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Not soft: Modern rugby league players are as courageous as they ever were

Rugby league players consistently perform unbelievably athletic feats on the field. Whether that be fearlessly launching themselves at defensive lines or soaring through the air to score a try in the corner; stretching out an arm from what appears to be the first row of seats.

 

These moments are littered throughout the game and help create the spectacle that we all love so much. Yet acts of desperation and immense skill sometimes go wrong.

 

Severe injuries are common place. In the reaching out to score a try, shoulders can be seriously maimed, head injuries in desperate and low tackles are commonplace and the battering that some ‘crash’ forwards take is astonishing.

 

What is most significant about these acts is that the players are more than aware of the potential consequences. The sheer courage and commitment shown by players to ignore any sense of self-preservation for the benefit of the greater good is part of the folklore of rugby league. It is also something that should be celebrated and championed in the promotion of the game.

 

In the pub last Saturday an old bloke tried to tell me that the modern player is soft. I’ve heard it many times before; blokes in his day were hard, tough and, in short, more courageous. Sure there were more fights, yet in terms of courage in the contest, does the modern player stack up?

 

I think so.

 

League exists on a sense of team, the ideas of mateship and culture lay at the heart of the game and the modern version provides brilliant examples, both individually and collectively.

 

The legends of the past sacrificed for their respective teams and set the bar incredibly high. Modern players are living up to that bar in spades and many modern warriors will one day be talked about in the same sentences as the greats of the past.

 

The brilliance of Johnny Raper, the leadership of Norm Provan, examples of courage such as Keith Barnes, Arthur Summons and John Sattler are well documented. It is my loss that I was not around to witness the toughness, will and commitment that they all possessed.

 

Foxtel’s retro themed round got me thinking about some of the more selfless and courageous players I have seen through my time in the game.

 

My earliest memories of courage and complete and utter dedication to the cause come from the early days of the eighties watching Bulldog wild man Geoff Robinson launch himself both in attack and defence. Robinson certainly wasn’t in the same league as the greats above, yet as a young kid he was inspirational and captured something about the courage needed to play the ‘greatest game of all.’

 

Ron ‘Rambo’ Gibbs seemingly played with an insane level of intensity. His infamous horizontal charge down of kicks was brave, perhaps stupid at times, as he was often left prostrate, dazed and completely incoherent. Gibbs, again, was nowhere near the top of the charts when it came to skill yet the sheer sacrifice he made is one of the essential ingredients of the game.

 

The great Kiwi ball playing forward Mark Graham toiled bravely with a weak North Sydney team, playing on wounded legs by the end and his courage and sacrifice is still lauded by the Bears faithful.

 

A young Wayne Pearce played in a selfless manner that defied common sense. Ray Price famously passed on his number 13 Test jersey to the heir apparent in the sheds post game, seeing what the future of his position looked like.

 

These players along many others too numerous to mention here, are still spoken about with a reverence that exemplifies how much we value the whole notion of courage in the game. Some more contemporary moments have also exemplified that sense of courage.

 

Scott Sattler’s tackle in the 2003 grand final still makes a Panthers’ fan stick their chest out proudly. Sure, Todd Byrne struggled to run out of sight on a dark night compared to some wingers, yet the sheer desperation of Sattler’s effort summed up the game within ten seconds.

 

Origin has produced some outstanding moments when it comes to players displaying courage and sacrifice far above and beyond the call of duty. The no-name faceless Queenslanders’ in the 1995 series played with a courage that lifted them to achieve what no one thought possible.

 

A pasty white Ben Ikin and his infamous meeting with Coach Paul Vautin as he exited a lift, encapsulated how enormous the mountain was for the Maroons to scale. The passion of the ‘Queenslander’ chant from Billy Moore will live forever, as will the series, as evidence that the will to win will generally overcome the skill to win.

 

One of my heroes as a kid was Terry Lamb.

 

To me, he espoused what the game was meant to be about. He ran, chased, tackled and competed himself to a standstill, playing without the aid of knee cartilage towards the end.

 

The ’88 grand final was undoubtedly not Lamb’s proudest moment, yet all players have the odd incident or two of which they are not proud, that too, is part of our game.
The chance to be the sinner or the saint is another aspect of the rugby league narrative that romanticises the game. Mal Meninga’s whack on Lamb in 1994 seemed almost poetic in its execution, no justice for the Tigers yet perhaps a lesson for Lamb.

 

The current player is just as committed and courageous as those who have gone before and their selflessness is on show each week. The much maligned Paul Gallen has never had his courage questioned, nor Greg Bird and Luke Lewis. Gallen’s penchant for standing at first receiver and stifling the New South Wales attack has been questioned, but never his courage.

 

Billy Slater and Matthew Bowen, both small men, played in the crucial number one and threw their bodies at contest after contest. Johnathan Thurston continues to show the recklessness and single-mindedness needed in order to rise to the top of the game.

 

Slater’s recent seasons of injury seem to present the logical outcome for the modern footballer who plays in such a selfless manner. Beau Scott plays with total aggression and Wayne Bennett’s insistence on signing the backrower across two clubs speaks volumes about his value.

 

The courage of three of Queensland’s best of recent times, the ageless Petero Civoniceva, Steven Price and Matthew Scott, inspired and educated the next generation and are already revered in the game.

 

The examples are abundant and I would love to hear your favourites.

 

I hope we continue to celebrate the courage in our game. When we see tripping or grappling our natural league antennae extend and the wrongness of it is clear. It would be a shame if we allowed that side of the game to convince us that the modern gladiators lack the essential courage and sacrifice that our past greats possessed. Let’s not negatively compare eras, that is always fraught with danger. Let’s celebrate the modern game for what it is, imperfect yet full of courage.

 

Bono Vox, lead singer of U2, once wrote, ‘we glorify the past when the future dries up.’ I, for one, hope we never become content with looking back and seeing the greats as something that we will never see again.

 

This is a great game, and those that play it will always be courageous.

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