Jake Friend of the Roosters, and his well-decorated arms. Photo: Getty Images
Rugby league is not played everywhere, you know. There are places where they have curling and wife-carrying and caber-tossing and they would regard what happens in a typical league game as lacking the skill and elegance of their own sport.
When you see some big bruiser carrying the ball up the middle for a furious five metres before he is stopped by three similarly chiselled musclemen, with the process repeated another five times before the opposing team gets the chance to do the same thing a further six times, you would find it hard to be critical of wife-carrying or dwarf-throwing.
I was asked by an overseas publication to write an article describing some of the features of rugby league and explaining why the State of Origin is so important that it could displace a world war from the front pages of Sydney or Brisbane newspapers if any such conflict would be so brazen as to start while the series was being played. "Include some photographs," the editor said, probably an oblique reference to my long-windedness.
Josh Dugan and Sandor Earl tattoos
Raiders stars Sandor Earl and Josh Dugan. Photo: Colleen Petch
I duly wrote 1000 words on rugby league, knowing that he would cut them back to 800, probably using the principal method followed by editors: cut from the end. I tried to emphasise the skills and finesse of the game, not an easy task by any means. I mentioned Laurie Daley and Benji Marshall and Ben Barba and sought out suitable photographs in the fond hope the editor would pay for them.
The article was well-crafted and elegant, if I say so myself - because the editor did not - but the problem arose with the photographs. It seemed that, purely by accident, each one featured players with a full complement of tattoos: arms, hands, face, neck, thighs - and one of Jared Waerea- Hargreaves that showed his well-decorated upper torso. But even without that, there were enough of Josh Dugan, Todd Carney, Sandor Earl and Jake Friend to persuade the editor there is some requirement rugby league players must be liberally tattooed.
He did a Google search and found the practice was even more widespread than appeared from the photographs I happened to select. Moreover, it seemed two clubs in particular - the Roosters and the Raiders - were particularly infested with the things.
Having worked out the geographical location of each of these teams, he then drew the conclusion that there was some correlation between the prosperity of a place and the prevalence of these decorations.
It was a long bow, but editors are notorious for adding two and two to get five, so he rewrote my article to give the impression that Australia was thoroughly infected with the tattoo craze. Why, even upper class, well-educated areas of the country such as Canberra and the eastern suburbs of Sydney went out every weekend to support big bruisers with these adornments.
Then he took a particular example - Todd Carney's ''life's to short'' (sic) to scoff at our educational standards, pointing out that most athletes in his country were college graduates and were fully aware of their responsibility to represent their education in the best light. It was a thorough hatchet job on Australia, culminating in a quote from the Prime Minister's injunction that the ABC should support the home team and implying that he really meant what he said.
I would have had a chuckle at the whole thing, except that the article appeared over my byline. Nobody would have noticed, were it not for a backpacker from Brisbane who took exception to the way that there was no mention of the Broncos, apparently a mortal sin north of the Tweed. He sent a few copies of the article back to Australia - it did not appear on the net - and all hell broke loose.
At latest count, 30 solicitors and a dozen barristers are employed full-time preparing briefs for libel. The NRL, the Raiders, Roosters and Broncos are all suing, the last named because they were not mentioned. So are a number of tattooing franchises, including one parlour in Sydney that claims it has copyright to a particular tattoo.
A number of university law schools are studying the case, considering whether they should offer a course in defending the rights of the tattooed classes. Christopher Pyne is to present a paper to federal cabinet about including tattoo appreciation in the school curriculum. There is talk of using the tattoo industry as a way of employing sacked workers from canneries and car plants.
All well and good, but surely it would be more profitable to train people in tattoo removal, a guaranteed growth industry any year now.
Frank O'Shea is a Melbourne writer