Rugby union used to be known as the game they play in heaven. On the evidence displayed at the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, it is now best described as the game they play in nursing homes: inert, boring and disconcertingly close to death. The try-less dirge otherwise known as Australia-v-Ireland proved the point. On my stopwatch, the breaks in play from set-pieces such as scrums, penalties and goal-kicks absorbed 25 times more game time than backline passing movements.
Thankfully for non-insomniacs, there are two lively footballing alternatives this weekend — the NRL and AFL Grand Finals. In these two codes the rules have been devised for the benefit of spectators, offering dynamic ball movement and athleticism. In rugby union the rules are structured for the benefit of referees. Newcomers to the game must think its true purpose is to maximise the number of times the ref blows his whistle, thereby interrupting play and getting his mug on TV.
Rugby league and Australian Rules have had stellar seasons on the field. The only challenges they face are off-field, particularly in the media scrutiny of player behaviour. The most instructive book on this subject is Freddy, the autobiography of rugby league legend and Channel Nine commentator Brad Fittler.
The book’s strength is its frankness. Its weak point lies in what it is being
frank about, revealing Fittler to be a dunderhead who got lucky in life through his affinity with the pigskin and the riches this delivered. His footy prowess was evident early on:
For some reason no one could comprehend, I started to dominate games. From four years of age it was like I was born to do one thing and that was play football. I’d run from one end of the field to the other scoring tries at will.
This supremacy continued throughout his career — a dual premiership player and captain of NSW and Australia. Fittler’s on-field success, however, was paralleled by waywardness in other areas, with a disturbing history of kleptomania and drug and alcohol abuse. His mother was a fine woman, raising her children alone (Fittler’s Hell’s Angels father having shot through) but she had trouble in controlling her son.
Against this background, it is unremarkable that young men with limited life skills would play up and find their way into the media. Elite footballing success gives them significant amounts of money, fame and party time — the emergence of a larrikin leisure class in Australia. From Fittler’s book it is clear their coaches and managers play a vital pastoral care role. So-called super-coaches such as Phil Gould (who was a father figure to Freddy) and Wayne Bennett are not necessarily great tacticians. Their supreme skill is in straightening out delinquent players who would otherwise be lost to the game.
Nothing is worse for an autobiographer than the realisation his memory has failed. Two weeks ago it happened to John Howard, concerning a nonexistent invitation to Bob Menzies’ daughter for drinks at The Lodge. Brad Fittler’s error is of a different kind and in a more conspicuous spot. The opening line to his book reads:
I am standing at the front entrance of [my boyhood home], an old brown-brick block of public housing flats, probably built in the 1930s, in a suburb called Ashcroft in Sydney’s southwest.
Having grown up in Ashcroft myself, it is disturbing to see someone butcher the suburb’s history so grievously. In the 1930s the area was farmland. Its public housing estate was not constructed until the early 1960s. It takes a unique intellect to stuff up the first line of a memoir, but that’s Freddy Fittler for you.
Elsewhere, the book makes a serious bid for the Gerard Henderson Hyperbole Medal. More than 60 million people died in the second world war, but this didn’t stop Fittler from comparing it to the breakaway Super League competition in 1995:
I went into the meeting with [Australian Rugby League representatives] James Packer, Gus Gould, Bob Fulton and John Quayle. I reckon it must’ve been that way for Churchill in the British war room, settling into a bunker for a fight to the death.
Perhaps in a motivational speech, his coach once compared football to warfare, and poor Freddy believed him.
For case studies in arrogance, nothing beats the media’s treatment of AFL coach Ross Lyon in his switch from St Kilda to Fremantle. One of the rituals of the football season is the media pressuring poorly performing clubs to sack their coaches. This year Fremantle got in first, dismissing the hapless Mark Harvey while journalists were preoccupied elsewhere. Lyon’s sin, the real reason he is under attack, is that he gave no hint of his move to Freo. This is hardly surprising, given the media’s over-hyped coverage of the ‘St Kilda schoolgirl’ issue and the way this destabilised Lyon’s season at the Saints.
Nothing annoys the media more than not knowing about stories such as this. Consider, for instance, the way in which leading AFL commentator Gerard Whateley dealt with it. Initially he said that Lyon should leave St Kilda. Four days later Lyon did. Whateley then described this as an ‘underhanded’ act. With breathtaking gall, he argued that Lyon should have resigned when he (Whateley) wanted him to, supposedly leaving St Kilda ‘with a tremendous amount of gratitude and goodwill’.
Whateley looks and sounds like Rumpelstiltskin. Only by doing things his way can senior figures in the game avoid retribution. Sadly, this is typical of the self-absorbed arrogance of many AFL commentators.