When Russell Crowe urged South Sydney’s members to let him take over their club in 2006 he said they should ‘get into bed together’. The long-denied Rabbitoh fans, chaste of a premiership since 1971, expected a never-ending honeymoon with their Hollywood suitor, whisked away to the most exotic of rugby league dreamlands. Instead, all they have had so far is a weekend in Katoomba.
Crowe promised a premiership in 2008. That year the Rabbitohs ran 14th. In 2009 and 2010, despite big-name recruitment and more Gladiatorial hype, they again missed the play-offs. This season they are 12th on the ladder, a heavy mistake rate and lack of cohesion making their game-plans redundant. They have got a slice of Hollywood alright but it’s more Keystone Cops than Fields of Glory.
It is said that Crowe has got a big personality, too big it seems for his squad of well-paid recruits. They have adopted a Hollywood persona, decked out in their Armani suits, refined by media training and personal grooming sessions. Pity it is not a beauty pageant. The biggest problem for the Rabbits, however, is one of miscasting.
Take the case of Dave Taylor, poached from the Brisbane Broncos in 2009, seemingly one of the emerging superstars of the game. Not anymore. He should be playing the role of a South Sydney Schwarzenegger, the team’s Terminator. Instead, he has become the Fred Astaire of the NRL, quick-stepping his way across the field, attempting finely calibrated flick-passes and chip-kicks. A bullocking runner, potentially the most devastating in the league, has been miscast as a ball player.
Big Dave is to football what Heston Blumenthal is to cooking dinner on Monday nights. He has an unwavering capacity for making the simple look complicated. Taylor is a lump of a man, with legs stolen from the stoutest of pool tables. One-on-one, there is barely a player in the game who can hold him. Rather than tucking the ball under his arm and charging forward, he has developed a penchant for things a little bit fancy. Like his McDonald’s counterpart, however, it is utterly unconvincing.
Recently against the Wests Tigers, on a diagonal run towards the try-line, he looked set to score in the corner, only to throw a flamboyant pass which promptly sailed over the touch judge’s head. Meanwhile Taylor, sans footy, powered forward, his hulking torso skidding across the stadium turf, a corridor of strewn Tigers forming behind him. It was like watching the Queen Mary running aground. To the crowd’s disbelief, when Taylor finally stopped, his body was across the try-line. He could have scored himself. All he had to do was hang onto the ball.
Locking arms with Taylor in the Rabbitoh second-row is the English import, Sam Burgess — the Tom Cruise of rugby league. Not the Cruise from Rain Man and The Firm, but the later version, Hollywood’s most over-rated actor, lolling his way through the embarrassment of Vanilla Sky, Eyes Wide Shut and The War of the Worlds.
No one in the NRL attracts as much hyperbowl (text edited, Aust. gov’t) as Burgess. Whereas the Gladiator unleashed hell, Sam’s arrival at Souths unleashed a gushing war of words in the media, unmatched by anything the great pudding-head has achieved on the field. Last year Channel Nine awarded Burgess the ‘hit of the year’, the season’s toughest bone-crushing tackle. Replays, however, showed that Burgess was only the second man in, an anonymous team-mate doing the bulk of the lifting.
For more miscasting, look down the Rabbitoh’s backline. Usually when a club buys a player with a superstar reputation, paying him four to five times more than his team-mates, it creates envy and deflates morale. In league circles, it is known as the ‘throw the ball to golden boy’ syndrome, whereby the team’s underpaid players stand back and expect money-bags to score all the points.
At Souths, the opposite had occurred. Crowe enticed Greg Inglis into the burrow at a cost of $1.8 million, pushing their talented centre, Beau Champion, down to Melbourne. Yet in his games this season, Inglis has barely touched the ball, left idle by South’s inside backs. He has been miscast as an extra. Crowe should give Oprah Winfrey a turn at five-eight — she’s good at yelling out ‘Greg Inglis’, his best chance of handling the pigskin.
What the South Sydney diehards long for, of course, is Back To The Future, to the glory days of the late 1960s. Back to a time when names like McCarthy, Coote, O’Neill and Simms were the pride of the league. For all the promises, all the dreams of a Hollywood blockbuster, it will not happen under Crowe’s leadership.
Quite simply, the culture of celebrity is incompatible with the culture of rugby league. This is a team game, not for the glorification of a movie-star owner, a man who brazenly interferes with the team’s coaching. Adam MacDougall, an experienced, representative player, has reported that at training Crowe ‘was trying to tell me what lines to run’.
This is indicative of the malaise at the club. The players are being asked to play, first and foremost, for Crowe, sidelining the traditional Souths spirit of playing for the jumper and its rich heritage. This reflects the pitfall of private ownership in sport, when money becomes more important than morale, when celebrity overwhelms continuity.
Crowe’s initial partner at Souths, Peter Holmes á Court, has already been sent to the sin bin. Next year the club will have its third coach in four years. Plainly the cult of personality is not working for the Rabbits. In terms of results, Maximus is minimal. The worst miscasting was to put Crowe in charge of a rugby league club.