Now that Beau Ryan has become such a celebrity – a phenomenon – it seems almost strange to talk about him as a footy player. Yet, during his career, Ryan was the classic middle-of-the-road footballer, Daryl Hall to Chris Heighington’s John Oates. Although Ryan moved between the wing and the centre (and occasionally fullback), he had the stance and sensibility of a classic utility, good for anything so long as it got the job done. He was the kind of player who never really had a chance of being picked for Origin, but still managed to embody the best side of Origin in his grinding, matter-of-fact way of getting down to business, steering bigger and brassier Tigers players to victory whenever he could. I say Tigers, because for me Ryan has always been a Wests player at heart, even in the wake of his late career departure for the Sharks. Born and bred in Wollongong, you might expect the move to Cronulla to be the exact opposite – a homecoming second only to Ryan signing with the Dragons – but for he always felt more at home at Balmain Oval than any other field, not least because famously rebranded it as Lilyfield Rectangle, in one of his most enduring sketches.
Geography aside, though, why is it that Ryan still feels as if he’s playing for the Tigers, even in his retirement? At one level, it’s partly because he never emphatically felt like a Cronulla player, at least not to me. Despite making the #UpUpCronulla hashtag his own – no Twitter celebrity has done as much with footy hashtags as Ryan – he always felt totally incongruous with the scandal that hit the press shortly after he arrived. Laidback, relaxed and languorous, there’s something about Ryan that’s utterly inimical to scandal, even if his comedy hs a way of hijacking some of the biggest footy scandals out there. Add to that the widespread identity crisis facing the Sharks over the last two years – not just in the wake of the doping scandal, but due to the wholesale importation of players overwhelmingly identified with other clubs, such as Mick Ennis – and none of it made sense as the backdrop to one of League’s biggest comic personalities.
At the same time, Ryan’s identification with the Tigers isn’t simply down to the fact that Balmain isn’t Cronulla. There’s something more organic going on. At some level, it has to be because Ryan was playing for the Tigers when his comic career really started to take off. For those of us who’d been supporting the Tigers as a second-tier team in the late 00s and early 10s, there was something a bit surprising about suddenly finding a celebrity in our midst, and Ryan did as much to promote the club during that period as their PR Department, with several of my acquaintances and colleagues starting to follow the team on the basis of his personality alone. Still, it wasn’t just a lucky coincidence either. As their fortunes have started to shrink, and Balmain has started to transform into an AFL and Union stronghold, the Tigers have responded with a grassroots resilience that, for me, makes them the most comic team, the team with the best sense of humour, in the most profound sense. That was the ideal incubation pod for Ryan’s wacky comic style – it’s hard to imagine him getting away with the same irreverent antics at the super-serious Roosters (and more in another post on who really had the last laugh in Ryan’s to-and-fros with Sonny Bill last year).
So there was a synergy between Ryan and the Tigers. But Ryan went one step further, using that synergy as the basis of his comic sketches, which started with him taking a camera and microphone out onto Darling Street and interviewing anybody who passed by, soon circling in on regulars – most notably the guy with dreadlocks who worked at Fish Records – as well as favourite haunts – the piazza in front of Woolies – until he became something of a local institution. For any player to build up that presence is a tough call, but given Balmain’s movement away from NRL fandom, it was a radical gesture. In effect, the genius of Ryan’s incongruous comic style was to walk down Darling Street as if it was still the same old Tigers stronghold as thirty years ago and simply see what happened. As might be expected, the initial response was bemusement bordering on bewilderment, but as people became more acclimatised to his presence a League ambience started to grow despite itself, until it felt as if Ryan had managed to smoke out the last remaining pockets of the old Balmain Tigers and then turn them into the driving force of the suburb.
Unsurprisingly, as Ryan’s stature grew, he started to move beyond Balmain, using the ‘Beau Knows’ segment on The Footy Show as a springboard to explore some of the most eccentric and comic corners of the League universe. But that determination to speak on behalf – and encourage people to speak on behalf – of a grassroots footy culture still underpinned his comic style. For that reason, his sketches were actually stronger, at least on The Footy Show, when they were only tangentially related to the game. When interviewing Eels fans in Parra, or Maroons fans in the leadup to Origin, Ryan was affable. But when assuming that everyone he encountered at Fashion Week, or at Mardi Gras, could be included and gathered in the same footy family, he was not only hilarious but quite utopian in his vision of what a sporting community can be, propelling his fame far beyond the field and far beyond the audience he would have gained on a rep career alone. If Ryan had the sensibility of a utility on the field, he had the comic charisma of a halfback onscreen, dodging and weaving around his interviewees with such deftness that you often found yourself laughing without even quite realising how he pulled off such an athletically comic sleight-of-hand.
Obviously, that continued to boost the Tiges’ visibility, as well as the visibility of the game. But it also reinforced Sydney as a Rugby League Community as well, something that’s been a bit under threat in recent years as more and more teams struggle to retain their fan base, home ground and presence in the local community. The fortress mentality of teams like the Roosters and the Sea Eagles doesn’t help either. Sometimes I think we’re in danger of losing what’s unique about NRL, at least for a Sydneysider – namely, the sense of an integrated football community that can only really arise from such a wealth of franchises playing right there in your own backyard, a situation that doesn’t really occur in many other Western nations. As salary cap issues continue to escalate, however, and one team rakes it in while another team struggles to maintain a steady support base, even neighboring NRL francises can feel as remote from each other as Super League franchises, which gives intra-city clashes a new kind of dynamism but is also a bit sad for the wider footy community as well.
To me, that sense of decline has been typified by the Tigers. Once the pride of the inner west sporting community, these days they seem closer to the Jets than to any fully-fledged NRL team. Not only have they lost their club on Victoria Road – Five Dock Bowling Club is hardly a substitute – but in the last couple of days we’ve found out that they’re going to lose their skipper as well, in what is set to be the most ungrateful demotion of a footy captain in some time. Robbie Farah has suggested that if he chooses to remain at the Tigers he’ll likely be downgraded to the reserve team – an extraordinary prospect for a one-club player, let alone a one-club captain, let alone the only captain to steer the Blues to victory in the last Origin epoch – but the sadness of the situation is that the entire team already feels a bit reserve grade already, although I hold out hopes for Tedesco and Brooks, two of the best young guns around. Add to that the fact that Leichhardt Oval – one of the few genuinely local footy venues left – may prove too expensive as a long-term regular home ground, and there’s a sense that the Tigers haven’t quite managed to adapt to the corporate Leaguescape as some of their neighbouring franchises. They may be sponsored by Meriton, but Meriton’s brand of high-density, mass-produced, boutique housing is exactly what has risen property prices around Leichhardt Oval as well. That’s not to say that they’re sleeping with the enemy, exactly, but that the rapid transformation of the Balmain property market over the last two decades have meant that the Tigers’ corporate bungles have often tended to centre on property as well, most recently with Benny Elias’ premature efforts to dump Tigers-owned investment properties on unwitting spectators, properties that are going to be built over the razed Tigers League club in a desperate effort to maintain some kind of profit margin.
All that has taken me some way away from Ryan. But it’s important to contextualise why this most likeable of all footy players was such a figurehead for Wests fans in particular. In the end, Ryan didn’t just reimagine Sydney as an eccentric League universe – and create a whole new comic League vernacular in the process – but positioned the Tigers squarely at the centre of that universe, which kind of makes geographical sense if you look at the city on a map. In fact, if you really think about it, the Roosters are a fringe team more than a city team, just as the Sydney CBD is probably somewhere around Parra than anywhere close to the corporate wilderness that’s forced the Chooks to compete for elbow space with an infinitely more cashed-up Tahs outfit. In saying that, I know that I sound like the classic, insular, inner west resident. But at its height – at least as a footy fanbase – the inner west was just that: inner, but still west. These days, you really feel as if the thread has severed between the western teams, let alone between the western teams and the city. And yet Beau Ryan’s sketches sutured it all back together, if only for a couple of sketches a week.
And that brings us to where Beau is today. Since this is the first of a series of posts I’m planning to put up on him, I might leave Ryan’s currently celebrity image for another time. Suffice to say that it’s tended to move away from football and towards a more generalised sports celebrity, while it’s also – at times – tended to become a little kitschier, if no less likeable. If I’m honest, I haven’t followed him as much since he stopped being so footy-centric, but there are a few observations I’ve got to share, along with some appreciations of some of his key sketches, all of which I’ll unfold over the next couple of weeks. Until then: #UpUpBeau.