There’s probably no single player in the NRL that I’ve warmed to as much as Darius Boyd. During his early stint at the Broncos, he wasn’t really on my radar, but once he transferred to St. George Illawarra, it was clear that here was a player with a complex and unusual personality, both on and off the field. In a game that’s so conducive to extroverted displays of masculinity, Boyd is one of the NRL’s great introverts, barely speaking more than a few words in public for the first half-decade of his career, and even then refusing to give anything more than a few monosyllables. Of course, some of the most theatrical players have been the quietest off the field – that’s why they need the game, to bring out their extroverted sides – but Boyd has always played like an introvert as well, identifying with the frontier mentality of fullback more than any other player in the NRL. Even when the Maroons position him at wing or (more recently) at centre, he still feels like he’s operating at fullback, surrounded by a steely cell of his own making that makes him a powerhouse to watch but also somewhat alienating as well, especially to the Blues fans whose hopes he crushes year after year.
At the same time, introversion doesn’t necessarily guarantee restraint, and Boyd has been as much of a bad boy both on and off the field as many of his more theatrical teammates. From the Broncos nightclub scandal in 2008 to his behaviour in the Hunter Valley last year, you could say that Boyd has become one of the most mistrusted players in League. At the same time, his track record isn’t that much worse than a whole lot of other stars – such as Blake Ferguson – who’ve been more or less rehabilitated in the eyes of the public. Yet because so much NRL scandal takes place as an extension of teamship – an unhealthy extension – there seems to be a tacit acceptance that a certain degree of bad behaviour is OK so long as it takes place with the rest of your team, or your team steps in to pick up the collateral damage. While both Boyd’s indiscretions did take place with other players, there was a noticeable lack of interest on his part in banding together to make a collective show of it that seemed to make his crimes all the more conspicuous and unforgivable. In the eyes of the NRL tabloid media, that can often be worse than committing the crime in the first place.
Similarly, when it comes to the game itself, Boyd is the opposite of a team player. That’s not to say that he’s flashy like SBW or impulsive like Issac Luke, but that he always has a bit of an outlier feel that means he’s never really gelled with any team he’s played for. Or, rather, he’s gelled with a coach rather than a team, following Wayne Bennett from outfit to outfit in one of the most intense player-coach relationships in Rugby League, akin to the some of the greatest director-actor rapports in cinema. In the Australian Story special on Boyd, Bennett played a big part, and if there were any doubts that he had stepped in to the fill the role of Boyd’s long-lost father, they were quelled by the way he spoke about him over the episode, in one of the most moving commentaries by a coach committed to screen. Bennett has always struck me as one of the most individualistic and introspective of coaches – it takes a lot of personality to be a teetotaller in the NRL – and something about him and Boyd made for a natural pairing.
At the same time, the fact that Boyd is more aligned with a coach means that he’s never exactly felt part of a team either. The closest he’s come has been with the Broncos, especially in the wake of his recent return, but even there he’s always felt like he’s been on the fringes of the club culture. In an outfit that’s been relatively scandal-free, Boyd’s indiscretions placed him on the periphery, and he’s only just started to come back into the fold in the leadup to this year’s Grand Final. And yet Boyd’s gradual return to glory has so uncannily mirrored that of the Broncos themselves that he’s started to feel like an unofficial mascot for the team as well. Certainly, Ben Hunt and Anthony Milford are probably doing the most to promote this new-and-improved Brisbane outfit, but the synergy between Boyd and Bennett often seems like the most fortuitous pairing for the club’s future. As the main Brisbane player to have also worked under Bennett in the buildup to the 2006 Grand Final, Boyd is in a unique position to both reconnect the current Broncos stable with their heritage, as well as to remind and incentivise them to come full circle and reach those heights once again.
If Boyd is the ultimate Broncos mascot, though, he’s even more aligned with the Maroons. While he’s by no means the most talented player in the Queensland stable, Origin formed his home base for those couple of years when even the most dedicated Boyd supporter would have had to concede that he wasn’t giving his all to Newcastle or St George Illawarra. On top of that, Origin is where Boyd really made his reputation as a winger, a position that feels even more integral to his personality than fullback, even if it’s also the position that finally brought him out of his shell as well, since for all their introspective isolation a wing finally can’t work without communicating and communing with centre, with the result that Boyd was more or less forced to strike up a rapport with Greg Inglis, which ultimately solidified into the equal best try-scoring duo in Origin history. It was an interesting twist, then, to see Inglis move to fullback and Boyd take over the reins at centre earlier in the year. While it was motivated solely by Billy Slater’s injury – you can’t imagine any other Maroons player taking fullback while Slater is around – it also felt like a natural movement for both players.
Leaving Inglis’ fabulous take on fullback for another post, there was something appropriate about seeing Boyd shift to centre over the course of this Origin season. It’s no secret that Inglis was the first player to draw Boyd out of his shell, visiting him when he was in rehab and sharing his own experiences with him over the phone on a regular basis. If a centre-wing relationship has a bit of a mentor-mentee relationship at times, then you might say that Inglis was a terrific centre both on and off the field, centring Boyd more than any other player and resulting in what was perhaps the troubled Broncos star’s first genuine footy friendship. With Boyd moving to centre, there was a sense that he’d not only absorbed the lessons that Inglis had to teach him, but that he was ready to impart them to someone else in turn. With Will Chambers transferred over to the wing, it felt even more apt, since Chambers has had his own fair share of scandal off the field, as well as a nightclub incident that’s uncannily close to Boyd’s own. Add to that the fact that Chambers is also a bit of an up-and-comer when it comes to the Melbourne-Maroons dynasty and it was brilliant to see Boyd guiding him and mentoring him across the field. They say that a good leader knows when they’re ready to lead, and the fact that Boyd turned down the Broncos captaincy earlier this year – without ruling it out for the future – is perhaps the best indication of how far he has come over the last couple of years, especially in Origin.
Still, despite all that, Boyd continues to be unpopular, especially with Blues fans, to whom he can sometimes seem like a one-man Maroons squad, bringing an Origin-like intensity to whatever team he happens to be playing week-by-week. When the Maroons have functioned as your regular team for so long, you can’t help imparting something of the flavor of Origin back into regular footy as well, and Boyd often feels like a kind of New South Wales nightmare in which the shame of defeat never really goes away. Of course, that shame never does go away, but the fantasy of Origin is that we all forget about it until the next game, or the next round. There’s something about Boyd’s presence as a player that makes it impossible to believe in that fantasy, and there’s no players that are hated as much as those that rupture the fantasy of the game.
Add to that the difficulty of changing your star image in a game in which careers are as short and media are as fickle in NRL, and Boyd has something of a challenge on his hands. For my money, though, he’s up to it. Watching Boyd in the late 00s, I would never have believed that this staunch fullback would have been able to proliferate across wing and centre as expansively as he has, just I would never have thought that his tight, isolated, introspective gameplay would have become the fluid, elastic, provisional approach that it is today. While some football players evolve by settling into a role and making it their own, more and more develop by diversifying, developing a more sophisticated game in the process. And what’s extraordinary about Boyd is that he’s managed to translate that into his media life as well. Watching his expansive willingness to talk about just anything with in recent interviews, it’s hard to recognise the player who would sullenly slink out of any Maroons press conference he was forced to attend, let alone the legendary 2009 interview in which he uttered a total of about ten words. In some of his recent media appearances, I’ve even been reminded of how Inglis suddenly became vocal after his first year or so at Souths, as well as Jamies Soward’s recent willingness to talk about his game and past as well. Sometimes it’s the most introverted players who become the greatest spokesmen for the game once they finally speak up, and for all his storied past – or because of it – Boyd may just turn into one of the NRL’s best mouthpieces, in what has to be one of the best comeback stories in the game at the moment.