Mal Meninga. Gigantic, fast and a legend.

I love playing golf, and I love watching hockey (well, the Toronto Maple Leafs).  While this would be enough sports for most people, there’s one other sport that does it for me and that’s rugby league.  So how do I, your golf blogger and high functioning alcoholic, come to love a sport whose popularity is primarily centered around two areas (Australia and the north of England)?  Perhaps you follow me on Twitter and wonder why I’m clicking ‘favorite/like’ on some odd sport and occasionally retweeting highlights?

Blind luck and an eventual bad relationship.

Flash back to June of 1994 and I’ve been seeing someone for a year or so on a long-distance basis and we (as young people often do with bad results) agreed to move in together (we would part ways after a few years).  Specifically, she decided to pack up and move into my studio apartment in San Francisco.  She found out that I don’t have cable TV (I’ve never had cable TV at this point of my life), and she was rather insistent that we have it (without sounding old, this was when MTV showed actual music videos- The Real World was a cultural touchstone but otherwise it was mostly music videos).  Being the thoughtful person that I am, I called our local cable TV provider and schedule an installation on Friday since she was moving in on the next day (Saturday).

This will work out pretty well (I thought at the time), since this Friday in question was the start of the soccer World Cup and she mentioned liking soccer (her older sister had played for her high school and college teams) and was excited at seeing games since the US was the host country.

I took the day off from work, got a haircut early and was back in my apartment during the late morning appointment window.  They showed up on time, were done within 30 minutes, and I now had the wonder that was cable television.  Being someone who likes sports, I meandered towards the sports channels.  ESPN was showing the US Open (it would be Arnold Palmer’s last round at a US Open) with cutaways for soccer and the New York Rangers’ Stanley Cup parade.

Then I happened upon one of those lesser known sports channels and they were showing some weird sport I’d never seen before. It “looked” like rugby (I knew of it but hadn’t really watched much), but the playing field was laid out more like an NFL field with yardage lines and numbers.  There was a team wearing lime green shirts that said “MILK” in the front (and in the back)…okay, I thought, is that like a sponsor (I knew a lot of soccer teams had big sponsor logos in the front) or something?

The other thing was that after a player was tackled he’d get up, set the ball down and “play” it backwards to someone else while the team on defense would retreat what looked like 10 yards (found out later it was 10 meters).  The rugby I knew would have a bunch of people fighting over the ball.  This wasn’t like that.  Also you’d see a graphic pop up of “5th” tackle.  Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?  Didn’t know what this was.   Is this like 4th down in the NFL? Figured it out pretty quickly.

One last thing.  This team in lime green had an absolute mountain of a man on their team who could seemingly run through anyone or anything.  He wasn’t just big, he was fast.  And powerful.  His name?  Mal Meninga. He looked to be about 7’8″ tall and 350 pounds (nothing close but he looked it on TV).  He ran over people if not through them.  Later I’d learn he was a legend in the game and he’d be retiring after the season.  It was everything I loved about collision sports, without all the stoppages in play.  Simple rules and not overly complicated and played at a breathtaking pace I’d only seen in hockey.

I was hooked, but what was it?  This was before the internet had become as common as oxygen…so I had to look it up on the channel listings.  Something called “rugby league (listed as Australian Rugby League)…whatever that meant”.  It was a condensed highlights program from the games of a week prior (as I found out later).  The team in lime green were the Canberra Raiders.  They were playing a team called Eastern Suburbs or “Easts” in the score graphic. Wait, what?  I knew soccer teams had weird names, but here was an Australian sport with American style nicknames (there were teams named the Steelers, Bulldogs, Tigers to name a few).

The day this happened was June 17, 1994.  Unfortunately, June 17, 1994 took on a host of other meanings and history will show that it was the night that OJ Simpson went on his infamous Ford Bronco chase, causing the world (it seemed) to stop and watch.  And while everyone remembers the chase, I remember watching it unfold on CNN and also being excited because I had discovered this really cool sport.

The following Sunday, I drove down to the news-stand near my apartment, since they sold international newspapers (again- this was pre-Internet).  I found a copy of the Sydney Morning Herald, and immediately pulled out the sports section.  I’d find out that the Raiders had lost their most recent game to the Panthers. The Panthers! Damn you Panthers! We’ll get you next time.  I was hooked. Paid six dollars for the newspaper (I wasn’t always a genius).

It pushed me into rugby and eventually gave me the idea to play (I played several years for club teams in the Bay Area and DC; I wasn’t any good but it was fun playing a team sport again with some truly great lads).  I’m better for the experience and for learning something new.

If you like the NFL but can’t stand games taking 3 1/2 hours to play and only seeing about 14-15 minutes of action in a game, consider watching. No padding except for neoprene headgear that a few players wear, and it’s pretty much non-stop action.  13 players a side, 4 substitutes (not rolling subs- teams have a limit of how many changes they can make in a game).  Try (touchdown) worth 4 points, conversions or penalty goals worth 2 points, drop goal (i.e. field goal) worth 1 point. That’s it. A video review system that, while not perfect, is better than anything in use in North America.  A national announcer as polarizing as Joe Buck, Mike Emerick or Jim Hughson….why, yes!

Celebrities?  Russell Crowe owns one of the teams.  A Tina Turner song has turned into an anthem of sorts.  Take a listen:

This is 30 years old (made in 1990).

The national broadcaster recreated it for this year.  Stick to what works.

I still watch rugby league and still support the Canberra Raiders (followed last year’s Grand Final loss on twitter on a red-eye flight back from vacation…probably for the best that I couldn’t scream during the late game controversy). The NRL season normally runs March-early October (this year it’s getting extended due to COVID-19…like a lot of sports that had to shut down in March).  I know that right now there are those that think sports are dumb and unnecessary.  Maybe.

My hometown of Toronto now has a team in the England Super League (they’re still shut down due to COVID-19); they’re in their 4th year of existence and I’m hoping their games will be televised when they return.

But I still love it. And I’ll still get up in the middle of the night to watch games and get strange looks from people when I wear my Raiders jersey.  And it started on a flash-point day in American history because I got cable installed.