MVP: Robbie Farah (Wests Tigers; Hooker)

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More than any other Australian football code, Rugby League continually feels as if it’s in jeopardy as a business. From the scandals that seem to rock the game every couple of months, to the growing disconnect between lucrative and struggling clubs, to the inadequate channels of communication between players and management, the NRL seems to exist in a state of normalised precarity and everyday crisis. No player embodies that situation in quite the same way as Robbie Farah, who’s spent the last ten years representing two of the most battling outfits in the entire competition – Wests Tigers and the New South Wales Blues. As captain of each team, Farah has often found himself in the firing line, and has earned himself a reputation as one of the most difficult players in the NRL, thanks in part to his strained relationship with Tigers management over the last half-decade, culminating with his highly publicised falling out with Jason Taylor at the end of last year. At the same time, Farah’s career has been notably devoid of the kinds of off-field misconduct that so often plague players of his status and stature: in many ways, he’s become an emblem for the game at the same time that he’s become one of its most controversial players.

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All of those factors mean that people rarely have a straightforward take on Farah: it’s hard to really love him or to really hate him. Rather than endear people or repel people, he seems to frustrate people. He frustrates management, coaches, commentators and fans. Even when he is winning, he looks like a frustrated player. Not frustrated, admittedly, in terms of talent – for a long time, he was arguably the best hooker in the game, and most fans would probably still place him somewhere in the top five. Not exactly frustrated, either, with the lineup at Wests Tigers, since the Tiges have arguably had it pretty easy in terms of player movement over the last couple of years. Sure, there have been rumours that Tedesco, Brooks and Moses might be looking elsewhere, while the retirement of Pat Richards and Keith Galloway has left a bit of a hole in the team. That’s just it, though – the biggest departures from the team have been through retirement, which is part of what made the prospect of Robbie leaving seem so catastrophic for both the club and himself. For one of the most emphatic one-team players in the competition, departure would have felt tantamount to retirement, which has to be one of the reasons why Farah dug his heels in, even if it meant that he was to be demoted to the NSW Cup.

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If anything, the Tigers have flourished over the last couple of years in terms of the quality of their players. By many accounts, Tedesco is currently one of the best fullbacks in the game – if not the best – and should be set to make a stunning Origin debut in the next year or two. Indeed, no Sydney football team feels as inextricable from the Blues as the Tigers, thanks in large part to Farah, but cemented by the possibility of Woods’ dual captaincy over the next couple of years. Similarly, the recent arrival of Matt Ballin at hooker has, if anything, turned the Tigers into one of the beneficiaries of the recent round of player movements, second only to Parra in reaping the spoils of the last great Sea Eagles generation. Finally, while the departure of Beau Ryan and Chris Heighington for Cronulla was arguably in the Tigers’ best interest, Ryan’s media presence gave the team a new lease on life and a renewed visibility in legitimacy in Balmain whose impact can still be felt in the club at the moment. While the Tigers may not be anywhere near the top of the ladder, then, they’re one of the teams with the greatest potential at the moment. Sure, there are some problems – there’s still no clear substitute for Richards and Galloway at the front of the pack – but when you compare them to an outfit like Cronulla, or even the Roosters now that Pearce, Maloney and RTS are out, it’s not hard to see that there could be some real consolidation here over the next couple of years though.

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Yet that’s the problem and paradox of the Tigers as a team. As a Wests fan, I’ve had this experience multiple times over the last decade. Every couple of years, it feels as if the pieces are just starting to fall into place to recapture the glory of the 2005 Grand Final victory over the Cowboys. With North Queensland finally winning last year, another Tigers win feels more timely than ever before, and yet I can’t help but feel that, once again, the management and coaching staff will stuff it up. When it comes to building a Grand Final team, continuity is everything. You only need to look at the Rabbitohs or the Roosters or the Storm to see how much a team depends upon a stable, steady and long-term vision on the part of their coach. Some teams have developed a long-term relationship with their coach – it’s impossible to imagine Michael Maguire anywhere else – while some teams seem to benefit from coaches – like Wayne Bennett – who are somehow capable of installing a long-term vision within a remarkably short time. Unfortunately, the Tigers haven’t really had either of these experiences, rotating among a number of coaches who may have been more than competent at their job, but have lacked the kind of big picture needed for a team with so much heritage, history and expectation riding on their back. Worse, still, the Tigers have also had one or two coaches that seem to be downright incompetent and even destructive, culminating with Jason Taylor’s disastrous arrival at the club in 2015.

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That has all put Farah in a fairly unenviable situation. Being the captain of a club is pressure enough, but being the captain of a club that lacks a consistent coaching vision is even more difficult. A lesser player might have sought employment elsewhere – after all, there was a time when Benji Marshall felt even more inextricable from the Tigers brand than Farah. Five years ago, nobody would have believed that he would end up at the Dragons. At the same time, Benji’s star has undoubtedly fallen since he moved away from the Tigers as well. In his style and sensibility, he was a one-team player, and he’s lost a great deal of his gravity and centrality in the game since leaving the club that reared, nurtured and mentored him. Whereas some players seem to be able to survive that kind of transition in a late career move, Benji called it quits right when Balmain needed him most, which is perhaps one of the reasons he seems so far from the spotlight now. Once upon a time, he was one of my favourite players in the game, but now I sometimes forget that he’s even a part of the Dragons lineup at all. To his credit, then, Farah never took that easy option, despite the fact that virtually every Sydney club has, at one time or another, sought to build their front line around his wiry agility. In an NRL era characterised more and more by flexibility, fluidity and precarity, Farah has remained true to the Tigers, against all the odds.

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Of course, that means that Farah has taken the burden of maintaining the continuity of the Tigers largely upon his own shoulders. In the absence of proper coaching continuity, a captain needs to step up and take on some of the coaching duties himself, which is precisely what Farah has done time and again. Whereas most captains are fairly inarticulate in their press statements, or at least resort to tried-and-tested cliches, Farah is more inclined to talk about strategy and opportunity, while reports from the sheds also suggest that Farah is in some sense the real coach of the team. Even Wests Tigers’ promotional training videos tend to place Farah, rather than Taylor (or any other coach) front and centre: no other captain tends to be so foregrounded in his club’s coverage of the off-season. In fact, no other captain tends to be so foregrounded as a captain, full stop, since, in many ways, the role of captaincy belongs to an era of one-club – or at least long-term – players. With some clubs seeming to rotate their lineup every couple of years, the role of captaincy in maintaining culture and continuity becomes nominal, or impossible. By the same token, it’s the teams that have really managed to consolidate and condense their strengths – such as Souths, Melbourne and North Queensland – that have tended to have the most emphatic and visionary captains. In effect, you might say that the health of a club culture depends on how much of a role the captain is able to play in guiding his players. One of the extraordinary things about Farah, then, is that he has managed to bring the same kind of captaincy vision as Inglis, Thurston and Smith to the NRL club that has – arguably – been the most stricken with flux and disappointment over the last decade, with the possible exceptions of Parra and Canberra, depending on how you look at it.

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Nowhere has that gift for captaincy been more pronounced than in Origin. In many ways, the Blues are a bit like an intensified Tigers outfit, taking all the problems haunting Balmain and Campbelltown and increasing them a hundredfold. Every year, it feels as if all the ingredients are almost in place for New South Wales and every year – with the very brief exception of 2014 – Blues fans are disappointed. Whereas Queensland seem to have mastered the art of continuity – their core lineup has barely deviated over the last half decade, with the very notable exception of Will Chambers’ contribution last year – New South Wales have put in an extraordinarily piecemeal effort. It’s no surprise, then, that that contrast has made itself felt at the level of captaincy as well. Whereas the Maroons have had a more or less stable succession of captains, and a clear passing on of the baton – as well as benefiting from Cameron Smith’s exemplary captaincy of the Storm – the Blues have been so bereft of consistent captaincy that, some years, there hasn’t even been continuity between the three games. Add to that the fact that Paul Gallen, who was set to be the new and improved face of the 2010s Blues, has been somewhat depleted both by the ASADA scandals and the general fate of Cronulla-Sutherland and the fate of New South Wales has largely fallen on Farah’s shoulders. In effect, Farah has had to manage to incorporate a long-term captaincy vision within fairly isolated and fragmented captaincy stints.

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And, to his immense credit, he has succeeded. For my money, the Blues have never been as tight or as efficient as when Farah is at the helm. His achievement is all the more extraordinary in that one of his most momentous captaincy efforts occurred on the night his mother passed away. At the same time, there is something about Origin that also favours Farah’s particular skill set as well. More so than regular football, Origin encourages strong continuities between coaching and captaincy. For a team that only plays three times a year, and rarely with a completely identical lineup, the stakes are enormously high, and for a coach to bring their particular vision to bear they need to be able to funnel it down through the captains in a fairly efficient way. With the Maroons, that process is perhaps a bit less urgent, since they’ve spent so many years whittling down their central unit that the team seems to play more or less by rote, which makes their victories all the more devastating to a New South Wales fan. When it comes to the Maroons, though, Laurie Daley’s strategies and choice of players has changed almost as frequently as his captains. Each new Origin year effectively brings a new formation, which means that it’s especially important that captains continue the coaching vision over to their team during Origin Camp. While Origin Camp is more shrouded in secrecy – or at least discretion – than nearly other NRL institution, all the footage I’ve seen tends to suggest that Farah’s coaching personality comes into play a fair bit as well here, allowing him to direct the team every bit as effectively as Daley.

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In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Farah transitions more or less seamlessly into a coaching career at the Tigers once his career comes to an end. More controversially, perhaps, I also wouldn’t be surprised if he transitions into a management role as well. For, over the last five years in particular, it feels as if Farah has absorbed some of the duties of club management as well as the duties of coaching. At the very least, he has been a major advocate for the integrity and unity of the team in the face of what has to be one of the most drastically mismanaged clubs in recent NRL history. You only have to look at the decline of the Tigers’ actual physical infrastructure – they still haven’t got a proper clubhouse – to realise that things are in a pretty sorry state, while the decisions that are made in terms of assets, finances and player trades are pretty dire as well. There was a cruel irony in the fact that the club decided to buy Matt Ballin from the Sea Eagles before the dust had even settled on Farah’s potential exit strategy: neither able to convince themselves that Farah is irreplaceable, nor to go in the other direction and replace him, the club now finds themselves with two first-grade hookers, one of which (probably Ballin) is going to have to be benched, an extraordinarily incompetent way to have to deal with such a major purchase and asset.

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It’s those kind of stuffups that Farah has had to negotiate as captain of the club, as well as the gradual transformation of Balmain itself into a wealthy inner-city enclave, a repository of Union and AFL rather than the grassroots Rugby League culture that once formed such an important part of the local community. No Sydney NRL fanbase has changed as drastically as Balmain over the last couple of years, and while the team is also tied to Wests, the absorption of the Magpies into the Tigers as club brand necessarily means that Balmain is its heart and soul. In effect, Balmain has gone through the process of gentrification and spatial exclusion that is set to hit the Rabbitohs’ heartland over the next decade or so, with the transformation of Zetland, Alexandria and the corridor around South Dowling Street into a kind of answer to the new inner west. It’s not hard to see in South Sydney’s programmatic and dedicated community activism a kind of pre-emptive attack against this response, but in the case of the Tigers, it sometimes feels too late. In an NRL catchment area that has gradually lost a great number of its supporters, as well as its actual clubhouse, Farah’s prickly relationship with management often plays as the kind of attitude needed to keep the players themselves still feeling viable, relevant and unified. Of course, the emergence of Tedesco, Brooks and Moses promises a bit of a rebirth, while Farah is not always the best figurehead in terms of his charisma or media personality either. At the same time, I can’t imagine any other player in the competition sticking by his club like he has, nor remaining with them even after the humiliating prospect of being dropped to the NSW Cup.

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None of which to say that Farah is exactly likeable. If you wanted to find an example of the kinds of misogyny endemic to the NRL you wouldn’t have to look much farther than his 2013 tweet suggesting that Julia Gillard get herself a “noose” for her birthday. Sure, he was only expressing a political sentiment, but I’ve never heard an NRL player use that kind of language to denigrate a male politician. At the same time, the tweet was discovered in the wake of Farah’s “Stop The Trolls” campaign, in conjunction with The Daily Telegraph, which was designed to counter some hateful messages he had received in the aftermath of his mother’s death. While those messages were certainly more personal and more pointed than Farah’s – and there were more of them – there was also something a little bit disingenuous and even petulant about the double standards involved, something that neither Farah nor the Telegraph every really seemed to acknowledge at any level. Similarly, it’s hard to believe that Farah has always been the injured party in the dramas that have plagued Lilyfield Oval time and time again over the last decade. Nevertheless, engaging with Farah as a fan means acknowledging those contradictions, as well as the more contradictory position of a one-team player who hasn’t always been given a chance to give his all to the team he’s chosen to represent. In the current NRL climate, players like Farah are a bit of anachronism, and there’s something about the way he’s railed against that, and stuck with the Tigers against all odds, that says something about the very best side of the game.

Author: Billy Stevenson

Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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