An email arrives in September 2011. Its subject line reads: "I know you hate rugby, but…"
One double-click later and I’m deciding whether to take a contract job cutting together footage for that year’s NRL season launch. As my friend had already stated, I wasn’t the biggest fan of sports involving balls of the oval variety. Nevertheless, money is money.
So it’s bizarre that for the few years following the job, I was checking and rechecking NRL match results, as well as combing through individual player and team statistics on a daily basis. In other words, I was following the game. Even more bizarre is that I never watched a single match.
But first, the history of my contempt
As I’m sure is still the case with many high schools, mine devoted just a wee bit too much time, resources and coerced applause to co-curricular team sports – and none more than rugby union. The First XV were presented to us at assembly as if they spent every weekend discovering a new antidote to a different form of cancer, and not merely running around and jumping on each other in short shorts.
As my main interests resided in the underfunded and often ridiculed drama and music departments, I led a fairly silly uprising (of which I was the only member) against Oval Ball. One that took place solely in my head.
In any case, while my animosity towards blokey team sports faded as the years progressed from graduation in 1999, I still spent the 2000s scoffing and snickering at any glaring example of our nation’s obsession with rugby codes.
The rugby job
The prospect of sitting stranded in front of a computer screen for a few weeks with nothing but an external HDD full of National Rugby League footage didn’t exactly fill me with anticipation. My expectation was that I’d be forced to trawl through years' worth of clips containing tackles, scrums and balls ending up either not over or over a line.
To my pleasant surprise, cutting together highlight reels was only half the job. The other half was working with player interviews conducted by kid rugby players – or, as they’re known in the biz, “juniors”.
Getting to know players through off-field action
At first, you could have switched out any of the players and I wouldn’t have noticed, or perhaps I didn’t care to. All I saw were thick necks with Aussie drawls. But the more I got to know the footage, the more I became a little bit fascinated by these Oval Ball men, and how their behaviour during the interviews (and especially between takes) translated on the field.
In other words – who was good at what aspect of the game and how was that reflected in their personalities, if at all?
Once the launch had passed and the season had begun, I downloaded the NRL app – almost in spite of myself – and regularly checked on those players I now felt I knew relatively well.
For example, a seemingly decent bloke from the Parramatta Eels named Luke Burt, who answered questions with quiet authority and showed genuine respect for his tiny interviewer, was just as reliable a force on-field. He steadily contributed tries over the years without hogging the limelight, and retired as the all-time leading points scorer for the Eels.
Conversely, a young man by the name of Todd Carney was slightly aloof while answering questions and slightly juvenile in between takes. As anyone who follows the NRL would know, these traits dogged the talented playmaker until he was sacked from the Cronulla Sharks in 2013.
This one bloody conceited dude
So, each of these well-known NRL players were asked the same questions, including, “Who do you think is the best player in the game?” and “Who do you think is the most valuable?” Every single player answered with the same man’s name: a bloke named Benji Marshall. In fact, nearly every man mentioned this Benji fellow on multiple occasion without prompting, so I could only assume he was the LeBron James of 2011 rugby league.
All except for this one dude, who seemed to ooze this weird, itchy cockiness and would almost reluctantly mention other names, as if he was too original a mind to echo his peers and admit this Benji fellow was at the top of the game. I assumed this dissenter had a real issue with Benji Marshall – perhaps there was something in the news about a personal rift?
Turned out it was actually Benji Marshall. I ended up following his stat sheet more than anyone elses.
The end of the obsession
My obsessive stat-checking has waned, and I no longer express quiet shock over a surprise upset or quietly cheer when the Eels win a few successive matches. I guess a few solid years of following a sport through a numbers-based app was enough, not to mention that many of the players I got to know through the interviews had either retired, been sacked or switched codes. I still check the match results after each round – I just don’t know enough of the players to get lost in the statistics.
At the height of my obsession, I could have told you not only the top 10 men with the most tries per season and the exact number they’d racked up, but who had the most tackles, linebreaks, run metres, kick metres and offloads. To this day, I have no idea what an offload is, even after looking up its definition multiple times.
I was obviously never a true-blue superfan, but for a little while there, I was an invested, if somewhat peculiar fan. The job went a long way in curing my disdain for this particular code of Oval Ball, even if I still never watch the game.
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