Round to rival no other
In the Origin aftermath, some of us are still trying to get the mid-strength stench out of our Blatchy’s Blues wigs or desperately attempting to remove the “eight straight” celebration stain from our good shirt. But as one of rugby league’s most remarkable and fiercest battles ends; another begins.
It’s the NRL’s Rivalry Round.
It starts with a skirmish in the tropics. The cane toads turn on each other. The Cowboys host the Broncos and if a good old-fashioned mate against mate wasn’t enough to grab your interest on a Friday night, throw in the fact that for the loser of this Queensland Derby – their season is over. Brisbane have dropped more big names than a pretentious dinner party at Shane and Liz’s London pad, while North Queensland continue their plod towards September, hungrily accepting their Origin stars back into club level with delight.
Eighteen years ago it started as “big brother against little brother”; now the Cowboys and the Broncos isn’t just a ready-made spaghetti western title, it’s a genuine duel between two respected sides desperate to keep their seasons alive.
While the Banana Benders fight out their do-or-die encounter, Sydney’s west gets set for another episode of Bulldogs verse Eels. Whether it be Terry Lamb shedding blood for the Bulldogs in the ’84 Grand Final, or Peter Sterling, Mick Cronin, Ray Price and co escaping with the only try-less premiership in ’86, there is plenty of history between these two sides.
While the rest of the NRL asks “what’s the matter Parra?” Hasler’s men are still cautious of their old foes, especially when Des doesn’t know if his Dally M medal-winning custodian wants to stay at Belmore. Like most good grudges, this one peaked in the ’80s during which time the Bulldogs and Eels shared authority with four premierships a piece. And unlike other things that thrived in ’80s like Rick Astley, the Atari, hypercolour and Teddy Ruxpin; the Bulldogs and Eels remain popular.
Back north of the border, strangely it was only last month they kicked off the “Rumble on the Reef” but this weekend the Titans and the Rabbitohs ignite their rivalry again on the Gold Coast. The Bunnies, burned by the Red V last Monday, will be hungry to bounce back against the Gold Coast. It is a relatively recent rivalry that is developing quicker than a highrise on Surfers. Souths lost the Coal Train Dave Taylor to Queensland’s glitter strip a couple of seasons ago; he’s since lost an Origin spot and a fishing boat. These two sides have played each other nine times with the Rabbitohs winning the past three. Souths have an extra reason to celebrate, with John Sutton set for his 200th NRL match.
But the match of the Rivalry Round belongs to the Sea Eagles and the Wests Tigers. It’s the classic Fibros against the Silvertails. A war of words, physicality, accusations of stealing players and dirty tactics that dates back more than 30 years. Sure, Wests merged with Balmain and they started their own dynasty, but many who live beyond Leichhardt’s Norton Street haven’t forgotten. They were taught to hate those cashed-up social climbers, sunning themselves on the northern beaches while they battled in the city’s western working class.
But this time Wests will win the turf war, with Monday night’s match is at Campbelltown. It will be the first time since 1998 that the Sea Eagles travel across the bridge (gasp!) and head into rugby league’s south-western Sydney heartland. The feud has lost none of its relevance over the decades and there will be boos, jeers – plus a few tears for the departing Benji Marshall at Campbelltown.
Of course, rivalries are an unusual beast. They can spring from a local derby, develop across a border or be born out of a social bias. It used to be rugby league fans supported their own team – and any side that was playing Manly. But a true rivalry has substance; the fans feel the irritation of injustice or revenge for past grudges.
Loathe them or love them, everyone needs a decent rival – and there will be plenty on show this weekend.