncos versus the Raiders. I reached this conclusion early in the season. I’d “seen enough” after Round 1 when the Broncos out-smarted Parramatta and, and in Round 5 when the Raiders beat the Bulldogs in a flawed but highly promising display.

But, like every year my prediction is wrong. The Broncos got knocked out in an epic preliminary final against the Cowboys, and the Raiders in a close one against Melbourne in the semi-final.  We now wait for a fascinating battle between Melbourne Storm and Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks on 2 October.

Team of the year:

  1.  Fullback: James Tedesco (Wests Tigers)

Teddy can read the game better than any other fullback in the competition, and he made something from nothing almost every time he touched the ball.

  1. Winger: Tom Trbojevic (Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles)

What a debut season! A shining light in a season for Manly that was marred by injuries and betting scandals.

  1. Centre: Joey Leilua (Canberra Raiders)

Unstoppable every time he got the ball, and almost impossible to tackle. Congratulations to Ricky Stuart for whipping him into shape.

  1. Centre: Josh Morris (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs)

Despite suffering a major injury this year, his defence is unbackable and he’s the only player who can stop Greg Inglis.

  1. Winger: Corey Oates (Brisbane Broncos)

At 192cm and 106kg he’s the prototype for the modern-day winger – big, strong and fast.

  1. Five-eighth: Anthony Milford (Brisbane Broncos)

Milford offered both stability and creativity in the halves for the Broncos (even though he struggled through his club’s predictable Origin slump.)

  1. Halfback: Jonathan Thurston (North Queensland Cowboys)

Future Immortal, picks himself.

  1. Prop: Jesse Bromwich (Melbourne Storm)

Melbourne’s best player every week, Cronk and Smith have Bromwich to thank for them to be able to do their (perfect, yet boring) thing.

  1. Hooker: Josh Hodgson (Canberra Raiders)

Like all English exports, he’s been super tough all season and provided invaluable stability and structure in the ruck.

  1. Prop: James Graham (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs)

The Dogs’ most influential player, Graham got in everything and his competitiveness allowed him to do his job (and then some – see disappointment of the year below.)

  1. Second-rower: Tyson Frizell (St George Illawarra Dragons)

Despite being ignored by Blues’ Coach Laurie Daley until Game 2, he’s the reason the Dragons finished 11th and not last this year. He was also the Blues’ best player by a mile. My favourite player of the year.

  1. Second-rower: Jason Taumalolo (North Queensland Cowboys)

In his sixth season, Taumalolo stepped up this year to become the best second-rower in the game. His metres were off the charts and he made himself known every minute he played. Player of the year.

  1. Lock: Corey Parker (Brisbane Broncos) ©

Averaging 60 minutes a game, his never-say-die attitude, calmness and leadership will be sorely missed by the Broncos next year. A Broncos legend, and captain of my Team of the Year.

  1. Bench: Sam Kasiano (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs)

Despite the ball-playing-front-rower thing getting a little tired, he’s a total beast and crushes everyone he comes in contact with.

  1. Bench: Trent Merrin (Penrith Panthers)

He was always one of the Dragons’ best and his game reached new heights at Penrith this season. Leadership suits him.

  1. Bench: Andrew Fifita

I’m loathed to pick him because he’s a thug, but his stats can’t be ignored. He’s aggressive, tough and isn’t afraid to take on anyone, without or without the ball – exactly what you want in a front-rower.

  1. Bench: Jack Bird (Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks)

He didn’t set the world on fire in his Origin debut this year, but his versatility and incredible ability to play with rheumatoid arthritis (and never make excuses for it) makes him a future star.

Coach: Ricky Stuart (Canberra Raiders)

One of Canberra’s favourite sons, he’s returned to passionately lead a young team to one game shy of the big one, and got the best out of young players, fringe first graders and wayward stars.

State of Origin: Queensland won the series 2-1

New South Wales lost yet another Origin series because coach Laurie Daley is a nice guy, picking his mates from the year before. We didn’t lose because Queensland has players like Thurston, Cronk, Inglis and Smith. NSW beat Queensland in 2014 with those players, so they are beatable.

NSW’s best player, Tyson Frizell wasn’t picked until Game 2, and he was only picked because one player got suspended and another injured – so he was a third pick out of desperation. NSW lost Game 2 26-18, but Frizell was best on field, scored a magic try and almost changed the course of the series, chasing a down and ankle tapping speedster Dane Gagai.  So once again, NSW tried hard, had some great moments, and only just lost; but it’s not good enough anymore. Trying to copy Queensland doesn’t work, so for NSW to be any chance in 2017 they must pick players on current form only, and not because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. This is State of Origin, not The Bachelorette.

Rising star: Nathan Cleary

Already twice the player his dad Ivan was in his debut season (which frankly isn’t hard), the younger Cleary has shown playing maturity beyond his years within a very young team. He’s also been able to withstand a barrage of big hits and targeted defence. At just 18 years old, he’s NSW’s only future hope of a superstar halfback, something NSW hasn’t had since Andrew Johns retired from State of Origin in 2005.

 Disappointment of the year: Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs

Popular opinion will be the Warriors, who always promise so much at the start of the year, until their predictable inconsistency destroys the promise. My pick for year’s biggest disappointment is the Bulldogs. The Bulldogs’ culture is built on the idea that if they don’t win the Grand Final the season is a failure, where other teams are happy just to make the eight. But the Bulldogs should be feeling a deeper level of disappointment this year.

For a few years they have positioned their huge forwards at the centre of their attacking ball control, leaving their halfback with little more to do than support them, rather than direct them. While never winning the premiership with this style, it worked for them to a large extent. This year though this approach started to fall apart, leading to a win-loss-win-loss pattern for most of the season. It all came to a head in the last few rounds, particularly their last game which was by far their worst. Halfback Moses Mbye, the player of whom the Bulldogs have claimed they wish to build their future on – was left screaming for the ball when he didn’t get a touch for two sets in a row. The ball didn’t leave the forwards, particularly captain James Graham who through instruction, instinct or obligation has become a makeshift play maker. It was embarrassing to watch.

In 2017, so much has to change for the Bulldogs if they want to win the premiership. They have the team to do it, so it will be interesting to see what happens with coach Des Hasler, the influence of Graham and support offered to Mbye who despite not being captain must direct the team if they are to be any chance.

Game of the year: North Queensland Cowboys versus Brisbane Broncos, preliminary final

WOW! No one thought it was possible for these two teams to stage another battle-for-the-ages but, somehow, they did. The game featured momentum swings, runaway tries and desperate defence – all founded on Origin-like intensity that the finals games prior and since have lacked. The Cowboys won the game in extra time, set-up by none other than JT with a flick pass that has never before featured in his 12-year-long career. The last few games between these Queensland sides have come down to the wire. The emotion and sense of occasion these two teams evoke– even for fans who don’t support them is why I watch rugby league. I’m confident I could convert any NRL-hater with highlights of any of their recent matches, particularly their 2016 preliminary final battle.

My team: St George Illawarra Dragons

It’s a miracle we finished 11th. I watched every game, except Round 23 where we flogged the Sharks 32-18 in a dominant performance that left everyone wondering, “Where has this been all year?”

The most frustrating element of our game this year was our inability to score points, but specifically looking like we didn’t have a bloody clue what we were doing when got within the twenty. Our halves featured Benji Marshall a superstar past his prime, a player whose mid-2000s-era side steps and flick passes now looked slow and sideways. The other, Gareth Widdop, whose tutelage was under the structured and perfect Craig Bellamy, looked like he couldn’t be bothered keeping up with Marshall’s lack of self-awareness. Adding to the frustration was that our forwards actually performed quite well this year, usually having no problem getting us into a good attacking position.

Dragons’ fans are the toughest in the League, and by that I mean we are the most demanding. Every year since 2010, we have demanded the sacking of the Board, CEO, Coach and numerous players. Some of these movements I’ve stood behind, and others I haven’t.  But given we’re looking down the barrel of a two-horse race with Newcastle for the 2017 wooden spoon, something must change immediately. I believe this change must start in our recruitment and leadership.

While most people are calling for a new coach, I don’t believe this is the right one. McGregor (who was one of my favourite Steelers’ players as a kid – so perhaps I’m bias) should not be sacked. He should be given a coaching director/mentor with no prior connections to the Steelers or Dragons; preferably someone with playing experience in the halves. I know I’m asking a lot, but it’s what the club and Mary needs to move forward.  Next on the list is to oust Doust. He has been CEO for at least five years too long. Yes, he brought Wayne Bennett and a premiership to our club, but he had no succession plan and our financial position is in the toilet. The next CEO of my club must be someone who has wealth of leadership and strategic visionary experience, and who is not bound to ghosts of St George Dragons’ past. And finally, our recruitment and retention sucks. Every big name or no name player on the market in the last two years has been linked to the Dragons, and yet we can’t sign them. It’s embarrassing. The processes and approach to our recruitment need an urgent review and tangible change. Our saving grace in retention, finally, is that we’ve signed Frizell until 2020. His signing will hopefully enhance future recruitment prospects.

Until any change happens, my hope is that 2017 won’t be too painful and that we get to see individual players flourish at club and rep level.

Four big talking points

  • Kieran Foran and mental health

Foran walking out on his multi-million dollar Eels contract was a watershed moment for rugby league. He didn’t walk out because of money or selfishness. He walked (for reasons that have been speculated, and are frankly none of our business) because he was not coping with issues in his personal life, which in turn impacted his ability to perform and feel passion for his job.

Every year R U OK? Day rolls around and it’s well-meaning NRL ambassadors with it, but for the first time we were seeing respectful and open conversation on several platforms about mental health and its silent impact on young men.

There is a long way to go; Foran has continued to plead with portions of the media to respect his privacy. But what Foran’s circumstances have shown is that our NRL stars are more than that; more than the hyper-masculine and macho bravado they represent. They are high-performing, highly-pressured people who sometimes need support and time out to focus on their wellbeing and mental health – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

  • Jarryd Hayne and chasing dreams

The prodigal son returns! We were all shocked to learn that Hayne had “thrown in the towel” with his NFL dream, then laughed at him when he pursued and failed his Olympic Rugby 7s dream – only to question his motives when he “turned his back” on his beloved Eels to sign a multi-million dollar deal with the Gold Coast Titans.

The reaction to Hayne’s journey to return to the NRL, reflects a much larger view of how older generations view young people. Hayne is 28 years old. Show me any person in their twenties who has a bloody clue about what they want to do with their life and  how to go about it the “right” way, and I’ll show you a liar or a very lucky person.

It’s a joy to have Jarryd back in the game, one in which he belongs. I’m excited to see how he’ll perform with a full off-season under his belt for season 2017. And if he decides to chase another dream, or idea, or purpose – well, I 100% back him.

  • Mitchell Pearce and second chances

I’ve previously written about the conflict I sometimes have of being a feminist and rugby league supporter, along with a closer look at the soft penalty given to Pearce for bringing the game into disrepute (not to mention physically assaulting a woman and her dog) in the 2016 pre-season.

While he got a hefty, albeit largely suspended fine, the old favourite and absolute bullshit “boys will be boys” excuse saved him from what he deserved – the sack. Though he didn’t reach full redemption with a recall to the NSW Origin side, Pearce has been given the privilege of Roosters’ protection to regain focus and form, and a I’m-really-a-Good-Guy-deep-down image.

I’m not a fan of second chances as a life principle, and I do appreciate that his wrong-doing is not the worst thing in the world (certainly compared to other current and past players’ behaviour). So, I will watch his ongoing path to redemption with a close and cautious eye during season 2017.

  • Robbie Farrah and loyalty

The Farrah-Wests Tigers drama played out like a soap opera on the back pages of The Telegraph almost every week this season. Long-time whispers confirmed that club captain Farrah was not getting along with his new coach Jason Taylor. Shock! He hadn’t done so with his previous two either – and it was always the coaches that got the sack, not Farrah who was left to laud over Leichardt Oval, a right of which he and many others felt he deserved.

But to cut a long story short, Taylor started dropping Farah to reserve grade. Shock! It appeared that a Tigers coach was finally standing up to the bullying-difficult-to-work-with club legend. Through all this Farah refused to leave the Tigers, or as he perceived it, walking out on his contract. But that’s how his career with the Wests Tigers ended (he has since signed a two year deal with Souths).

Despite Farrah not getting along with his boss I believe he was treated with absolute disrespect in the final game of the Tigers’ season. He played 247 games in 14 seasons for the Tigers; a local junior – and all they did for him was wheel him out of half time for a wave to the crowd.

Robbie Farah is a polarising figure in the NRL but no one could ever fault his loyalty and passion for his club, a commitment of which was thrown out with the trash. Shame on the Wests Tigers for not only disrespecting that, but disrespecting their club’s and Robbie’s fans.

*

I can’t wait for the 2016 Grand Final, and to get to March 2017 for yet another season of the best sport in the world!

For Pearced Sake!

I had hoped that my first post for the 2016 NRL season would be a review of the Auckland 9s, or a season preview of My Beloveds. Yet one week before the 9s and five before the season proper, I feel obliged to post about what everyone is talking about. Mitchell Bloody Pearce.

As we march toward March with that bring-it-on attitude, it’s masked with trepidation; footy fans all over quietly praying to the footy gods, “come on, we’re almost through pre-season, no one stuff up”.  And with equal amounts of frustration and disappointment we find ourselves talking of yet another player’s <foul / disrespectful / illegal / immoral / vile / stupid> behaviour.

We should be talking about the what impact Sam Burgess will have on his return to Souths, how Shaun Johnson will pull up at the 9s from his sickening injury, how the Broncos’s one-point grand final loss will influence their mental performance, and how good Tim Lafai looks in the Red V (fine, that last one is biased!) We should be talking about The Greatest Game of All. Instead, we’re talking about Mitchell Pearce – Roosters Captain, good first-grader, awful rep player – who was filmed dry humping a dog, pissing himself, sexually harassing a woman and generally being a douchelord.

To say that I’m sick of this shit doesn’t cut it any more. (It’s taken all my might not to write this post in shouty caps.) I am a proud and passionate supporter of rugby league. I’m sick of being embarrassed supporter too. But I find this time around that my embarrassment is directed more toward the fall out from the behaviour than the behaviour itself.

I’m sick of the weak “the NRL is taking this matter very seriously, and will not comment until an investigation is complete” media statements.

I’m sick of the defensive and utterly misguided comments from players, past and present, commentators and fans:

“who hasn’t made mistakes on the grog”,

“it’s been blown out of proportion”,

“he did nothing illegal”,

“no one was hurt”,

“he was in a private home”,

“shame on the person who filmed it”.

I’m sick of the empty apologies through crocodile tears, which rarely acknowledge the victim when there is one, “I’ve embarrassed meself. I’ve let me family down, me club down and the NRL down”.

I’m sick of the laughable punishments of pocket-money fines and a few weeks on the sideline.

I’m sick of the cycle.

There are players currently in the NRL who should be in jail – those who have glassed their girlfriends, beaten their pregnant fiancées, and stomped on strangers heads. The same excuses have been made for them. Naturally, I’m not suggesting Pearce should go to jail. The scale of bad behaviour should be reasonably measured against the punishment. But this is not an excuse for him and his incredibly poor choices.

Therefore in this case, at risk of getting a bad case of the Politics, he should be sacked – for at least 12 months, sanctioned by his club and the NRL. It is the only reasonable punishment. The fact that Pearce says he’s embarrassed is not enough. He must be punished where it really hurts: his privileged livelihood. Very few people have the talent (though Pearce’s can be questionable) and opportunity to embark on a career that is grounded in childhood fantasies, physical dominance, public admiration, with a hero status and a wad of cash to boot. There is evidence to suggest getting the sack works: Josh Dugan who was sacked by his club, and Todd Carney who eventually got booted from the NRL. These are two players who were in the news more for their behaviour than for their performances. It took a torn-up contract for them to get in line. Not a fine, not a suspension but a punishment that fit their crimes of bringing their club and the NRL into disrepute.

Forget about second chances and potentially destroying careers. If Pearce, Captain of the code’s richest club, getting sacked by the NRL and not just by his club (which means, unlike Dugan, another club can’t sign him straight away) is what it takes to set an example for other players then it must be done, no questions asked. We’ve heard it time and again, these players are on a pedestal, they are role models. It’s the badge that comes with the honour of playing the best sport in the world. We as fans appoint them in these precarious positions. No one player is bigger than the game, but it’s players like Pearce who are destroying the game by not respecting the intangible but visible badge on their jersey.

The punishments handed out by clubs and the NRL have always been inconsistent, embedded in a flawed system and entitled culture. Sadly, until this system and culture is radically overhauled, we can’t simply expect good behaviour from players just because it’s what we expect from everyone else. We need to threaten players with their careers.

While it’s unfair to demand perfection, in anyone, it is fair that we demand that players don’t blatantly disregard their privilege and abuse others, including maltese terriers (that’s not meant to be as trivial as it does). We demand it for the good of the game.

 

Control of the Blame

“We never think injuries like this can happen.” Liz Hayes, Reporter for 60 Minutes

#RiseForAlex round, 2014: McKinnon with Knights captain Kurt Gidley and player Willie Mason (photo credit: ABC)
#RiseForAlex round, 2014: McKinnon with Knights captain Kurt Gidley and player Willie Mason (photo credit: ABC)

Over the last 20 years of watching rugby league, I’ve seen some horrific injuries. Two that come to mind was in the 2000 season when Scott Prince snapped his shin bone in half and in the 2012 season when Jharal Yew Yeh smashed his ankle to smithereens (you could see the bone pierce the skin – through his footy boot). These were horrific in nature due to their immediate and gruesome impact. Prince recovered and continued a lengthy career, Yew Yeh never played again.

Nathan Brown, Brent Tate, Gordon Tallis and Ben Ross are all players that I’ve seen play, break their neck in some form – and mostly played on, albeit needled and bandaged to the eyeballs. But they played on. They were fine. They broke their necks but they were fine. Gladiators.

Yet over the past 20 years, the game has gotten faster, the players have grown bigger, and defence strategy more astute and, as a result tackling technique has evolved to become more crushing, restrictive and arguably dangerous.

Along with the broken necks, I’ve seen many a lifting tackle or spear tackle (where the ball player’s legs are lifted above the horizontal – with usually one player driving up high and the other “lifting” his legs). Sure, they have resulted in injury and suspension and calls for referees to take a tougher stand with penalties, but the tackled player has always been fine. When his centre of gravity has lost control, he’s heading for the ground head first with no part of his body touching the ground; they played on, they were fine. Gladiators.

Example of a lifting/spear tackle: Billy Slater illegally tackled by Beau Scott (driving), Josh Reynolds (lifting) (photo credit: Fox Sports)
Example of a lifting/spear tackle: Brent Tate illegally tackled by Beau Scott (driving), Josh Reynolds (lifting) (photo credit: Fox Sports)

Alex McKinnon’s broken neck from a lifting tackle in the 2014 season was different. A gladiator was broken in the most catastrophic of ways. When we learned of the extent of his injury – a quadriplegic, facing a lifetime in a wheelchair, and the very real possibility of never walking again – we all shed a tear. And I shed more than one watching the 60 Minutes interview.

**I’ve chosen not to include a direct link to the footage or photos of this tackle. Knowing the extent of McKinnon’s injuries, it’s too gruesome and heartbreaking to watch.

As the injured player, McKinnon has been dictating where the blame is to be laid for his injury – and rightly so. McKinnon has inspired many by maintaining positivity in his long road to recovery, but he is also still carrying and expressing a lot of anger – and rightly so. Yet, the backlash during the judicial hearing of the primary tackler Jordan McLean through to the fallout of the 60 Minutes story has been “well, with the greatest respect, if he didn’t tuck his head under he wouldn’t be a quadriplegic”. Admittedly, after watching the tackle a few times when it just happened it too was my reluctant, initial reaction.

While I won’t try to link sexual assault and rape with quadriplegic related injuries, I’m not an expert in either – there does seem to be a consistent echo of blaming the person who unwillingly received the trauma. She shouldn’t have been walking home alone at night, he knowingly plays a high contact sport, she shouldn’t have had those drinks, he knows that high risks injuries are possible, she shouldn’t have been flirting with that guy. He shouldn’t have tucked his head. These attitudes reflect a victim blaming culture in this country, that is wide-spread and toxic.

In the 60 Minutes interview, McKinnon responds to (rather than defends against) those critics, the victim blamers: he said that he tucked his head under to protect his fall. He was being speared, lifted head first into the ground. His argument was that it was a natural reaction, as if you were falling over and you put your hands out to catch your fall. His hands were occupied, he only had his head and neck to protect his fall. In the greatest of tragedies, McKinnon’s head and neck didn’t protect him, but they shouldn’t have had to. In rugby league the onus is on the ball carrier, the attacker, to control the ball, but in defence the onus is on the tackler, the defender, to control the ruck with aggression, but with technical and legal restraint. When this line is crossed, it can be deliberate, reckless or careless (as the judicial system reflects). Jordan McLean, the player charged and suspended for seven weeks for the career-ending tackle was not going into that tackle with deliberate intent to injure McKinnon. Thankfully, everyone in the rugby league community including McKinnon knows that. Yet there lays the platform for the victim blaming: McLean and McKinnon are both stand up, decent men. McLean didn’t mean to hurt him, but McKinnon did tuck his head under, so…

Who is to blame? And who is controlling the direction of the blame? McLean for the lifting? Jesse and Kenny Bromwich for driving? Cameron Smith for whinging to the referees for the penalty, as McKinnon was getting stretchered off the field in a neck brace by nine medical staff? The NRL judicial system for not handing down a tougher penalty to McLean? His lawyer for using McKinnon’s actions against him? The NRL for not genuinely cracking down on lifting tackles sooner? 60 minutes for running the story of the Melbourne Storm, Queensland and Australian Captain in a not-so positive light, just days before the biggest Origin game in a decade?

Maybe one of them, maybe a combination of them. But the blame should not be on Alex McKinnon in any way and he is well within his rights for as long as he sees fit to feel what he feels about his reality. It is never, ever right to blame the victim, regardless of the situation. Regardless of tackle intent, regardless of money raised for #RiseForAlex – a then 22 year old rugby league player not only lost his dream career, but his livelihood was taken from him in the most cruel of circumstances. How could he possibly be blamed for that?

Post Script: Earlier today I posted the following as my Facebook status: “By Channel 9 airing the Alex McKinnon 60 Minutes story just days before Origin 3 is a NSW conspiracy….Sweet baby yeezus, I’ve now heard it all. Will be posting about this story very soon!!” This sentiment was going to be the narrative of my blog post this evening, the fact that some people thought that Cameron Smith/ “Nicest Guy in Rugby League” was unfairly characterised in this story. I have strong opinions about Cameron Smith the footy player and captain. Whether he was given the right of reply to this 60 Minutes story is beside the point: the evidence of his disrespectful behaviour was there for all to see, and that’s all I’ll say on the matter in this post out of respect for the true victim – survivor – Alex McKinnon.

Oh When the Saints

Round 13 Photo credit: Paul Barkly/Melba Studios
Round 13
Photo credit: Paul Barkly/Melba Studios

As game two of State of Origin approaches, it signifies that half way point of the NRL season. I’ve long held a fantasy of being a sports journalist, or more accurately a rugby league writer. Up until recently I had a 13 year collection of Rugby League Week magazines to prove it (but I still have the special editions)! So without further ado, I present my review of my team’s season so far. However, before I start I’d like to acknowledge the following:

  1. My team, the St George Illawarra Dragons, will be referred to in the possessive pronoun from this point. I get laughed at when I refer to the Dragons as ‘us’, ‘we’, ‘our’ or even ‘I’, but as the saying goes, Red V is a part of me!
  2. I won’t be sprouting stats, nor referring to specific plays in specific games. Instead this season review will come from the heart and what I know. I’m a rugby league fan of 20 years, not David Middleton.

Since our unbelievable come-from-behind win in round 3 against the Raiders, there have been growing calls suggesting that we’re among the genuine contenders for the 2015 premiership. Now at round 13, we are sitting fourth on the ladder (come on Cowboys, lose a game already!) with the equal best defence in the competition. While I certainly like what I’ve seen so far, I’m reluctant to make 2010 comparisons. Coming into this season, I was anxious to see how our Kiwi and English halves pair would go second time around. The mercurial Benji Marshall had mixed form when he returned from his ill-fated Rugby stint but Gareth Widdop, despite our poor 2014 season, was a sensation for us last year. The loss of Brett Morris to the Bulldogs cut me deep, and I wondered how we’d possibly cover him – I even wrote an email addressed to our recruitment and retention manager asking how this travesty happened. The fact he wanted to play with his twin again warmed the cockles of my heart, but this is business and I demanded answers. I wondered why on earth we’d bought Gorgeous George when there were so many sensational forwards on the market at the end of 2014 – and this was on the back of learning that our best forward Trent Merrin had signed with the Panthers for 2016.

The 2015 season was barely underway when I jumped on board, without hesitation, to a social media campaign called #SaveOurSaints. It was generated by a group of passionate fans (is there any other kind?) in response to our awful start to the season: Widdop was missing, Marshall appeared uninterested, our “soft” forwards weren’t doing their job and my fear of what a Morris-less backline would do to our finishing power was being realised.  I wanted Doust and the Board gone, a systematic review of our retention and recruitment policies, and I feared for Mary’s short term prospects as coach. Along with Rod Wishart, Mary was one of my favourite players as kid, so I couldn’t bear the thought of his own club, my club, potentially ditching him as the scapegoat. And as both of us are Illawarra juniors, the sting would have hurt even more. I’m certain he was the short-priced favourite as the first coach to get the axe for season 2015. Those odds would have shortened even more going into round 3 – we hadn’t beaten the Raiders in Canberra since 1999 (incidentally the year the premiership was stolen from us). Then the unthinkable happened in the nation’s capital, and with the exception of a couple of hiccups we haven’t looked back since: we’re using our big men to their strength (which incidentally is not their size), our use of decoy runners and our kicking game is largely effective (Widdop is even converting at an impressive 78%) and we seem to have a handle on our fifth tackle options.

The Forwards:

“Defence wins premierships” would have to be the most uttered phrase in rugby league, or is it “yeah nah, the boys put in a big effort tonight”? Anyway, the forward that has impressed me most this season is Jack De Belin, who I’ve not-so-lovingly referred to as Jane for the past couple of seasons (anyone remember Dane Carlaw?) De Belin’s not even close to being the best forward in the game, let alone our club, but he’s improved out of sight this season: making metres and solid hit-ups, albeit with his ridiculous hair. He, Merrin, Tyson Frizell and even perennial thug and referee favourite Joel Thompson have led the way this season. This go-forward has allowed Mitch Rein to get amongst it at hooker and build wonderful consistency. The Impenetrable Red Wall is now a commentary favourite.

The Backs:

The second most uttered phrase in rugby league, by Gus Gould at least, is “you can’t coach speed”. Most people would think of Josh Dugan and rightly so, he’s in the form of his career. He was another signing I wasn’t too impressed with at the time, but he continues to prove me wrong. He looks settled and confident and his Brett Mullins-esque style has been beautiful to watch in open space and under the high ball, despite giving me a heart attack every time he struggles to get up from a tackle. He’s the deserved NSW fullback, and thanks to Jarryd Hayne’s departure he’s got it for as long as he wants it. I was doubtful when I learned we were going with green Fijian Eto Nabuli as Morris’s replacement. But despite having an absolute howler yesterday against the Bulldogs, he’s shown himself to be a good finisher and a nice fit for our club.  Many have argued that Marshall hasn’t played as well as he is now since his Wests Tigers won the 2005 premiership. He’s currently leading the Dally M tally. However, I think we should all remain calm, and reflect on what is actually happening here: he’s a different player. (Mostly) gone are the ballerina feet, dumb fifth tackle options, general form inconsistency and erratic trick plays. We now see a less selfish and steadier Marshall working with a halves partner in Widdop who feeds beautifully off his second phase options. I think Marshall responds well to Widdop’s understated and solid playing demeanour, which means both men are in control of their respective roles.

So are we marching toward the finals? Definitely. It doesn’t mean I’m ready to start practicing our club song for October…but good thing I know the words anyway!

“And now ladies and gentlemen, here’s one you can all sing with us” Louis Armstrong, 1961.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyLjbMBpGDA (posted to YouTube by xakyxak, 26 July 2006)

And even though the Red V is part of me, I am an Illawarra junior. It’s never too early to hear it for the men so strong…COME ON MIGHTY WOLLONGONG!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gZgKayN184 (posted to YouTube by TheWheelieBin, 12 April 2010)

Miss Rugby League

Two major events happened this week: International Women’s Day and kick off of the 2015 NRL season. As a feminist who’s a rugby league supporter (or maybe it’s a rugby league supporter who’s a feminist), I celebrate both. The former involves maintaining the lady rage and the latter is a solo trip to the pub for a gin & tonic and wings.

I’ve been a rugby league supporter for 20 years (certainly longer than I’ve been a feminist or at least known I was). Rugby league is part of who I am, what I’m passionate about, it’s part of my daily life, so I look forward to season kick off like a kid on Christmas Eve. I stand by the truism that there are two parts to a year: footy season and off season, which is an excruciating wait until the footy season starts again, and so the annual cycle goes. To the uninitiated, I really can’t explain why I love it so much, “but you’re just watching a bunch of boofheads bashing each other every week” is a common rebuttal. Fine, if you want to simplify it like that, but to me it’s so much more.

It’s tribal. It evokes a range of intensely felt emotions in a 90 minute period that I don’t think anything else in the world can: pride, passion, jubilation, anticipation, disappointment, anger, relief and panic. I’ve felt nerves to the point of almost vomiting before a State of Origin game, been laughed at by housemates as they’ve heard me hysterically scream – valid and accurate – instruction to the television, had a panic attack in the final moments of my team’s 2010 semi-final game, and quietly wept when they went on to comprehensively win the premiership that same year, and last year I collapsed onto the floor in tears when NSW finally won an Origin game for the first time in 10 years. I love being a rugby league supporter, I’m proud to be a rugby league supporter and I will always be one.

Champions 2010: St George Illawarra Dragons
Champions 2010: St George Illawarra Dragons

Though what comes with the game day excitement, friendly banter, pre-game analysis and tipping competitions is the never ending stupidity of some players. It seems that in the last 10 years, every pre-season is met with an exclusive news story of a player or playing group getting in trouble (or worse) for anything from pissing in public, drink driving, driving without a license, illicit drug possession or dealing, dodgy involvement or knowledge of systematic salary cap rorts, drug taking of the performance enhancing kind, punch ups, shitting in a hotel corridor, glassing/attacking a girlfriend or sexual assault.

“But boys will be boys”

“He’s 24 years old, he’s just a kid who’s made a mistake”

“They’ve got too much time and money on their hands”

“They’re public targets from fans with camera phones”

“But we have excellent education programs in place”

Actually no, they’re being disgusting humans and I will never defend that kind of pathetic, idiotic and abhorrent behaviour. It’s hard to stand by rugby league when these kind of incidents continue to happen. And even harder when I’m an equally passionate feminist (ok, so I’ve never collapsed to the ground in tears in the name of feminism, I express my passion in different ways!)

“How can you be a feminist and a rugby league supporter? Isn’t that impossible?” I’m often asked, “it’s not impossible, I can and I am” is my slightly offended response. Yet considering this apparent oxymoron, I can see the confusion. Along with the annual pre-season Men Behaving Badly nightmare, the NRL is an overwhelmingly male dominated work environment. There is a long way to go to break down the entrenched boys’ club culture and see increased, genuine female representation. The pink jerseys for the tokenistic Women in League round, a couple of women in board positions, women’s Origin curtain raisers, just two (brilliant) female journalists in Yvonne Sampson and Erin Molan… it’s not enough. As a feminist, a woman, and a rugby league fan, on this International Women’s Day, I demand more. I demand the NRL to #MakeItHappen

#MakeItHappen #IWD2015
#MakeItHappen #IWD2015

As a feminist it’s my belief in my right to choose what I want do, and as a rugby league supporter it’s my right to stand by what I love. On this International Women’s Day, I will celebrate both events by writing this article as I watch the Sunday game.

Happy International Women’s Day and bring on season 2015!