A very good friend of mine often describes rugby league as a ‘pantomime’. And it’s a pretty accurate summation. In any given week our game is the source of plenty of joy, much madness and a constant state of controversy.
In most cases at the centre of the joy, the madness and the controversy are our players - and what a diverse bunch they are.
There are players universally adored by the entire rugby league community like Luke Lewis from the Cronulla Sharks who has played over 250 first grade games and represented several clubs, his state and his country. Despite being 34 years old this year, he continues to perform with strength, courage and commitment on the field and commands the respect of all rugby league fans, no matter which club they support. Other players who have fit into this category include Petero Civoniceva, Nathan Hindmarsh and Johnathan Thurston.
What about the cult heroes who come from nowhere and take the league by storm? Nathan Ross from the Newcastle Knights is a player who immediately comes to mind. After making sure his life off the field was settled, working a full time job and at one point being primary care giver for his son Ziah, at age 26 Nathan finally made his first grade debut. For Nathan, playing rugby league is obviously a privilege which he takes very seriously and when he wears the red and blue jersey his pride for himself, his family and for Newcastle absolutely shines through.
Then there are the players that change your mind. Michael Ennis was this player for me. For many years I would tell people that he was a ‘grub’ and I could not stand the way he played on the field. He was niggly, cheeky and just downright annoying. Then people started to tell me what a gentleman he was off the field and what an intelligent, articulate and considerate man he was. Then, when I met him for myself, I realised how wrong I had been and that despite his passion on the field, he was an extremely decent man off it. Call it white line fever.
There are players who are recognised for the outstanding community work that they do off the field (and plenty more who do it without any recognition at all). Players like Kevin Naiqama from the Wests Tigers who spends time volunteering in a soup kitchen every week, Suaia Magagi from the Parramatta Eels who regularly visits youth detention centres in Sydney, Cody Walker from the South Sydney Rabbitohs who participates in a program where he teaches health, lifestyle and persistence in schools across Sydney or Trent Merrin from the Penrith Panthers who dedicates time each week to work with young men who are on the verge of going down the wrong path.
Then there are just characters like Aaron Woods and David Klemmer. This is the most well documented bromance in rugby league and whenever these two men are within a one kilometre radius of each other they are absolutely inseparable. I often wonder how they are going to get any work done on the field when they are both at the Canterbury Bulldogs next year.
But my favourite type of player, is the player who redeems himself.
The word ‘redemption story’ is thrown around plenty in rugby league circles. It’s often used to describe a player who has done the wrong thing and then returns, plays a couple of good games on the field and has apparently ‘turned his life around’.
But it takes a lot more than a couple of good games on the field to suggest redemption.
A good example of a player who the phrase ‘redemption story’ absolutely applies to is Jake Friend from the Sydney Roosters.
This year, Jake celebrated his 200th NRL game as captain of the Sydney Roosters. Just over six years ago this was not a player I thought would reach 200 games, least of all as captain.
The trouble Jake was in early in his career has been well documented but what is less documented is what happened when he returned. In the 2010 season, Jake worked hard and continued to improve. He improved so much that by year end he started as hooker for the Roosters in the 2010 Grand Final. In 2011 he was awarded the Jack Gibson Medal which is the Sydney Rooster’s greatest club honour. What followed was a breakout year in 2013 under coach Trent Robinson which ended with a Grand Final win and in 2014 he was named man of the match at the World Club Challenge and awarded the Ashton Collier Medal on ANZAC Day. Then, in 2015 he was named as part of the leadership group at the Roosters and named co-captain.
Jake’s story is a testament to the power of sport. Not only does sport have the power to unite people and bring them together but for Jake, his teammates and the coaching staff at the Roosters helped him to turn his life around.
I was thinking about this when I was watching State of Origin last week and watched one of rugby league’s greatest ‘villains’, Andrew Fifita became a hero for all New South Wales Blues fans with his inspired performance.
In his first State of Origin appearance in the run on side, Fifita absolutely earned his recognition as Man of the Match. He made nine tackle breaks, 193 metres, had a try assist and was rewarded with a try.
This is a man who has been embroiled in his fair share of controversy during his career – particularly last year in regard to his ‘support’ of Kieran Loveridge which saw him omitted from the Kangaroos squad at the end of 2016.
The Cronulla Sharks sit second on the NRL ladder – Andrew Fifita is a significant contributor to this team and is a powerhouse on the field. I hope that Andrew is a player in the same mould as Jake. I hope that Andrew uses the opportunity that rugby league has given him to make sure he is only seen in the papers for the right reasons and becomes a player that I can call a ‘redemption story’.
Our game is a game that gives people second chances. It gives players the opportunity to change their lives and then help others to make positive changes in their own.
And while rugby league may be a pantomime, it’s a pantomime I’ll never get sick of watching.