When it comes to Australian football, and its reputation on the international stage, the NRL occupies a bit of an uneasy position. On the one hand, Aussie Rules has pretty much cemented itself as the homegrown Australian football code. Despite the fact that AFL is played in other countries, there’s no need for it to extend beyond Australia to brand itself successfully in the international football arena. If anything, it’s the fact that Aussie Rules is still relatively rare outside Australia that has given it such a strong international reputation, with most sport-minded tourists aiming to put in an AFL match as part of their stay in the country simply because they’re unlikely to experience this football oddity anywhere else. At the other extreme, Australian Rugby Union enjoys a totally fluid relationship with international Rugby Union, thanks in part to the strong sporting synergy between the Commonwealth countries that Union is designed to affirm. As a result, Union is a bit like Cricket in the way in which it offers Australians the titillating prospect of a world sporting order which happens to take us as its centre, which of course is just a latter-day affirmation of Australia as the jewel in the Commonwealth crown, as well as Australia’s more residual affection and need for Commonwealth assurance than India or South Africa.
Where AFL matches always feel like homegrown affairs, even on the rare occasions that they’re played overseas, pretty much any Rugby Union match played on Australian soil has a bit of an international flavour, even if it’s between two domestic teams. While there are various ways to explain why the Tahs enjoy such a different kind of cache from the rest of our local Union outfits – one being that Sydney is the Union city par excellence – it’s partly to do with their perceived continuity with the Wallabies. Not only do the Tahs and Wallabies share a home ground in Allianz Stadium, but they share a sufficient number of big-name players to make it feel as if they’re two facets of the same team, a combined Rugby Union front that collapses all distinctions between national and international representation. It’s appropriate, then, that the Rugby Union year doesn’t involve a single tournament or competition but rather a series of overlapping matches that can see a player like Folau playing for New South Wales and Australia without too much of a fuss needing to be made about it. When a League player makes it to the Four Nations, or to the Rugby League World Cup, or to any other stint with the Kangaroos, there’s a very clear sense of heightened prestige, a graduation to international representation. With Union, on the other hand, every domestic appearance – especially for a Tahs player – already has an element of international representation, which makes the movement to actual international competition feel a bit less noteworthy or eventful. Put simply, while the Wallabies often feel like a slight reshuffling of the Tahs, nobody would ever think to say that the Kangaroos feel like a slight reshuffling of the Roosters, or any other NRL team. The closest League gets to that continuity is probably the Smith-Slater-Cronk triumvirate and even then it’s understood that these three giants take on a whole new level of prestige and power when they turn up for the Maroons.
It’s not surprising, then, that AFL and Union tend to be championed as the two flagship Australian football codes, since they fulfil a certain fantasy of sport as both hyper-local and fully globalized, tribal and international, that’s particularly precious in the Australian landscape, where sport is often used to assuage fears about precisely this parochialism. Within that context, NRL is left to drift in a no-man’s-land that would align it more with A-League had A-League itself not managed to capture both the regionalism of Aussie Rules and the international profile of Union in a particularly canny way, presumably because it has arrived so late on the Australian football scene and has been able to consciously model and market itself in response to the other three big players. Not only has A-League managed to garner one of the most devoted football bases in the country, but it has managed to craft such a strong regional culture – including tapping into the elusive Western Sydney, non-NRL football base with much more aplomb than the GWS Giants – that even an event that’s as new as the Sydney Derby has already started to take on some of the volatile mythology of Origin. At the same time, the A-League has been timed to coincide with Premier League, which may have turned soccer – somewhat improbably – into a summer sport, but has also created a profound synergy with English soccer, culminating with a sold-out showdown between Sydney FC and Chelsea earlier this year.
If the Australian sporting milieu is beset by anxieties about parochialism and globalism, then, it’s the NRL that have been left to bear the brunt of that anxiety. On the one hand, the NRL has less cultural cache than any other domestic competition, as well as less geographical spread. While AFL is traditionally seen as a Melbourne sport, it’s also the official football code of both South Australia and Western Australia, as well as having two representative teams in Sydney and a sizeable Queensland following as well. Similarly, both A-League and Union have a sizeable fanbase in most states, while Union, in particular, has tended to leach more and more fans away from their traditional NRL catchment areas, at least if declining League sales and climbing Tahs and Wallabies sales are anything to go by. By contrast, while League may dominate New South Wales and Queensland, it has very little presence in any of the other states, with even the Melbourne Storm having to adopt a fortress mentality to build and maintain a fanbase in the middle of AFL territory, making you wonder how the team would look – or will look – without Smith, Slater and Cronk to overcompensate for their intruder status with one of the hardest, fastest and most impressive units in the competition. If my football friends and family in South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania are anything to go by, the interest in NRL there is even less pronounced, with even the most casual or incidental sports fans tending to follow Union or A-League – or both – as a matter of instinct.
Similarly, while Rugby League does enjoy a series of international sporting events, they pale in comparison to the status and media attention garnered by those in Union. In fact, the international League arena often plays out as a spectral, less visible version of the Union arena, with the Rugby League World Cup not even coming close to attracting the viewership of the Rugby Union World Cup, and the Four Nations functioning as a far less effective strategy for galvanising the Commonwealth sensibility that drives Union as a mentality and ideology. At the same time, I also hesitate to totally identify Rugby League with this Commonwealth sensibility, since there’s a greater openness to the Pacific in international Rugby League culture than in Union culture, as evinced in events like the Polynesian Cup. Sure, Union which may feature a vast host of Pacific nations in the early stages of its World Cup, but it’s is ultimately more conservative and canonical than League in its traditional focus on Australia, England and South Africa.
All that puts the NRL in a position where it effectively has to create its own international profile from within the ambit of the national competition itself, and there are two main events – one regular, one singular – in the annual NRL calendar that help facilitate the process. The first is the inclusion of the New Zealand Warriors within the NRL, which turns every clash against the Warriors – especially those held at Mount Smart Stadium – into an international event within the guise of an NRL event. Of course, the Cowboys are more remote than the Warriors, at least if you consider Sydney to be the centre of the NRL universe, but that’s also contributed to a bit of a synergy between North Queensland and New Zealand as well, which perhaps explains why 1300SMILES often feels like the NRL’s gateway to the Pacific, hosting and fostering more Pacific players and events than any other venue in the competition. Alongside Warriors clashes, Origin plays a massive role in the presence of Rugby League on the international stage, or at least transforms the NRL into a sufficiently and emphatically national spectacle for it to gain an international profile. Ironically, however, it’s precisely the insularity of the game, and the condensation of its fanbase to New South Wales and Queensland, that produces the singularity of Origin in the first place, leading more and more footy pundits to question how and why the selection rules of Origin can be changed to represent the full diversity of the game, and to make it even more viable to an international audience. Among other things, the inclusion of New Zealand players – based on their first Australian club – would turn Origin into a genuinely pan-Tasman event, as well as amping up the big hits and tackles to a totally new and exhilarating level.
In lieu of an Origin revision, however, the best new contender for a NRL event that manages to combine the national and international aspirations of the game has to be the Auckland Nines tournament that has emerged over the last couple of years. In my previous post on Tim Simona, I noted that the Nines have tended to feel like a bit of an unofficial Warriors event, since they’re the only time in the NRL calendar that the team get to host the NRL, rather than being hosted by it, just as there’s something delightfully improbable about witnessing Auckland itself – and Mount Smart Stadium specifically – transformed into the heart of the NRL. In part, that’s because Auckland is probably the city that most typifies the NRL’s uneasy position between national and international visibility, with the result that it almost feels like an extension of Australia, or at least continuous with Australia, when the Warriors take the field, but feels like another mindset entirely when the Kiwis or the All Blacks put in one of their crushing performances. Of course, the Warriors never feel any less like New Zealanders, or any less exemplary of the sporting spirit of their nation, but their version of Auckland is nevertheless slightly more domesticated in the Australian mindset than the warrior nation ruled over by the world’s greatest Union dynasty.
At the same time, the unusual and exotic role played by Auckland during the Nines is also a result of the very different cultures of rugby that pertain in Australia and New Zealand, with Australians tending to associate League with working-class cultures and Union with private-school cultures, and New Zealand opting for a more fluid League-Union continuum that allows players like Johnson, Hurrell and Tomkins to enjoy a totally different cache and cultural capital from what they might experience in Australia. In New Zealand, League players are cultural and political ambassadors, which is not something you could say about most Australian League players, even the ones who deserve it. On the one hand, that tends to imbue New Zealanders within the NRL with a sense of gravity, pride and dignity that’s more commonly associated with Union in our country, but it also means that movement between Union and League – or perhaps, more accurately, the choice between Union and League – is nowhere near as epic in New Zealand as in Australia Nor does it carry the same class affiliations, with Shaun Johnson’ decision to stick with the Warriors, or Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s speculations on the possibilities of joining the All Blacks, forming much less of a media circus than Folau’s interminable, melodramatic, prevarications about which football code will best allow him to achieve his potential. Even SBW’s movements from Union to League and back again can be explained in terms of this ethos, even if SBW overcompensates for the relative relaxation in New Zealand about the comparative merits of League and Union with an ever greater self-dramatisation and media courtship than Folau.
In that context, there’s something picaresque about the Nines, not just because the circumscription of teams and brevity of games produces a momentum you simply don’t get in week-by-week matches, but because of the way in which it gives the NRL a bit of a taste of what it would be like to operate in a country without a rugby class system, which is perhaps why so many of the Nines players seem to gain that little bit more stature and confidence over the couple of days that they play. At the same time, this is the only NRL event in the entire calendar in which all the teams are present as once, making that sense of ecumenicism all the more pronounced, especially given the growing trend for players such as Fittler to come out of retirement and relive their former glory for a couple of precious minutes. In a game in which celebration and scandal are so often intertwined, there’s something innocent about the party atmosphere that ensues, partly because the Nines represent the chance for a fresh start, whereas most big NRL celebrations tend to occur at the ends of seasons, when players are trying to cope with or channel frustrations, disappointments and resentments into some massive cathartic night on the town. By contrast, the Nines are the NRL’s first real summer event, and for all the plosive rapidity of the games themselves, the ambience surrounding them is more akin to the slow, lazy, languorous rhythms of the Cricket season and its multi-day events, sport as background noise that you can drift in and out of, something you couldn’t say about the freezing sense of focus that typifies Origin.
On top of all that, the Nines are also the closest the NRL comes to a synergy with Super League, which also starts around this time. While a great number of players move between NRL and Super League – admittedly more from NRL to Super League than vice versa – there’s surprisingly little synergy between the two biggest Rugby League codes in the world. If Chelsea can come out to play Sydney FC, then surely it’s at least hypothetical that we could see Reni Maitua, Glenn Stewart or Matty Bowen on Australian soil again, just as the Bunnies’ growing supremacy over the last two years makes you wonder why Russell Crowe didn’t try to get some kind of Super League action going with the Warrington Wolves that would have allowed their former captain, Roy Asotasi, to resume contact with the team in some way, especially since Astotasi contributed so much to the version of the Rabbitohs that ended up winning the 2014 premiership. If anything, the Australian media – and the NRL media – has shown more interest in forming connections with the NFL than Super League, with Hayne’s couple of games with the 49ers sparking more interest in a cross-code collaboration than the endless number of talented footy players who have played out the second halves of their careers in Britain and France. Of course, it’s precisely the NRL’s uneasy national and international status, as well as its comparably limited funds and notoriety for scandal cap breaches, that makes it so sceptical of these rival outfits, with Super League in particular enjoying both a national and international cache that can sometimes put Australian Rugby League to shame. While the NFL is arguably even more stratospherically prestigious than the NRL, it’s arguably that very disparity that made it impossible not to somehow reach out and claim the NFL as Australia’s own, if only because that would reiterate Hayne as homegrown product, and help cover over the anxiety that inevitably arises when one of the greatest Rugby League players in the world today quits both his code and country for a more lucrative and prestigious career elsewhere.
If the NRL has had to actively combat the NFL, then it tends to tacitly ignore Super League, which is not that hard, given that they occur on opposite sides of the world, although it does make you wonder whether all the whining in the tabloid media about the boredom of the off-season might be put to better use with more coverage of our French and British counterparts, or at least of those legendary Australian players who happen to have found their way into French and British teams. The Nines, however, are the one NRL event in the year that seems some real contiguity to the Super League season, kicking off around the same time as the French and British teams are just getting warmed up, as well as exactly the kind of NRL event where that contiguity is unlikely to be an anxiety, just because the overall tone of the event is so inclusive and ecumenical. While that hasn’t sparked any explicit or direct Super League collaborations, it has tended to imbue the NRL itself, once again, with something of the confidence of Super League, as well as allowing ex-Super League players such as Sam Tomkins a possibility to start the year at the same time as their former teammates, which perhaps explains why Tomkins managed to bring a speed and conviction to the Nines that he has never quite achieved with the Warriors, especially if you compare him with where Kevin Locke was at a couple of years ago. In that sense, it’s perhaps most accurate to say that the Nines at least stand for the possibility of greater dialogue between the NRL and Super League, even if the event is still too recent to have articulated or explored that possibility in any great detail.
Finally, there’s a salient reminder in the Auckland Nines that, while the NRL might be fractious and divided at times, it’s still managed to emerge relatively intact from the Super League wars of the late 90s. Of course, that moment is a long way in the past, but this is also the first time that there’s been a small-scale Rugby League competition of this sort since the stand-off between the ARL Sevens and the Super League Nines in the late 90s. More than almost any other single spectacle, that standoff epitomised the sorry state of the game during that most volatile of periods, and it may be that the Auckland Nines have only emerged in the last couple of years because the NRL needed that amount of time to put that conflict behind it. For all those reasons, then, the Nines remind us that with League, there’s always something to celebrate, and there’s no better way to usher in the beginning of each footy year than with this rousing, knockabout tournament that captures the spirit of the game at its best. Let’s hope that it continues to grow and generate the goodwill that we’ve seen so far.