I’ve got these two mates.
In the grand scheme of things, they’re new mates; we’ve met within the past few years. They don’t know each other – if there’s a thread binding the two of them, it’s me – but I regard both of them as close friends, the kind of friend you make later in life and that you value more than those you made when you were younger, when people were more disposable, when life seemed to stretch out before you and so a friend lost, at that point, was no big deal – there’ll always be more.
As you get older though, even if you feel you have ‘enough’ friends, the good ones are the ones who just pop up, the ones who you connect with on a level that you didn’t realise was possible, or even a thing, when you were younger.
So I’ve got these two mates.
One is a man of fine standing, one who, quite literally, follows the letter of the Law. I admire him for his knowledge of all things, for his dedication and for his beliefs, for his generous nature and his ability to see things for more than they appear.
The other I admire for his tenacity and his keen eye, for his ability to adhere to what’s right, and execute it, and then find the fun behind it.
If there is a connection between the three of us then, aside from myself, it’s a love, a passionate love, of football.
Rugby League, that most blue collar of blue collar sports, brutal in its primal simplicity, to the untrained eye not that far removed from what would have occurred in arenas the width and breadth of the Roman Empire, back in the good ol’ turn of the BC/AD times. But with, perhaps, less lions.
Regardless, I’ve got these two mates, and it’s the two of them who, in these times of global pandemic and general disarray, I can reply on to be (at the very least), by their phones when Thursday afternoons turn to evening and so the Round begins – whether or not any of us have skin in the game, there’s football on, and so we’re all watching.
My love of rugby league began in the late 1980s, when I was seven, and Brisbane entered a team into what was, back then, the NSWRL. The Broncos were upstarts, despite being captained by the immortal Wally Lewis, the national captain, but upstarts none the less.
They began the season, and their existence, by beating the reigning premiers, Manly, 44-10. For my eighth birthday, towards the end of that maiden season (where they missed the finals by a single defeat), I received a team jersey. I still have it – it’s (far) too small for me, and too large right now for my daughter, but it’s a treasured possession, if only because if signifies such an important part of my life. The beginning, if you will, of a lifelong obsession.
Claire, my wife, has utterly no interest in the game and so abides this rabid obsession during the season quietly and with admirable fortitude (and, indeed, thinly veiled amusement), to an extent that I can only admire.
For a long time I lived in Melbourne, AFL heartland, a town that, until the advent of the Melbourne Storm, thought little, if anything, of rugby league. Moving up here, to northern NSW, the friends we initially made were from the same background and so were AFL expats and I had no one with which to share not only the ups and downs of the mighty Broncos, but rugby league in general, and so I kept it all to myself, which was fine, but one needs an outlet when one is concerned with such a pastime as rugby league, no?
And so I have these two mates.
One is a rabid fan of a team. The other swears no allegiance, but is a student of the game itself. Both are devotees, both are lovers of this pastime, both are men of principle and both live and die each weekend by what happens on a 100×68 metre piece of turf, eight times over four days, and we back and forth, usually via text, on same.
Occasionally, I think it’s ridiculous that people of intellect could possibly follow this with such passion – watching 26 grown men, dressed the same, chasing a ball in order to score more points than the other team.
But then I realise the bigger picture, which encompasses why the three of us share such a bond – the game itself is a reason to belong, a familiar presence in lives that twist and turn like so much leaf litter on windy, autumnal days. It’s about allegiances and bitter rivalries, it’s about a sense of belonging within a likeminded tribe.
It’s about winning and losing, surviving and hanging on by one’s teeth in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity; it’s basic in its premise but iron-strong in its ability to appeal to the common man, not because of its seeming brutality but because of the relationships it manages to forge amongst the faithful. It’s sport, and we know it so well.
And so I have these two mates…