Though probably it remains the premier winter spectator sport in New South Wales and Queensland, on several measures rugby league has been in retreat. Player numbers are well down on earlier times and indeed the sport has died completely in many country towns. Viewers of matches on television have fallen by as much as 6 per cent by some reports and at least in New South Wales attendance at matches now fall below numbers seen a decade ago.
That written, games between players whose careers began in Queensland against those who started out in New South Wales – the series of matches known as the State of Origin – still sell out Australia’s largest stadia and their television coverage goes to scores of nations around the world. The most significant match of the year, however, the jewel in the crown of the sport remains the National Rugby League grand final, these days played on a Sunday night in early October.
In his fine book, Liam Hauser points out that the grand final of this sport has not always existed. Before 1954, if the side which topped the results ladder at the end of the normal series of matches went on to win the first “final” at the end of the year, the competition was completed. If that side was defeated in the final the club had the right to challenge for a rematch, a “grand” final. In 1954, for the first time, the grand final was scheduled whatever the preceding results had been.
Mr Hauser has written four brief, informative essays about the decades before the grand final became a guaranteed fixture. He then describes each of the subsequent matches in its own concise chapter. He tries to catch the ebb and flow of the games, describing the achieving of each of the tries and the major talking points surrounding each game. His writing is clear and direct and he does a very good job of catching the colour of the individual games. He doesn’t shirk from acknowledging issues which, to-day, would seem controversial though he does use a degree of tact in these matters which others may not have employed.
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Writing of the vicious methods of the St George team in the concluding match of 1958, for example, he writes of the “rough antics” of the Dragons’ side; a less generous critic might have written “For another year the St George players decided to bash an opposing side out of the match, and again were successful in their intention.” He writes of the performance of the referee, Darcy Lawler in the infamous grand final of 1963, revealing that some rumours existed that Lawler had placed a bet on a St George victory and then lets the description of two extraordinary decisions which favoured The Saints and the match statistics – penalties 18-7 in favour the notoriously ruthless Dragons – speak for themselves.
The chapter on each match finishes with a publication of scoring details and a recording of the names of all players who took the field. Additional delights are the two sets of photographs, most of which I hadn’t previously seen, taken in a series of the great days; Bob Hawke is depicted besmirching his immaculate suit by embracing two victorious, muddied warriors; my favourite is one of Ken “Killer” Kearny giving a wide-mouthed smile of triumph having neglected to insert his false teeth.
I imagine that many a Dad and Grandpa will unwrap a copy of this publication on fathers’ day and then spend a delightful few hours reading of half-forgotten matches and players of days gone by; those who have come to a love of the game more lately will find it a good record of significant changes over the years : the taking up of limited tackle football, the first grand final played on Sunday, the first grand final played at night, for example.
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The publisher, New Holland, is building up a significant series of books on the sport of rugby league; the very enjoyable reminiscences of broadcaster Andrew Voss, Stuff You May Have Missed appeared on the shelves of bookshops at the end of June.
The Great Grand Finals – Rugby League’s Greatest Contests by Liam Hauser, is available from Dymocks