Whenever I hear of the latest rugby league off-season infamy, I realise I’ve led a sheltered life. Not only have I never known anyone who has done what, say, Jarryd Hayne is accused of doing on grand final night, I’ve never known anyone who has done what Hayne’s supporters defend him for doing (visiting a complete stranger in a faraway place, keeping the taxi running, out of the house a few innocent-filled fun minutes later). Name the summertime rogues’ gallery through the years — Mitchell Pearce, Ben Barba, Todd Carney, Matt Lodge, Ben Barba, Jack de Belin, Dylan Napa, Ben Barba — and I don’t know anyone who even knows anyone else who’s done some of that stuff. It’s all very eye-opening.
Then again, whenever I watch an NRL match, I also realise I’ve led a sheltered life. I’ve never known anyone who knows anyone who knows anyone who can do what a Hayne or a Barba did on a football field. I haven’t been in a house with a man like Lodge or Napa who could run through its walls. I can’t recall anyone in my life with a fraction of the natural skills of a Mitchell Pearce. In ability and physical courage, they inhabit a different world. League is the greatest game of all, in part because it confronts us mere mortals with what a sheltered life we’ve lived.
Rugby league is almost unique, as a traditionally working-class game with a substantially middle-class following, in providing a window between two worlds. It’s the most Hunger Games-like of our games, the exploitation of one socioeconomic class by another for its entertainment. These worlds don’t collide except when a rugby league player does something off the field that is judged by the standards not of the world he thinks he belongs to but the world that watches and remunerates him. Maybe those worlds are not meant to meet, which is why it sometimes takes an ambush with a long photographic lens to put the middle-class public eye up to that keyhole.
Put the story another way. Last October, I was fortunate enough to travel to Papua New Guinea with Australian representative rugby league teams led by Mal Meninga and Brad Donald. I say fortunate, because over some years of travelling with Australian sporting teams, I have never seen a group so well trained in politeness and humility and respect. It was easy to see why, among seasoned sportswriters, rugby league people have a reputation as the best people. Here was a group of men and women who stood up to offer their seats among other courtesies, were grateful for their opportunities, and had none of the airs, arrogance or (more irritating) confected gallantry that you see in representatives from some other professional codes. You had to salute the NRL, the clubs, the representative coaches and mentors, the entire apparatus, and the players themselves for their behaviour.