At its best, League banter exceeds pretty that of much every other Australian sport. In part, that’s because NRL – in Australia at least – is perceived as a lowbrow sport, or a minor sport, meaning that it tends to be more or less exempt from the pseudo-intellectual commentary that tends to accompany Union matches, let alone Super League matches. Admittedly, AFL commentary is more dynamic, but even AFL commentary tends to have a kind of studied reserve that’s light years from the plosive intensity of a good League voiceover. Cricket probably comes a close second, but the slow-burn, warm-bath ambience of test commentary is designed by nature for zoning in and out, rather than compelling you with the attention-grabbing, rabid-dog excitement of League. And excitement – incredulity even – is the hallmark of the great NRL commentators, turning NRL commentary into a kind of spectacle itself, most obviously through platforms like The Footy Show and The Matty Johns Show, but also in the small commentary dramas that emerge as side attractions to the main event, bridging the gap between current and retired players with charismatic bouts of banter that make it feel like everyone’s still out on the field. Banter, then, is the great leveller, a counterpoint to the egos that sometimes seem to rule the news cycle, as well as a way of keeping the game feeling tied to its grassroots fanbase.
In 2015, the biggest banter event has undoubtedly been the ongoing sledgefest between J.T. and Hindy during The Matty Johns Show’s post-game Cowboys interviews. Whether because all three games in question have tended to be decisive victories for the Cows – and have occurred in close proximity to smashing QLD performances as well – or whether because J.T. coasts so far and wide on his post-match highs, the slinging has almost reached hip-hop proportions, with shade being thrown as slyly and effortlessly as a dummy pass. While each of the three rounds in the ring have had their high points, my favourite is still the original encounter, when Hindy’s eyes almost bulged out of his head as Thurston made a few cracks at the Eels after smashing them for the first time (this season) in Round 13. Good banter depends on taking someone by surprise, and Thurston’s manner is so chilled and affable – and his dig at the Eels was so out of left-field – that Hindy didn’t really notice it until it was too late to respond, calling Thurston back to the mic for a half-mumbled retort – “You’re a wanker, mate” – that just gave J.T. another opportunity to put in the boot. If good banter also depends on knowing exactly how far to take things before they cross a line – or until they just start to cross a line – Thurston pitched it perfectly. Both on and off the field, his timing was outstanding that night, leaving Hindy fuming but unable to get too mad without coming off as a bad sport.
Still, Hindy did come off the worse for wear, which was kind of an entertaining experience in itself. As a long-time Eels sympathiser – if not a fully-fledged supporter – I have a lot of time for Hindmarsh’s loyalty to this most precarious of clubs. Usually, I’d be the last person to get on board with snarky anti-Eels sentiments, let alone when they were directed at Parra’s favourite second-rower. Still, there was something about seeing Hindy sent back to to the second row in this clash that was actually quite satisfying for a Parra fan, just because of how much he’s been put out to pasture since leaving the team. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great guy – literally the biggest heart in League – but he’s become such a media teddy bear that you could easily forget how brutal and ballsy his game actually was. In some ways, that’s an issue with The Matty Johns Show, which seems to have set out to rehabilitate Johns by way of a program that’s reluctant to engage with the edgier, thornier and more charismatic aspects of the game, and so tends to be a bit safer in its humour as well. But it’s also an issue with Hindy’s profile too, and the way in which the media seems determined to transform him into the ultimate “nice guy” of League – a walking, talking apology for the NRL – which kind of limits how he can use his charisma and expertise.
Watching Hindy fuming, then, was kind of a gratifying experience for an Eels fan. This was the attitude that got the blue and gold up against the Storm in the 2009 Grand Final – a prospect that would be utterly unthinkable now – as well as the attitude that kept them strong in the wake of the salary cap scandal and premiership revival. While I don’t want to exactly say that Thurston was doing Hindy a favour, there’s something about the way that good banter sets your opponent up as an equal – someone worthy of banter – that I think is actually truer to Hindy’s legacy as a footy player than the fairly staid role he plays for Matty Johns. In that sense, it felt right that Hindy’s response to J.T. wasn’t quite a witty retort, but a good old-fashioned on-field sledge – and, like the best sledges, it wasn’t abusive or personal, but just a plosive burst of pent-up frustration. For the first time in years, it felt like Hindy had reverted back to Nathan Hindmarsh, the unofficial leader of what was shaping up to be one of the most brutal footy teams in the late 00s. This wasn’t just banter, it was a tackle.
So how have things progressed from there? Well, Part 2 amped the stakes up even further in the wake of the Cowboys victory over Manly in Round 19, with JT parrying an opening sledge from Hindy before it even happened – a takedown that was even more brutal in that Hindy had obviously been preparing and rehearsing it ever since their last encounter. Like the moment in Seinfeld when George’s face fell upon realising the joke he should have told, Hindy clouded over as JT made a quip about enjoying a Grand Final ring that hit home and cut deep. In fact, it’s hard to imagine any other player pulling off a joke that personal – let alone getting something close to a standing ovation from their audience – but Thurston’s sense of comic timing stood the test, with even Hindy conceding the penalty. Not content to rest on his laurels, however, Thurston took it a step further with Round 3, following the biggest Cowboys win of the season, a whopping 46-4 victory in which they smashed the Eels at 1300Smiles Stadium. High on victory, backed by his home ground and coming straight off one of the best footy matches of the season, a lesser comedian would have taken the whole situation for granted, but JT wasn’t content to let the situation speak for itself, and instead delivered his crowning glory: “Are you part of that coaching staff mate? You shouldn’t have a job next year.”
Since then, there’s been another incident, in the wake of the Cowboys-Warriors showdown, in Round 31, with Hindy revelling in Thurston’s takedown at the hands of New Zealand centre Solomone Kate. But, to be honest, I don’t really consider this to be part of “The Trilogy.” If, as Fox Sports somewhat playfully suggested, this is League’s current Star Wars, then Hindy’s late retort is more of a Phantom Menace than anything else, for the simple reason that it was announced as part of a Matty Johns Show weekly review, rather than delivered to Thurston personally, in the wake of a Cowboys match. Not only does that refuse JT any right of reply – presumably the only way Hindy could get away with a sledge at this point – but it also takes us away from the post-match elation that was such a critical part of the original comic cocktail. Win or lose, there’s a buzz in the air after a great footy match that makes every player feel deft and loose, even or especially when they’re wrecked from eighty minutes of straight play. Sitting in the studio, on a comfortable couch, Hindy couldn’t ever hope to match that energy, which was kind of the joke in the first place, as JT waltzed in and pulled the rug out from under his feet. Every time Hindy tried to command the camera, JT checked his headphones, or looked offscreen, or fidgeted with his sound equipment, leaving no place for Hindy’s barbs to land even when they arrived minutes too late. If good footy banter breaks down the barrier between field and booth, then brilliant footy banter knows how to use each space to its own advantage, and while Hindy never made the most of his lofty distance, Thurston knew just how to pull back into his post-game distraction to parry everything thrown his way. From that perspective, Hindy was already done in Round 1 when he had to bark out to the camera crew to pull Thurston back from the field and mic him up again for what he hoped would be the last word on the matter.
Of course, it wasn’t the last word at all. Round 1 gave onto Round 2, as well as the most recent comments by Hindy, while the JT-Pearce standoff has tended to be roped into the same new cycle. More on that in another post, but suffice to say here that Pearce’s quip about Thurston being “old” gets to the heart of what I loved about the JT-Hindy standoff. In a sport – and profession – like League, players seem to get old overnight, transitioning from the field to the couch with a suddenness that can sometimes be a bit shocking. Of course, you always get a few outliers – the Pat Richards, Corey Parkers and Luke Burts of the game – who seem to soldier on for years without being any worse for wear. But for the most part, League ends at about thirty, which means that part of being a legendary footy player is figuring out how to wear your age. And while there’s no doubt that both Hindy and Thurston are plenty legendary, the banter seemed to be a fairly one-sided lesson in how to age with agility. Sure, Thurston hasn’t retired yet, and probably won’t for some years. For my money, though, when he does retire he’ll turn into one of the best footy commentators in the game, just because he has that spark and panache that still makes it feel like he’s out on the field, passing banter as deftly as a Steeden. That’s not to say that Hindy doesn’t have the same potential either, but that there was a kind of lesson in all this for him. In effect, JT gave him a lesson in how to commentate – which is also a lesson in how to age and still remain a legendary footy player.
All of which is to say that footy players age better when they treat the game as a sitcom, rather than a soap. Doubtless, it’s got elements of both – and depends on both. But there’s a kind of profoundly comic worldview at the heart of League that means that the funniest and most light-hearted players are often the ones who stick with you. By the same token, the retired players that stick with you are the ones who find some way to continue that comic parrying after they’ve left the field. The other extreme would be to take something like the Anthony Mundine route, retiring from the game into a sport like boxing that offers the same combative potential but doesn’t offer the same outlet as League for banter, at least not to my mind. That’s not to say it’s incompatible with banter, but that it depends upon a more aggressive, macho banter that I tend to enjoy – the kind of banter that occurs whenever Sonny Bill and Willie Mason take the field against each other, delivering unbelievably harsh sledges when stuck up in the middle of a scrum or tackle, but all apparently in the name of friendship. It’s no surprise to me, then, that SBW has had a boxing career, nor would I put it past him – or Mason – to return to the ring once their footy star starts to fade. And that’s all good – there’s always something great about seeing sports players try a different game. But I personally prefer the Thurston touch.
And, at the end of the day, I loved this banter because I love the Cowboys – or love Thurston’s Cowboys. No other team in the NRL feels as indebted to their captain as the Cows, just as no other captain seems so capable of taking his team under his wing and guiding them to victory. In some ways, it’s always felt odd to me that Cameron Smith is the Maroons captain, since Thurston tends to feel like he’s the one really captaining the team, or at least their passing game. In any case, when Thurston spoke to Hindy, he was speaking with a whole team at his back, encapsulating the good humour and agility that is Cowboys footy, and Cowboys final footy in their final parry. For me, that makes for one of the most entertaining standoffs of the year, and the rivalry I’m most looking forward to following into the 2016 season.