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  • William Staib

From Class Divide to Civic Pride: Australia’s Unforeseen COVID-Craving

COVID-19 delivered a storm of blows to Australian morale but some welts were deeper and more tender than others. While coping with the pain of unemployment, tragic passings and isolation, Aussies were deprived of their favourite pastimes. Suffocating, people lusted for an escape. Anguished Aussies were left with no form of relief. Amid countless closures, the cancellation of the National Rugby League (NRL), for many, evoked a surprisingly deafening roar from the crowd.

Fans sorely missed their sporting heroes, so much so that their demand for the game’s return spurred on an unmatched, and perhaps premature, recommencement of the competition. With so much of society shut down, many would not have understood the importance of League’s recommencement. It begs the question:

Why should we run the risk of worsening the pandemic for a sport that only 3% of us played as kids?

Rugby League is part of our history and our culture. Australians possess an internationally unparalleled fanaticism for sport, any sport. Sport doesn’t just represent our culture, it forms it, and no other creed has bound together the green and gold, or shaped its people, as much as Rugby League. For years, jersey-clad aussies of every variety have flooded grandstands and living rooms, pie ‘n’ sauce in hand, to barrack for their beloved teams. Our love of League has created a distinct national identity that starts with a strong line linking back to England’s thrumming industrial heartland: The North.

League began because players demanded equal treatment and opportunity. In 1895, a group of working-class North England Rugby Union clubs formed a new competition with adapted rules, locations and most importantly constant wages. Prior to its succession, players of these clubs were underrepresented, undercompensated and undervalued. For the English social elite, these miners and labourers had no place in the rich-man’s game. Union competition meetings were hosted in London far from typical labouring-class areas, and injured players received no financial compensation while they recovered. They were left unable to work, play or put food on the table for their families. These players cherished Union, but when it came time for the game to cherish them, they were left out in the cold, bearing a great weight of unfillable responsibilities. League provided a way for working-class players to be treated fairly and paid equally that grew increasingly attractive.

For the descendants of convicts and newfound Australian patriots alike, League idealised throwing off the yoke of British snobbery in a way that provided a fair go – an iconic idiom resonant in Australian History. So, it was no surprise that Australia soon followed, forming its own Rugby League competition in 1907.

League became a democratic game for a democratic people, but not just for those who strapped on the boots. Sporting fans gravitated to the game as well. Its adapted rules created a faster, simpler game, while Union remained more glacial and strategic. League was not only more entertaining, but also more accessible for the lay. From the outset, fans and potential players saw Union as hard to understand and lacking the sheer joy of action that League’s pace and big hits continue to fulfill to this day. But, as League grew, the upper classes were quite content keeping the ‘purer’ game amongst their own kind. This obstinacy soon became their fatal flaw. Union stubbornly clung to the sport’s origins and failed to adapt their game to include all. For decades they refused to alter the rules, and consequently, League soon outpaced Union.

The ball began to slip from Union’s grasp as players and fans deserted the ‘authentic’ game. In 1908, Union’s best, Dally Messenger, converted to League, becoming Dally M. He is now commemorated with a medal that represents his tremendous ability but above all, his fairness, in today’s competition. In 1909, both sports had similar crowds. In 1910 League crowds doubled and in 1913, Union crowds had diminished to less than 10% of their competitors, forcing them to give up major grounds and facilities. To this day, League makes continuous efforts to improve the game. Rules like the six-again-restart, designed to create a freer-flowing match, are constantly tested and evaluated, typifying League’s endless pursuit of the most accessible and enjoyable game. League has always tried to make the game better for its players and more enjoyable for its fans. This openness and devotion to innovation is largely responsible for the game’s profound growth and popularity. The game fails to discriminate and has never grown complacent in its own success.

The fluidity of League’s rules make it innately and uniquely Australian. In order to embrace all those who wish to follow the game – typifying the Aussie value of mateship - League’s higher-ups have always been willing to tailor to the fans’ wishes. Union failed to change until recently, updating with many of league’s themes and streamlining, finally understanding that the game is not about rules but about people.

League’s simpler format not only makes for a more entertaining game, but emphasises the value of hard yakka, toughness and grit amongst players. However, the glare of the spotlight lingers long after the siren sounds.

These paragons of Australian character are held to high standards off the pitch as well. Even during the game’s suspension, players caught breaking social distancing regulations were disproportionately scrutinised by the media and fans alike, despite many flaunting restrictions themselves. Penrith Panthers halfback, Nathan Cleary, was fined nearly ten times the amount of the average australian by the NRL for attending a local house party. He became the most recent addition to the collection of players, across the game’s lifetime, whose names have dominated the headlines of magazines, news and social media. Australians recognise what these players represent and in turn, demand accountability, whether that be scathing tabloids, court rulings, League-issued fines or public outcry.

While some stumble in the spotlight, League has provided countless examples of Aussies, from all backgrounds, playing together, succeeding together and reaping the benefits of the people’s game together. As a result, fans lust for the screech of the referee’s whistle as ball meets boot and the stress of the work week fades. By simply pulling on the guernsey, players symbolise the journey of the miners and construction workers who fought for a fair go for all.

People don’t watch the game because they play it, they watch it because it champions concepts like toughness, mateship and fair play - values that all Australians cherish. Perhaps these values are why so many demanded the sport’s return amid the pandemic. COVID-19 left many locked up in isolation, facing unprecedented uncertainty. More than ever, did Australians need to see players’ tenacity and fortitude in action on the field, so they themselves could find the strength to tackle these pressing times with similar determination.

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