Sometimes I think that sports players evolve to fit the technology we use to watch them. Looking back on great NRL matches of the 1990s – vintage footy always seems to be playing at the gym – there’s a natural match between the shaggy, baggy jerseys and the blurry, grainy television footage that we took for normal back then. Going back even further, 70s players like Eric Simms and Bob Fulton feel inextrixable from celluloid, better suited to gracing the backdrop of a Dirty Harry movie than being scrutinised by the hi-def cameras that put so much more pressure on players these days to advertise every moment of their workout routines when they’re out on the field. It’s hard to imagine Simms being strapped into a Marvel jersey.
Yet, every now and then, you come across a player who feels totally out of time. Aaron Woods is one of those players, which is perhaps why I find him so winning, and perhaps why you can best describe him in terms of what he’s not. Firstly, he’s not a flashy player. In fact, as a prop, he’s probably in the least flashy position on the field. That’s not to say, though, that he doesn’t have flair – who could forget the mad dash that ended up cementing Origin II this year? – but that there’s a certain kind of genius in preventing flair looking flashy, just doing your job brilliantly without making any kind of fuss about it. That’s Woods to a tee . Secondly, he’s not stylish. Although League has traditionally been a fairly rough-and-tumble kind of sport, the demands of hi-def television actually seem to have created a real anxiety about appearance, and skincare in particular, culminating with a recent Fox Sports (I think?) article about players’ moisturisers of choice. There’s something cool and funny about that, but also something cool about Woods’ unkempt, wild-man appearance – his epic beard is the very opposite of a hipster hairbun. This is hair that no man can tame, and that gives him an incredible dynamism and presence out on the field that’s perhaps only matched by Jamal Idris and Kevin Naiqama’s bird’s-nests for sheer chaotic energy. If Lote Tuqiri is Predator, then Woods feels like Predator 2 – still shaggy, but more grounded and ready for hand-to-hand combat in an urban cauldron. Finally, Woods is emphatically not an NRL player – he’s an ARL player. Something about him seems totally pre-Super League, from the way he handles himself in interviews to his tendency to address his fan base as “Legends” on his Twitter account. Where most footy players offer up hip-hop as their music of choice when quizzed on their online profiles – usually some cocktail of Kanye, Jay-Z and Pitbull – Woods seems like the kind of guy who’d also be into Led Zeppelin, or at least has a Led Zep shirt stowed away at the back of his closet somewhere.
It’s odd, then, that Woods hasn’t had more of a profile on The Footy Show, which is such a hotbed of 70s nostalgia that Rugby League and the 1970s often feel more or less the same thing when the panel take the stage. Still, he feels like a regular persona on The Footy Show – a personality from the past – which isn’t to say that his present isn’t great, or that he can’t play a brutal game of footy. But that tension is what gives him his charm and what has turned him, for me, into one of the great cult figures of the current game – a personality prop, in the best and richest sense.