Illustration: Edd Aragon
THERE is a lot, perhaps sometimes too much, written about rugby league. But, some might argue, not enough good writing about the game.
This is not to ridicule the work of the excellent newsbreakers, analysts, profilists and other members of what emboldened bloggers now disdainfully refer to as ''the mainstream media''. General coverage of the NRL and State of Origin, particularly, is as good as that of any other code. Similarly, Andrew Webster's insightful biography of Jack Gibson is just one example of excellent long-form writing about league.
But, while the issues are dissected and the characters colourfully portrayed, there has been a void in chronicling the many images and emotions this robust game evokes. Particularly from the perspective of the game's most valuable stakeholders, the fans. This is a niche adroitly filled by the recently released Rugby League Almanac.
It is against Fairfax Media policy - and, quite possibly, against the law - to review any book favourably not written by my prolific colleague Peter FitzSimons. However, below the lofty summit on which Fitzy's works are perched, The Rugby League Almanac sits somewhere between highly recommended and must-read. At least for those whose appreciation of rugby league stretches beyond the odd appearance in a corporate box or occasional glance at the Sunday afternoon game after a day on the boat.
A warning for hardcore fans. The Rugby League Almanac is the younger cousin of the Aussie rules-based Footy Almanac, which is in its sixth edition under the co-editorship of author John Harms. However, given the NRL is attempting to embrace other AFL concepts such as lucrative television-rights deals, comfortable stadiums and big crowds, don't let this southern link jaundice your views.
As the title suggests, The Rugby League Almanac chronicles the events of the year. Thus, every game from this season is covered by a range of amateur, semi-professional and even quasi-celebrity authors; although not in the relatively dry manner of the daily press, which is restrained by fact, good taste and - notionally - sobriety.
The many writers are encouraged to imbue their words with personal experience, anecdotes and - in the case of the bile-encrusted entries about the Melbourne Storm - outright prejudice. Inevitably, the contributions are patchy. Some will appeal more to the writers' friends and family than a general audience. But all are heartfelt and some are gems.
''[Adam] Reynolds leapt to his feet and proudly thumped the Rabbitoh logo on his chest before being embraced by his teammates,'' writes Andrew Ryan, of Souths' victory over Parramatta. ''The crowd went beserk while Sandow was left splayed against the advertising hoarding wondering what could have been.''
The nostalgic tone of many entries is encapsulated by Glen Humphries's list of things he misses: ''Black and white cardboard corner posts; blokes smearing black goo under their eyes for night footy games; players sporting beards and moustaches; wingers wearing shoulder pads; guests on rugby league shows being given a tray of meat and a bottle of orange juice for coming on; goals kicked on mounds of sand; team running through crepe-paper banners … ''
Although, if that brings a sentimental tear to some eyes, Harms found the opinions and analysis of his contributors were more combative than in the AFL version. Appropriate for what remains, even in its elegant new commercial clothing, a hard-man's game in which failure is seldom tolerated.
I loved that Marty Spencer found a ''historic parallel'' with the video-refereeing disasters that beset the season. ''In 1999 Lockheed Martin was forced to blow up the Titan 4 Centaur rocket carrying the Milstar 2 satellite over Cape Canaveral after a software programming error of one decimal point caused it to malfunction, costing US taxpayers in excess of $1 billion.'' Much cheaper to sack the NRL panel.
The forewords include a contribution by Roy Masters, who, in celebrating Ben Barba's breakout season, quotes Jean-Paul Satre as comfortably as he might quote Tommy Raudonikis - only actions determine intentions. ''Barba might not know what he intends doing, until he does,'' Masters observes.
Radio host John Stanley, Harms, co-editor Nick Tedeschi and actor-author William McInnes also provide entertaining, insightful and - most importantly in this book - affectionate accounts. McInnes, a Queenslander, professes an unusual fondness for Nine's NSW bias, and even Gus Gould's pre-Origin soliloquies. ''He struts between the goalposts in his ill-fitting suits and with his mic shoved in front of his great, cunning, broken face.''
The type of image that remains long after the fuss and fury of the game has died down.
The Rugby League Almanac ($35) at footyalmanac.com.au and stores.
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