“More than a few newspaper editors put forward the ludicrous notion that some of the league players, beginning with Dally [ Messenger], would be earning enough money to give away their employment, and their new-found free time, idleness and money would inevitably lead to temptation, decadency and ultimately their demise.”
It might have been written more than 100 years ago, but chalk it up as a win for the pen-pushers.
And while it may appear the media delight in talented individuals throw away their careers, there are, in fact, footballers who have never had any ink on their bodies or sported a ‘trendy’ haircut.
It’s for those guys that we felt it signficant and appropriate to tell this story – a story about this ghost of Dally Messenger embodied in a 35-year-old dual international, with Rivalry Round as its backdrop.
Amid the guts-and-glory tales between famous adversaries that occupy the other pages of this magazine, none compare to the fierce dichotomy rugby union and rugby league have shared since the end of the 19th century.
It’s ironic that history’s only unofficial Dally M winner, Craig Gower, forwent another three years in the NRL for a lucrative stint in rugby union only to return, not to his demise, but to stand on the precipice of a fairytale premiership run in the toughest competition in the world. And he’s probably doing it on a minimum wage deal, too.
“I never thought I’d come back,” says league’s latest returnee, who five years ago threw up his hands and ventured from Penrith to the more boutique Aviron in France.
“I really needed a break [from rugby league]. I felt like my form back then was OK, but it wasn’t great. It wasn’t where I thought it could be. I needed a new start. I got stale out there at Penrith.
“I had 12 great years there and we won a comp and I represented my state and country. Everything was ticked off, so it wasn’t like I felt like I was missing something if I did leave. That new challenge was the best thing for me.
“Looking back, it was the right decision for myself at the time.”
Those last few words in particular wouldn’t have been far from what Messenger would have uttered when he famously switched codes in 1908 to escape rugby’s amateurism.
To the dismay of the New South Wales Rugby Union, the league pioneer clandestinely signed with New South Wales Rugby League, essentially becoming the first money-chaser in either sport – a state of affairs not too dissimilar to critics flaming the NRL’s most marketable athlete for walking in the opposite direction last week. Messenger was also burned for it.
Gower likens Benji Marshall’s decision to move on from the Wests Tigers to his own exit from Penrith five years ago. Both were in their late 20s, both sported a premiership ring and both felt a need to take up a new challenge.
“If I felt like I couldn’t deliver what I needed to deliver to myself, to the club, and to the fans, well I’m sitting there just earning the money, aren’t I?” Gower explains of his exit.
“People always talk about money in this country – and it’s pretty annoying when they do that – but for me, it was more about what was right for me at the time.
“If he (Marshall) feels that he needs a new challenge and he wants to go play rugby, then so be it. He’s got the skill-set to do it. People say he’s abandoning the game and he’s been fantastic to the game, but no one person is bigger than the game.
“It’s not like we don’t love the game. Sometimes you just get a bit stale and need a new direction. For myself, I was playing 24 years. That’s a long time. Personally, I felt like I needed to get away. But then you start to get the passion of the game back, you start to watch a bit more, and you fall back in love.”