The centennial 2008 rugby league season ended last Saturday night with a shock. For the first time since 1972, Australia lost the Rugby League World Cup.
Not only did they lose, but they lost with a crop of players whose talents must be ranked alongside the best to ever play in their positions. In the 100 years that the sport has gone on in this country, few teams anywhere could have left out the likes of Billy Slater, Jonathon Thurston, Darren Lockyer and Cameron Smith. These Kangaroos barely raised a sweat throughout the entire tournament, including their earlier encounter with New Zealand, which they won comfortably by 30 points to six.
On Saturday afternoon, the Australians went in as unbackable favourites.
After 82 minutes of drama that evening (including New Zealand’s haka and the Australian response) they had been exposed as less disciplined, less consistent and less hungry than the Kiwis, and that was a big surprise.
So even though the bit of rugby league that exists for a short while on a grassy rectangle is only one part of the bigger, dirtier picture, let’s look at this bit first.
A couple of crucial mistakes sank the Kangaroos on Saturday. A little embarrassingly, Billy Slater was named player of the tournament barely half an hour after he tried to pull an inexplicable move on Vatuvei close to his own end. In trouble on the touch-line, he chucked the ball back inside and over his head to absolutely nobody. Benji Marshall happily scooped up the loose football and scored, taking the New Zealanders’ lead from two points to six.
Nine minutes later, winger Joel Monaghan — not an "Immortals" candidate in my opinion — fumbled a grubber from Nathan Fien in-goal, and then compounded his mistake by clobbering Kiwi winger Lance Hohaia without the ball. There aren’t too many penalty tries in international rugby league — this one sealed the game for New Zealand.
These catastrophic moments drew some attention away from the fact that for long passages of play, while more than competent, and even dazzling in passages, the Australians were often uninspired.
For New Zealand, five-eighth Benji Marshall constantly teased, probed and gambled with the ball; when things went wrong, as they often did, he picked himself up and worked to keep the Australians unsettled, guessing. Marshall has been in and out through injury since his golden season of 2005, when he was central in making the Wests-Tigers the most entertaining premiers in recent memory.
This latest tournament, and Saturday night in particular, marked his re-emergence as one of the great players in a stellar generation. His pluck lifted a team that was clearly inferior on paper to the Kangaroos.
Rallying to his standard, the Kiwi forwards in particular used their mobility and strength to make ground up the middle, and created opportunities with daring offloads; the outside backs withstood pressure from their fancied counterparts, and were there to capitalise on loose balls around the rucks.
As he has done for so many great teams over two decades, Wayne Bennett had a large role in bringing the best from this side, which played to its strengths and asserted its character, which Bennett has always said can be fostered, but not coached.
Unlike Marshall, none of Australia’s resident geniuses really made themselves into their side’s beating heart. Lockyer constructed a beautiful try with Slater, but one gets the sense that, on this home stretch of his career, he’s becoming more a master of backing up — à la Terry Lamb — than the midfield general and gap-finding playmaker of old.
For all that, and especially given the stakes, the game was a classic — one of the very best in this celebratory year. Along with this year’s Queensland’s comeback in games two and three of the Origin series, and the last-gasp escape by the Melbourne Storm in their preliminary final against the Broncos, this was a great game at its very best.
The atmospherics on the night were established by the Kiwis’ spectacular challenge in the pre-match haka, and the game only finally got away from the Kangaroos in the last five minutes. The rest of the match see-sawed, and some passages of play had the grace that only the unrelenting grind of rugby league football can throw into proper relief.
The angry claims Australian coach Ricky Stuart reportedly made afterwards about a conspiracy against the Kangaroos just helped to provide the off-field drama which this game does better than any other code.
This is the other part of league — the part that is so essential to the sport, but so misunderstood.
Consider the (largely unobserved) fact that the Kiwis won without Sonny Bill Williams, who was New Zealand’s (and the world’s) best young forward until he made a controversial mid-season switch to rugby union. SBW’s desertion was at the time the subject of fevered commentary — it was held up as a symptom of the diminishing viability of rugby league clubs, the helplessness of a small code in the face of globalised sport, or the malign influence of sports managers.
The drama drew newspapers, broadcasters, and some doomsday academic commentators into its orbit. Like so many mortal threats to the code, its moment passed — it was dissipated into the atmosphere of contentiousness that is the game’s natural medium.
And that is to say that the talk of bias in the refereeing and the absence of Sonny Bill from this latest episode in the evolving league legend to me seems to encapsulate one of the lessons of our centenary season. This lesson is one identified by Fairfax’s always-exceptional Roy Masters.
While everyone was losing their heads about Sonny Bill’s defection, Masters said that off-field drama and conflict is not ultimately damaging to rugby league — indeed it is part of its fabric.
The sport thrives on conflict, and depends not only on what happens on the ground, but on week-in, week-out contests over the meaning of concepts like loyalty, friendship, origins, belonging and proper behaviour. This is true to such an extent that the game, together with its paratexts of tabloid newspapers and broadcasting all constitute a species of melodrama.
The game is nothing without its connections to Sydney’s fixations on class, cash and celebrity; Queensland’s bottomless, paranoid parochialism; the timeless test between Country and City; and those moments — like Saturday — where poor cousins put together 80 good minutes, and turn things on their heads. Broken friendships, external threats and scandal are its meat and drink.
Anyone who thinks — after this game, the Origin series, and the SBW "crisis" — that rugby league can’t prosper in turmoil, or who doesn’t recognise that league has always actively looked for a corner to put its back in, just doesn’t understand it, and never will.
Anyone who can imagine the voices of Sydney and Brisbane tabloids (or indeed those of Newcastle and Townsville) in full throat about some other code is imagining a country which has been transformed beyond recognition. This year’s season has shown that globalisation is not one-way traffic — that even in sport, its counter-currents are powerful.
So Happy Birthday, Rugby League, you dirty old bastard. And bring on March, and the next 100 years.
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