Benny, Vossy and Bluey: it’s been a week and then some

One of the tough things writing about homogenised rugby league was trying to ascribe the direction of the sport solely to the cravenness of the Sydney clubs. But at that time, we hadn’t actually seen the Queensland clubs rise to the defence of the state’s rugby league heritage. They’d been mute and I was going to assume that meant they were complicit. You can see me fumble around this in the concluding paragraphs.

Then Ben Ikin proved me wrong:

The NRL is investigating recreating a national reserve grade competition that would include each of the league’s 17 clubs and play curtain-raisers before their top teams…

“It will narrow and weaken the pathway, which will eventually weaken the elite game,” Ikin said.

“In Queensland, you move from 13 second-tier teams across the state, who all operate as rugby league academies, and replace them with four reserve grade sides, ripping players and coaches out of regional developments hubs and pushing them back into metropolitan areas.

“I’m a massive supporter of second-tier statewide competitions, in fact, I think the NSW clubs should be forced to have two affiliates. If you want to develop more talent in more places and create more opportunities, you build more academies.

“National reserve grade is all about trading out development and community for entertainment. It’s ridiculous.

“I’m led to believe the big driver behind national reserve grade is to have more content on game day. Seriously, who’s coming to an NRL game that doesn’t already come just because there’s one extra game? No one.

“The whole thing feels like some sort of nostalgic thought bubble.

“Second-tier clubs and competitions are the low cost way to get quality rugby league in more places. All reserve grade does is drag development programs back under NRL clubs.

“The affiliate model forces NRL clubs to get outside their organisation and collaborated with more coaches, players and administrators.

“The Brisbane Broncos support the status quo and will continue to use multiple affiliates.”

Broncos slam national reserve grade competition, Courier Mail, 18 June 2022

There are three truly refreshing aspects of this commentary. Firstly, we don’t have to guess what the Broncos want or why. Normally, we on the sidelines are left to infer motivations by reading between the lines of what is said and then comparing that to what actually happens, a process that is often sufficiently muddy that the powerful can duck and weave any actual consequences of their words or actions. Ikin has stated that they support the status quo and provided a concise, coherent and cogent set of arguments as to why that is.

Those in the thick of the action – sometimes referred to as journalists – are less in the business of analysis and more in the business of stenography. If you don’t possess the faculties or time or energy to undertake your own analysis, you’re left with making do with taking words at face value, which is less than ideal given the character of those who lead us.

The interesting thing about the current concept of national reserve grade is that it appears to have no parents. I googled “national reserve grade” and my aforementioned homogenised rugby league article was fourth. “NRL reserve grade” was no more illuminating. Neither of the two articles of Queenslanders rebuking the idea (chairman of the QRL, Bruce Hatcher, was obviously not keen on the idea either) have cited anyone actually in favour of it, just that the NRL and the ominous “senior powerbrokers” are investigating it.

We know this is a Gouldian nostalgic thought bubble because he told us as much two years ago, but so far neither Gould, nor V’Landys, nor Abdo, not even Wayne Pearce, will put their name to the idea now. Maybe they just don’t really believe in it and are letting the media air it out before they see which way the wind is blowing and tacking accordingly.

So, secondly, this is clearly criticism of the current NRL administration, albeit not at a specific target. It is the first time I can remember that someone important from a club has put their name to genuine criticism of the direction of head office since the V’landolution of late 2019. Even during the Greenberg coup, criticism was anonymised. This is progress.

Thirdly and finally, it’s surprising to actually, wholeheartedly agree. Normally, this means they’ve gotten under my usual shield of cynicism by telling me what I want to hear or making me feel smart. We all have our blindspots and that might be the case here, but it also doesn’t make Ikin wrong.

The status quo benefits the Broncos and, by extension, Ikin. The Queensland Cup is cheaper for Queensland’s NRL clubs than a national reserve grade. Forcing expansion clubs participate in NSWRL reggies helped send the Reds bust, who could not afford to ship two squads to the east coast every two weeks after it was initially agreed they wouldn’t and then the NSWRL changed their mind after Sydney clubs complained (the same thing happened to the Broncos, with slightly less disastrous results).

I thought the current NRL administration was all for cost cutting. Obviously, it’s not really about that and never has been. Every move the administration makes is towards consolidating control of the sport under the current NRL clubs. This is an inference we’ve had to make by listening to what the NRL and ARLC say, and then watching what they actually do. For example, we can take a look at the supposed benefits of a national reserve grade but it falls apart quickly.

If you wanted to argue about the current strength of pathways, I can only offer you two facts. From 2011 to 2021, the NRL premiership was won by teams with a traditional reserve grade arrangement only twice: Manly in 2011, who had just ended their two year relationship with the Sunshine Coast Queensland Cup club because of politicking by the NSWRL (how’d that work out?), and Penrith in 2021. Every other premier had a feeder arrangement with any number of Queensland Cup teams or Wyong, North Sydney or Newtown.

Of the current men’s teams playing Origin, all of Queensland’s squad, including the coach, bar four have spent time in QCup. Those four only missed out because of fortutious career timing that they were able to make the leap directly from the former National Youth Competition to the NRL. Even on the Blues side, Hynes, Haas and Staggs have played for the Falcons, Seagulls and Dolphins respectively. Some, like Haas, are so talented that half a dozen games was enough to prove their worth. Some, like Hynes, needed three seasons after being discarded by Manly. We haven’t even gotten to Tonga’s Jason Taumalolo’s time in Mackay or New Zealand’s Jahrome Hughes’ time in Townsville and the Sunshine Coast.

I’m not sure how much better the system needs to be.

Perhaps we’ll asisninely ask why Queensland clubs can’t take the step down in grading. This would be the second time this has been asked of these clubs, after dropping in the late 80s from first to second to make way for a national code (how’d that work out?), and now again from second to third grade in the 20s for unclear reasons. Meanwhile, completely inept Sydney clubs continue get a free ride, immovable from their position thanks to other, still less clear reasons.

Strangely, we’re yet to hear how the PNG Hunters and Kaiviti Silktails would fit into a national reserve grade. Speaking to the Hunters’ current situation and the potential future of the Silktails, it’s difficult to see how a club competitive in the second tier whose sole purpose is to elevate playing talent would benefit from playing in the third tier.

Tacking them on to the reserve grade competition doesn’t really give you all three grades on game day if someone has to fly to Port Moresby every fortnight, so one assumes the Hunters will either be promoted to the NRL, the only competition that matters and where they will live on commercial life support funded in perpetuity by the goodwill of the Australian government, or be summarily cast aside, wasting a decade of hard work. In the extremely likely case of the latter, it is impossible to argue that this wouldn’t be an enormous loss to the sport. I haven’t touched on what would happen to Newtown or North Sydney, especially should the latter fail in its bid to be readmitted to the NRL as The Bears.

The administration says it cares about heritage, tribalism and the suburbaness of rugby league and then proceeds to demolish the structures that support those very things in Queensland and in Sydney and elsewhere. In the absence of any obvious merits – financial, performance or otherwise – of a national reserve grade, what we’re left with is to infer what’s really at play: control.

It’s nice to hear it from somebody at a club who gets it.

The Cowboys’ and Titans’ commentary reflected a different view. The Cowboys wanted their own team in QCup, as a throwback to the 2005 premiership-winning Young Guns. This is due to the tyranny of distance between Cairns, Mackay and Townsville, which would make some sense if one of their feeders wasn’t also in Townsville and could provide the same function as the Young Guns if utilised properly.

The Titans also wanted more control of their feeders. If we were to do a quick comparison of CVs, we’d see Tweed won the Cup in 2007 and had one of the best seasons ever in 2011, Burleigh won in 2016 and 2019 and the Titans have only made the finals four times in their entire existence (twice with a losing record). I can see why the affiliates would resist the NRL club’s interference.

Look at the Warriors’ failure to make hay while the six-time premiers Redcliffe shined on them. Then look at the Warriors’ owner’s comments on any given issue in the last six months and tell me these aren’t related. Then look at the Roosters and the Storm, the two dominating teams of the last decade-plus, and the absence of those brands in the second tier of the sport. Look back at the Titans and then think. This speaks to the Titans’ failure to manage the situation with sufficient deftness that both clubs are better off.

The best teams have shown how to do it. The worst teams have shown they don’t know what to do and so while it may be more expensive, it is far easier, and therefore more appealing to a certain kind of mindset, to manage this relationship in-house. The hierarchy is clear, as is the flow of dollars, and everything can be sacrificed towards the end goal. It is also an excellent recipe for organisational rot.

Australian readers will be familiar with the outcome of the recent federal election. The conservative party that has predominated Australian politics for the last decade, and done precisely dick-all good with it, was given the boot and replaced with a lean mix of Labor, Greens and environmentally-focussed independents.

The 2010s will almost certainly be viewed as a lost decade of cultural, economic and political stagnation in Australia, where an opportunity to borrow against historically low interest rates and do something, anything, was squibbed in favour of eating raw onions, non-existent wage growth, wasting money on submarines, fighting pointless culture wars that only served to marginalise vulnerable communities and enduring a seemingly never ending series of floods, fires and pestilence.

I’ve frequently intimated that the former federal government, with its penchant for reaction, preference for being seen to do things instead of actually doing anything, and pandering to what they think is their base but is actually the worst 5% of people on the internet, has its parallels in the adminstration of rugby league football in this country, but had struggled to articulate a real connection.

Then lo and behold, Andrew Voss opened his mouth and it started to take shape.

The decline of Andrew Voss, from the nation’s pre-eminent rugby league lover to guy who says stuff so he can fast track a career to Sky News and join former rugby league personality turned victim of cancel culture (i.e. got called a racist by the Daily Mail, of all publications), Erin Molan, is stark.

What I find surprising is not that he holds these views, but it’s his failure to read the very obvious vibe of the room. Voss proffers some truly ancient talking points. The invective of dole bludgers and greenies had its day in the 90s. It’s now thirty years and a new century later. If I was being charitable, I’d suggest he was using his platform to troll for talkback content. Surely not.

For a generation of people who’s only political victory as adults is the passage of same sex marriage legislation in 2017 (itself a process considerably more harmful than required), the 2022 election is something. While I don’t expect Labor to deliver anything meaningful anytime soon, or even at all, and there will certainly be an opposite reaction in 2025, the results are at least an acknowledgment by Australia that a) the environment matters and b) political change is at the very least possible in this country, which is a lot more than we’ve had since circa 2007.

I’m allowing myself the small treat of thinking we’re at an end to the vapid conservatism that’s dominated Australian politics, as LNP goons repeatedly failed to say the right combination of ritualistic shibboleths to replicate John Howard’s shamanic hold over the country. We’ll have to wait and see how laughably naive that pans out to be.

To bring it back to rugby league, the question is whether the people at the top of our sport have sniffed the winds of change and how they plan to react. The electorate, especially in Brisbane, which now has three Greens MPs (up from zero) in the inner city with a surrounding buffer zone of red seats and marginal blue ones (including The Dolphins’ own Peter Dutton), has emphatically shown that the way of pretending to do things in the 2010s is dead.

To be fair to Peter V’Landys and his crew, they haven’t exactly been idle, but their energy has been misdirected backwards to appease people whose importance is, at best, marginal. The solutions of the future don’t lie in the past. They don’t involve playing the national anthem before Origin because the then Prime Minister smelled an opportunity to use the sport, once again, for his own political gain. They don’t involve bringing back the little man to revive a time and place very few remember and exactly none remember accurately. They don’t involve an invocation of a suburban lifestyle that increasingly fewer Australians can even aspire to afford. They don’t involve spinning bullshit to justify actions that were already decided on for reasons that the administration can’t be honest about. They don’t involve a strongman dictator that rides roughshod over anyone in his path.

“There’s something in there for everyone. It’s much easier in NSW. In Queensland it’s a bit trickier because the Broncos, Cowboys and Titans are aligned with Queensland Cup clubs, but it’s not impossible and we’re working on it.

There’s not a lot of resistance to it.’’

Andrew Abdo, NRL push to bring back all three grades on game days, Daily Telegraph, 26 January 2021

ARLC chair Peter V’landys is hellbent on seeing the return of all three grades on NRL game day.

He’s so committed he even declared that he will do “whatever it takes” and that “anyone that gets in the way will get run over.”

V’landys wants the return of all three grades on NRL game day. This is how it could work, Fox, 1 February 2021

They do require acknowledging that the country has changed, will continue to change and the game needs to change with it. The alternative is the netherworld of Sky News.

It’s difficult to know whether the 2032 Olympics or Bluey, a children’s show about a family of cartoon dogs, will be Brisbane’s greatest cultural gift to the world. It’s impossible to imagine an opening or closing ceremony that won’t involve the cattledogs in some fashion. They may well just project every episode back-to-back onto the Gabba field as the athletes parade and cut out the middleman. There should be close to 60 hours of episodes by then.

Everyone likes Bluey. My two year old daughter likes Bluey. My thirty-six year old wife likes Bluey. I like Bluey. I can’t think of another piece of media that more reliably gets under my decades of ingrained toxic masculinity and cynicism to generate a genuine emotional response (I am aware this is a sentence a robot would write) in a way that will be inevitably seen as cringe, not at all based and pretty mid to be honest by people who aren’t yet born. In nearly a decade of yammering, this is my most liked tweet ever:

It’s strange to think that after all the misguided and downright dumb efforts of rugby league administrators have made over a century to get the game in front of people, an animated show for kids (not least from that bastion of leftie, ivory tower, soy latte sippers, the ABC) is going to put the sport into millions of homes worldwide and for real this time, not like that bullshit during the pandemic.

This was an actual headline the Daily Telegraph expected people to swallow.

I’m not naive and I don’t think this is going to result in an avalanche of new fans but I do think, perhaps also naively, that this is meaningful.

Not to put too fine an intellectual point on it, it matters. Origin is a rivalry burned into our brains, sitting nestled between the medulla and the hypothalamus and it shows in this episode. Rugby league may not be important, not in the way that voting or interest rate policy or the war in Ukraine is important, but it matters as a increasingly rare shared cultural touchstone and a means of bringing people together and having fun. What doesn’t seem to matter are two point field goals, six agains and footballs that can detect forward passes. The stewards of the game have a responsibility to all fans – new and old, lapsed or existing or potential – to look after it with a wider perspective than they’ve shown to date.

Despite the atrocities commited by some of the most prominent, mouth-breathing exponents of the game, there is room in the world painted by Bluey, oriented around a gentle, loving and fun family, for a violent contact sport. It may be that rugby league is not entirely incompatible with the world of today and maybe tomorrow.

The beauty of having kids and watching (untold amounts of) kids TV, and Bluey in particular, is seeing the world through their fresh eyes. Despite the sleep deprivation and physical weariness, it reinvigorates a part of your self that’s been crusted over by world weariness, especially in the last five ten twenty years. This is exactly the kind of thing that helps shake that crust off and re-engage anew with something old, dear and familiar.

Finally, Bluey makes an excellent case for more rep football.

Anyway, here’s Bluey’s dad singing a song called Caboolture Speed Lab.