On the face of it, no player is more inviolable than SBW. He’s built like a tank, Adonic in his looks and by all accounts one of the best Rugby players in the world today. As far as NRL is concerned, he’s committed just enough indiscretions to make it clear that he’s a force to be reckoned with, but not so many that’s he’s brought lasting disgrace upon himself or the game either. There probably hasn’t been a single Rugby League player in history that was as unanimously courted as SBW when he returned to the Roosters in 2013, with every player, pundit and media outlet fawning over him and competing for the most preposterous, ludicrous and ingratiating epithets they could find. Leading the Chooks to their first Grand Final in over a decade, he became the poster boy for a game that he’d turned his back on once before, and would turn his back on again once he’d stolen as much of the spotlight as he needed to rebrand his Rugby star.
Of course, those accolades were partly justified. SBW is a brilliant player, and one of the leading lights of both Rugby League and Rugby Union at the moment. At the same time, there’s something slightly over-the-top about that level of media adulation, especially when the player in question is still somewhat insalubrious behind the scenes. Take his behaviour in relation to the 2013 Rugby World Cup. A nobler player would simply have stood by his decision to stay out of the All Blacks once he’d announced it, let alone once the team had reconfigured to take his decision into account, but once again SBW performed the kind of backflip that has characterised his career as a whole, forcing Melbourne Storm second-rower Tohu Harris out of what could have been his big All Blacks break at the very last minute. If Tohu had pulled the same stunt on SBW, there would have been outrage, but when SBW was calling the shots it was more or less accepted by both the NRL and Rugby communities as a reasonable price to pay to secure his sporting genius for the All Blacks brand.
For all that he feels like the Super Hero of the game, though – is it just a coincidence that NRL Super Hero week kicked in during SBW’s stint at the Roosters? – there are actually two chinks in Sonny Bill’s armour. The first is his voice. Football fans spend so much time watching and even lip-reading players on the field that it can be a bit of a shock to realise that we don’t really know how they actually sound. When sound cinema kicked in in the 1930s, some silent stars were forced out of business because their voices didn’t match the onscreen personae they’d crafted over the previous decade. In particular, rugged silent stars often turned out to have squeaky, high-pitched or soft voices, rendering them unviable for an ongoing career as macho heartthrobs. The same holds for NRL players, since, for all its visceral volatility, NRL is a largely silent sport. Even watching miced up games just clarifies how few and far between the sledges and backslaps actually are, with the real business unfolding in a studied, sweaty silence – even stillness – that feels light years away from the roar of the crowd. Over the years, I’ve been continually surprised by how mismatched players and their voices seem to be – Robbie Farah is nothing like what I would have expected, while I only cottoned on to the fact that Kieran Foran was a New Zealander after seeing him in an interview segment on The Footy Show.
Of all the mismatched voices, though, SBW has the most pronounced. There’s already something diminutive about the New Zealand accent – something to do with the vowel pronunciation and distribution – that makes it one of the most warm, inclusive and friendly of national tongues. The thing is, SBW’s on-field personal is not about warmth, it’s about brutality and intimidation. And yet SBW’s accent is not only diminutive, it’s positively dainty – infinitely quieter than you might imagine, with delicate pauses for breath that always make it feel as if he’s speaking sweet nothings on his first date. If watching SBW on the field is epic drama, then listening to SBW in interview is chamber drama. There’s something incongruous and even comic about that, which perhaps explains why SBW is not known for his banter, despite being one of the most aggressive of players. When he does engage in a bit of a verbal rough-and-tumble on the field, it tends to be particularly aggressive – even his friendly fire with old mate Willie Mason saw him sledging him as a “soft c–t“ while ramming him with a high one – as if to over-compensate for a voice that seems made for about anything but banter. SBW may not sledge that often, but, when he does, it has to be the verbal equivalent of a shoulder charge.
And that brings me to what SBW’s second greatest weakness: he is one of the most humourless players in the game. Although he’s particularly photogenic when he’s getting amongst it with his team mates – just one of the Chooks – his manner on the field is absolutely aligned with the high heroics of Union rather than the comic collaborative spirit of League. No player manages to make it feel as if everything is at stake like SBW, which of course makes him one of the great dramatic presences of the game, but also generates a self-seriousness that gets a little tiresome after a while, as even the most eccentric moves and idiosyncratic clashdowns tend to spiral into the vortex of the Sonny Bill brand, a drama of one that absorbs whatever great footy is happening in its vicinity and spits it out as his own product and achievement.
Puncturing SBW’s mystique, then, is a fairly ballsy comic move in itself, and something only a personality like Beau Ryan could pull off. In part, that’s because Beau has a bit of a court jester identity with the NRL, or at least did when he was helming SBW TV. Since then, he’s become a global celebrity in his own right, rubbing shoulders with such luminaries as Channing Tatum, The Rock and Will Arnett. During the height of his to-and-fro with SBW, however, Beau was just powerless enough for him to get away with stuff that a more visible NRL commentator could never dare to pull off. In part, that’s because he was still playing footy at this stage as well, and the low-key, unflashy, middle-of-the-road dedication that made him the quintessential utility – even if he gravitated towards other positions – also made him a bit of an outlier in the NRL media universe as well, good for bit segments and guest appearances but nowhere near prestigious enough to be a regular panellist or run his own show.
Clearly, things have changed for Beau. Not only does it now seem virtually guaranteed that he’ll have some kind of regular show at some point, but it sometimes seems as if an acting career – even an international acting career – might be on the cards, with Beau’s recent collaboration with Justice Crew acting more like a calling-card for what he could do as a great comic actor than a genuine stab at the hip-hop market. And, unlike so many footy players, Beau’s voice matches his appearance. You might say it’s the perfect voice for a comic actor – warm, rich, mellow, but also completely unaffected at the same time. Beau may have brought the game to a wider and more exotically international fanbase than anyone before him – Russell Crowe included – but he’s never tried to hide the fact that he’s just a boy from Wollongong as well. In an interview with Amy Winehouse, Jonathan Ross (I think?) praised the fact the she made no effort to disguise the fact that her voice sounded common, both in her music and in her interviews. You could say the same about Beau, since there’s a steadfast refusal to deny his roots even as his fame has brought him an increasingly global and star-studded audience, which is part of the reason why “Where You From?” was s endearing and so pertinent, a self-aware parody of one version of the crossover star Beau could become if he didn’t stay true to who he was. Although I always think of Beau as a Tigers player at heart, then, I like the fact that he still identifies so strongly with the Sharks as his final team. The Sharks are the underdogs par excellence in the NRL – was there ever a team with more woes? – and there’s something about seeing Channing Tatum sporting a Cronulla-Sutherland jersey in his interviews with League’s favourite funny man that gets to the very heart of what Beau is all about.
These days, then, it would be no big deal for Beau to take on SBW. In 2013, however, it was a more audacious gesture for Beau to take on the Kiwi legend in a series of sketches that photomorphed his face out of existence as Beau impersonated his voice with the panache that only people blessed with a truly dynamic voice can pull off. Set amongst vocal pyrotechnic displays that saw Beau taking off prominent singers (Susan Boyle, Ricky Martin), speakers (Benji Marshall) and even laughers (Johnathan Thurston), there was never any malice to his approach, just a brilliant pinpointed appreciation of how even the most heroic, handsome and hallowed of footy players can become ridiculous when you remove one or two ingredients. Removed from the field, distanced from his sculpted face and condensed to his voice, SBW suddenly became preposterous, and there was something refreshing that, a counterpoint to a news cycle that’s only just started to reach the same levels of hysterical consensus with the imminent signing of Jarryd Hayne to the 49ers, despite the contract dramas and financially compromised Eels that he’s left in his wake. If Beau Knows The Voice was therefore one of the keys to Beau’s comic vibe – and more on that later – than SBW TV was like the endgame to Beau Knows The Voice, a vision of how SBW would look if he were being judged by Ricky Martin instead of Ray Warren.
Sure, these weren’t Beau’s best material. For the most part, they were silly and scatty, devoid of the sustained comic gold that made sketches like Beau Knows Benji an instant classic. But their very silliness and throw-away, scrawled-on-a-napkin expendability was also what made for such a comic puncturing of SBW as well. Having a go at SBW was one thing, but just being a bit silly at his expense was another thing altogether. In effect, Beau treated SBW like low-hanging fruit, making digs at his toilet shenanigans, as well as paying out his inarticulate interviews in ways that perhaps only an NRL player with Beau’s level of street cred could pull off. As a middle-of-the-road player representing a middle-of-the-road team, Beau suddenly found himself able to be a bit of a snob about SBW in ways that brilliantly encapsulated the way that Sonny Bill himself has become a bit of a benchmark for Rugby – and League teams like the Roosters that aspire to Rugby – as a kind of muscular aristocracy, a way of reconciling brute macho impulses with the need for class affiliation and affirmation. In one of my favourite sketches, Beau pretended to be SBW learning the Australian national anthem, mistaking each proper phrase for the name of a footy player or a footy-related phrase. It was a brilliant takedown of the NRL patriotism that gathered around Sonny Bill’s return to the Roosters, and which – perversely – only seemed to solidify around him in the wake of his departure for the Chiefs, as if this New Zealand Rugby export were an ambassador for Australia as well in his wanderings throughout the highest echelons of the international sporting arena.
Of course, as many pro-SBW and pro-Roosters fans observed, Sonny Bill got his own back in the Chooks-Sharks clash in late 2013 in which he responded to Beau’s onscreen life with a massive shoulder charge that floored him for the remainder of the game. For many, it was a moment of victory for SBW, as well as a much needed reminder that lowly players like Beau should simply stay in his place. It was a credit to Beau, too that he said he’d be happy to stop the sketches any time Sonny Bill objected, putting SBW in the invidious position of having to announce his humorless to the NRL community at large, instead of which he opted to appear on The Footy Show for some fairly strained banter over the last episode of SBW TV. But, for me, Beau had the last laugh. If the whole joke of the SBW TV hijinks was that Sonny Bill only knows how to express himself through physical aggression, then the point couldn’t have been proved more eloquently at Shark Park that night. It takes guts to cop a shoulder charge, but it takes even more guts to cop a joke at your own expense, and in that sense Beau is one of the gutsiest player in the game, sinking into his premature retirement with a dignity, grace and ease that you rarely see among footy players, just as even the minor work of SBW TV promises the most interesting of careers for this most interesting of footy comics.