The game of rugby league has provided me with much elation. Vivid mental pictures still pop up to this very day as vignettes of what the game meant to a freckly faced little kid with a decent right foot kick and an extensive football card collection.
There is little cynicism around the game when viewed through the lens of a young boy; adoring his heroes from afar. My particular heroes wore blue and white, sky blue and green and gold yet I am sure wherever one’s loyalties lay, the sheer emotion, excitement and unbridled joy was probably the same across the board.
Sadly, something has indeed changed. Pessimism, scepticism and cynicism now live and breathe in the fans and importantly, the media. As a result, the game has never before had the power to be so deflating and in its current form, is causing ever increasing reflection on days past.
Don’t get me wrong, rugby league survives and flourishes in spite of itself at times, and will continue to do so. However, that should never result in apathy or a failure to re-invigorate and reinvent.
Without wanting to appear as a crusty, rusted-on, bring back the biff Neanderthal, there are remnants of the past that have been sadly lost and ugly modern tendencies that have slowly infiltrated the sport.
For some reason the current overseers of the national competition have allowed a sporting version of ‘bracket creep’ deflation to take place and it causes much of the consternation around the game.
The NRL could do worse than remove the lengthy on-field warm ups that teams undertake around thirty minutes before kick-off.
If there has ever been anything more anti-climactic than watching an entire squad meander through a series of drills and then wander casually back towards the shed for some final thoughts from the coach, I can’t think of it off hand.
Back in the day, the anticipation of the first sight of your hero as he launched down the race and through the themed bunting was the most orgasmic sense of expectation a rugby league fan could experience.
If you were lucky enough to be hanging over the concrete walls above the tunnel and hear the rhetoric of the players as they approached the playing surface, that sound will live forever.
Now, it is all a big tease and uninspiring when the players’ second entry to the playing surface occurs.
The relationship and interaction between players and officials on the field was once respectful, clearly defined and comical all at the same time.
Players were known as numbers, ‘Sir’ was the appropriate address to any referee and those charged with officiating never attempted to be everybody’s friend.
Today’s game is lacking in respect. As referees appear to study and practise the names of the men whose game they will officiate on the coming weekend, the players show more and more disdain towards them.
They grapple, flop and wrestle their way through tackles near their own line while the official gives warning after warning. Sometimes, the referee’s hands are tied and after three or four infringements, a player will end up in the bin.
Subsequently, the taking of penalty goals from potentially wonderful attacking positions is the embodiment of deflation.
Not only is the kick itself a non-event, the staccato lead up play and prolonged time permitted to actually kick it, makes for a rather lethargic five minutes where fans see very little football.
The rule makers have as much to blame as anyone for popping some air out of the NRL excitement balloon.
An audible moan emits from the fans when the dreaded video referee is called into action and despite its role being cemented in the game, its overuse adds to frustrations.
There is nothing quite like the frantic mayhem of a try in a tight game at Leichhardt or Brookvale Oval. The home side crashes over out wide; only for a referee to call for another opinion, as fans look at each other and ask, ‘What the hell are they looking at?’
Emphasis is placed on bellowing instructions as to whether the tackle was ‘dominant’ or a ‘surrender’ rather than consistently policing such basic rules as touching the ball with the foot during the play the ball.
There are a few front-rowers who should be ‘pinged’ each and every time they fail to perform the simple task.
Moreover, referees clearing the outside leg of the tight head prop in the scrum in order to create a perfect tunnel for the ball to travel untouched back to the retreating half-back, looks utterly ridiculous and adds nothing to the game.
Throw in the pointless, finicky chatter of the officials and it is clear that the ebb and flow of the game has been compromised. Sometimes, I think I might just be getting a little old and truculent but then I call upon those aforementioned memories to remind me of just how great the game can be.
I’m certain that deflating the game and increasing cynicism isn’t the intention of the NRL and perhaps the recent ‘fan forum’ will go a portion of the way to addressing some key issues.
All I know is that I used to leave the football on cloud nine and now, far too often, I leave feeling rather despondent and flat.