In a game like Rugby League where retirement generally kicks in around thirty, it’s rare for players to experience a late career renaissance, or to get a second start at their career. Over the last couple of years, though, Greg Inglis has thoroughly revamped himself into one of the best and noblest players in the game. Make no mistake: Inglis began his career as one of the best players in the game as well. From almost the moment he joined the Melbourne Storm in his late teens, he was a sports superstar, quickly becoming part of a Melbourne-Maroons Dream Team that saw him taking out the Golden Boot in 2009 after Billy Slater in 2008 and Cameron Smith in 2007. Given how inextricable Inglis has become from Souths, it’s kind of weird to think that he once seemed as inseparable from Slater, Smith and Cronk as they now feel from each other – and one of the pleasures of the current Maroons squad is seeing a bit of that old dynamic still in action. Sure, Inglis may hail from Macksville, NSW, but the way in which he cut his teeth with the Storm has always made me feel as if he belonged with the Maroons as well.
Towards the end of Inglis’ tenure with the Maroons, though, things turned sour. For such a promising player, he started to show signs of the dark side of Rugby League fame. From a highly publicised assault charge to rumours of defection in the vein of Anthony Mundine and Sonny Bill Williams, it felt like Inglis was on the verge of becoming another one of League’s notorious bad boys. It didn’t help, either, that he put on a fair amount of weight around the same time, leading to widespread speculation about his personal hygiene, while his involvement with the Melbourne Storm inevitably tarnished him with the salary cap scandal, even if he was permitted to retain his Clive Churchill Medal from the 2007 Grand Final. For a while there, it looked as if Inglis might be one of those players, like Ben Barba, who never quite settle into their genius, drifting around from club to club without ever finding somewhere as nurturing as where they started off. Alternatively, it felt as if Inglis might leave Rugby League altogether, with offers from AFL, Rugby and even NFL occurring behind closed doors. To top it all off, he pledged his interest in the Broncos only to let them down a fairly insalubrious manner, hedging his bets for as long as possible before finally signing to South Sydney without any apparent warning or publicity.
Since then, however, Inglis’ star has only continued to rise. Most obviously, he’s got back in shape and is playing the best footy he has ever played, solidifying into the fullback role he was never quite able to pursue at the Storm – and still doesn’t pursue when paired with his old Storm mates in the Maroons. Yet Inglis is a natural fullback, both in terms of his fabulous combination of brute strength and uncanny agility, as well as the conviction and support he brings to his team. It was only a matter of time before Inglis steered Souths to their first premiership in forty-three years, on the back of which he was offered the captaincy for 2015. In all honesty, though, Inglis had effectively been captaining the team for some years, not simply during former captain John Sutton’s injury throughout much of 2014, but in the particular vision and purpose he had brought to the club in the previous year as well, during which he was the joint recipient, with Sutton, of the George Piggins Medal for best Rabbitohs player of the season. Combined with the honour of being named both Australian and international fullback of the year in 2013, it was clear that Inglis had finally got into his groove in terms of his skill and stamina as a footy player.
Over the last couple of years, however, there’s been an even more incredible way in which G.I. has come into his own. From his days at the Storm, you would never have considered Inglis to be a particularly vocal or articulate player. In interviews, he rarely spoke more than a few words and was extremely reticent about anything other than football when he appeared on talk shows and news segments. During the 2010 expose of Andrew Johns’ racist comments at the Blues training camp, Inglis was noticeably quiet in comparison to Timana Tahu, especially given that Johns’ diatribes appeared to have taken Inglis as their target. But different people respond to oppression in different ways, and I wonder whether that moment of revolting Origin racism was what forged Inglis’ newfound conviction over the next couple of years as well. Obviously, it would be a bit presumptious to say that Inglis chose South Sydney on the basis of its indigenous affiliations, but there is also something about his position at the heart of that community that has allowed him to become a spokesman for issues relating to the wider indigenous community. Similarly, it doesn’t seem to me a coincidence that Inglis played his first Indigenous-All Stars game shortly after the Origin scandal, nor that he’s played in the tournament regularly ever since as a way of refining his performance with both the Bunnies and the Maroons.
However, it’s not merely that Inglis has identified more and more with his indigenous heritage but that he’s actively advocated for it. The relationship between sport and indigenous culture is a complicated one. On the one hand, football is one of the few places where indigenous people enjoy the same mobility as white people. At the same time, I often sense that sports fans will only go so far in their tolerance of indigenous culture in the name of the game. Take Adam Goodes. There’s a peculiar kind of racism in fans who are prepared to see a player like Goodes rise to the top of the ladder so long as he’s not “too indigenous.” Usually, the threshold is when players start to advocate for specific social policies and political change, since sports – and NRL – are often seen as zones that should be above politics, or free from politics. Of course, they’re just as informed by politics as everything else, but it pleases a certain portion of their fan base to pretend that that’s simply not the case. What I find so powerful about Inglis, then, is that’s he’s not only transformed into an even better footy player than he was at the Storm, but that he has become the NRL’s greatest political activist at the same time, drawing on the grassroots spirit of the Rabbitohs in the name of the social justice issues that he holds close to his heart.
Obviously, those social justice issues are frequently involved with indigenous visibility. But Inglis’ reach stretches farther than that. Earlier this year, Inglis recommended that gay NRL players feel more comfortable coming out. Leaving alone the radical fact of even suggesting that there could be gay NRL players – which there surely are, statistically – there was something powerful, pragmatic and immediate in the way in which Inglis made a case for his position: “If they’re there, then they’re there. I think when they come out, they’ll probably create of lot of relief off their shoulders, a lot of weight off their shoulders.” At the same time, Inglis also made it clear that he wouldn’t be tolerating homophobic sledges of any kind, again in the same classy, matter-of-fact register that makes him so compelling out on the field: “’I’m a big believer, a firm believer, in respecting what others are and who they are. The environment that I grew up in and the teams I’ve been involved in have always embraced that and that’s just the way the culture is.” Normally, I’m a bit sceptical of any player trying to equate sport with values, or to draw too much of a moral lesson from sport. But there was something I found so utopian about Inglis’ steadfast determination to envisage footy as a game that doesn’t discriminate – even if it often does – that made me totally get on board with his message and tone. I already respected him as a man and a player, but since that day he’s been my very favourite player.
Of course, sceptics could argue that Inglis’ position was an easy one to take in a climate that’s increasingly supportive of LGBT rights. After all, the NRL was one of several Australian sporting codes that signed its name to a same-sex marriage petition last year. In practice, however, the NRL is one of the most homophobic football communities out there, with homophobia often being seen as a necessary prerequisite for the muscularity and masculinity needed to prove your mettle on the field. It was an even more incredible gesture, then, for Inglis to just ink himself up with a new tattoo declaring his support for same-sex marriage, along with a tattoo promoting indigenous health reform. In League, tattoos are one of the most conspicuous ways of wearing your heart – and your manhood – on your sleeve. Ratcheting up the hard knocks that qualify them for this most brutal of contact sports, players wear their tatts like a permanent bruise, a reminder of every tackle they’ve ever copped and every try they’ve ever missed. By taking such a macho mode of self-expression and using it as a platform for LGBT rights, Inglis made a very clear statement: the hardest knock you can suffer as a footy player is being forced to remain in the closet as a second-class citizen. And there’s something daring about that, something braver and harder and tougher than the roughest footy you can ever watch. In a game that’s often drenched with conservative nostalgia, making a genuinely liberal – even radical – gesture is one of the biggest risks a high-profile player can take. The tabloid media will forgive alcoholism, assault, griveous bodily harm and even rape, but many pundits would find Inglis’ LGBT and indigenous activism untenable.
And that’s what makes Inglis so unique, in the end: he’s a muscular liberal, even a muscular radical. Liberal and radical sentiments are often sterotyped as weak, whiny or devoid of conviction, but someone like Inglis shows the public at large that that’s simply not the case. Pummelling for indigenous and LGBT rights with as much dedication and fortitude as he handles a Steeden – a tattoo, after all, is for life – he’s the kind of fullback you’d want to have watching your back if you ever wanted to come out in League. If I were a gay NRL player, I know I’d feel more comfortable playing under Inglis than about any other captain in the game. And given the two British footy players who have come out in the last month alone, I have to wonder whether Inglis’ tattoo will be seen as a watershed moment in the relationship between Rugby League and LGBT visibility generally, just as his rebirth in the wake of the Andrew Johns Origin sledge feels like a bit of a turning point for his indigenous activism as well. Whatever your thoughts on the man may be, you’ve got to admit that he’s turned into the single ballsiest player in League, reinventing what it means to be a footy icon – and a footy legend – in ways that ensure him the most interesting of careers once his onfield life comes to an end. G.I., you’re a legend.