If Manu M’au feels gangsta, that’s because he is. In a game that’s become so suffused with hip-hop swagger over the last decade, Ma’u is the real deal: a genuine hard-knocks player who got into Rugby League while serving time in the New Zealand criminal justice system for participation in one of Auckland’s notorious street gangs. In his stance, stare and general aggression on the field, this is the kind of player who did time instead of rising through the ranks of junior and local rep footy, and it shows. Apparently one of the key strategies Ma’u and his fellow inmates used to relieve frustration during his three-year sentence was to form a pack and then charge, one at a time, into the midst of it, until they either broke through or were beaten to the ground in the process. The scrum may have become all but vestigial in Rugby league, and the big hits of old may be increasingly siphoned off into more questionable techniques – the Storm’s martial arts training comes to mind – but Ma’u is one player who still dives into the pack like he’s trying to bust his way out of prison. In fact, you could say that his stress relief in prison was the best preparation for a second-rower, the ultimate defensive-aggressive position. On the field, he has to be as capable of closing ranks as is determined to break through the enemies, treating every metre gained as a jailbreak that’s been a long time coming.
It’s not surprising, then, that Ma’u has tended to generate a fair bit of anxiety on the part of the NRL media. For a game that so often seems to enjoin or at least enable criminal behaviour – and to subsist on moves, like the shoulder charge, that are procedurally dubious – there are actually very few players who have done time. For that reason, the tabloid media in particular has tended to really play on Ma’u’s rehabilitation, to the point where he’s become a bit of an unofficial figurehead for the NRL’s ability to bring itself back from the brink of criminal scandal time and time again. Of course, that’s not to say that Ma’u hasn’t turned over a new leaf – in his own way, he’s one of the most admirable players in the game – but that the media goes to such lengths to assure us that he’s an upstanding purveyor of family values that you can’t help but sense some fear on their part about recidivism, a sliding back into all the qualities that are – often stereotypically – associated with Rugby League above all other football codes. Among other things, it was that fear of gangsta recidivism that made Beau Ryan’s collaboration with Justice Crew such a finely pitched parody of NRL insularity.
In that sense, Ma’u is probably one of the quintessential Parra players in the game at the moment. Whether because they’ve had so many struggles, departures and trades in the last couple of years, or whether because they’re positioned on the fringe between inner and outer suburban teams, or even whether because they’ve been left behind by a rapidly regenerating Parramatta, the Eels have a reputation for being the game’s ultimate hard-knock team, the place where players come to make peace with their pasts and restart their careers. While the Roosters may have their own boutique aspirational thing going on, the Eels are the aspirational team in the classic, old-fashioned NRL sense. This is where Nathan Peats came once it became clear that there wasn’t going to be room for him in the superstar Souths outfit of 2014, where Will Hopoate came after his Mormon mission to fully put his father’s legacy aside, and where Anthony Watmough has attempted to do the unthinkable and put his obnoxious Manly persona aside as well. At the same time, there’s a peculiar challenge to a seasoned coach in trying to restore Parra’s fortunes, which is perhaps why it feels like the most far-reaching squad as well, drawing footy players, coaches and fans from far and wide – Semi Radradra is just the most recent example – to try their luck at Pirtek.
And yet all that just tends to reiterate Ma’u as the ultimate gangsta player as well. Over the last decade or so, it’s felt as if gangsta has dissociated more and more from any specifically African-American sociolect to become a mouthpiece for anyone who identifies as non-white, or off-white. Since whiteness is as much a matter of class as of race, and since NRL doesn’t to tend to arise from the same boutique demographics that fuel Rugby, AFL and even A-League, the whole aspirational spirit of NRL – the sense that you can really make something of yourself through good footy – has become inextrixably associated from the spirit of gangsta over the last decade as well, with players far more likely to name Kanye, Jay-Z or even Pitbull as their favouriute artists over the 70s-inflected hard rock that once seemed the natural soundtrack to Australian Rugby League, and isstill eulogised on The Footy Show, Triple M, White Line Fever and a host of other footy shows, radio programs and podcasts. In fact you could say that all pre-digital footy coverage, as well as digital coverage with a nostalgic analog slant, is somewhat invested in this hard rock vision of League over the emergent gangsta vision of League that’s come to dominate so much of the game’s culture.
That gangsta culture is particularly prominent among Pacific and New Zealand cultures, where it functions as a salient reminder that this supposedly Australian, Sydney-centric sport has become a Pacific phenomenon, with vast and increasing numbers of players sourced from outside the Australian mainland. It’s no coincidence that more and more media outlets – including the tabloid media – are wondering when these players are going to be eligible for Origin, as well as what message Origin is even sending in an era when the co-ordinates defining League have spread so far and wide beyond the clash between New South Wales and Queensland. Of course, part of the pleasure of Origin is getting back to roots, but given that it’s also promoted as one of the most far-reaching, international and inclusive events on the NRL’s yearly lineup, you’ve got to wonder why a player like Ma’u, say, is ineligible to play, despite having spent his entire rep footy career at Parra. Combined with the way in which it’s encouraged “white” players to be more vocal about their various indigenous heritages – often by way of the elaborate tattooing that signals a crossover with African-American culture – there’s something quite progressive about this form of NRL gangstadom, even if its potential misogynistic overtones sync quite uncomfortably with some of the game’s darker moments as well.
And that’s the paradox of Ma’u: he’s both a rehabilitated gangsta and the very embodiment of an NRL gangstadom that’s arisen in response to a new international era of Rugby League. In both guises, he’s a genuine Parra player, while it may actually make most sense to think of Parra as the place where destructive gangstas turn into progressive gangstas as well, ambassadors for the hard-knock credentials of the game itself. In that sense, both Ma’u and Parra also captures the cognitive dissonance of the NRL at the moment, which is somewhat nostalgic for a whiter past but also excited for a brighter, more inclusive future. In 2011, there was a brief scandal about a handful of NRL players making West Side and East Side hand gestures in official photographs. Leaving aside the interesting question of why it is that 90s gangsta iconography still seems to resonate the most with NRL players despite their tastes being inflected through 00s and 10s rap and hip-hop, the sense of scandal was exacerbated by the specific players and teams involved. On the one hand, the players were nearly all of New Zealand or Pacific origin – Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Mose Masoe, Tony Williams – while the clubs involved were possibly the whitest teams in the competition – the Sea Eagles and Roosters – as well as the most boutique in their aspirational brand. In retrospect, those gestures feel like a bit of a protest, if a good-natured protest, a way of signalling something about how these high-profile teams market themselves that isn’t true to the game as most people play and watch it. And that’s the game that Ma’u has made his own against all the odds, as well as the game Parra always seems to bring out of players in one way or another – the kind of plosive, powerful, essential footy that makes every tackle feel like a jailbreak, and every try feel like a win against all odds.