FLASHBACK: January 1997

JANUARY 1997

Super League supremos boasted that their new ‘world order’ would see the likes of Allan ‘Alfie’ Langer and Gorden Tallis become household names across Asia.

Sounds fanciful, and at the time it was. It was just part of the ‘spin’ from the rebel organisation, whose cloak and dagger raid on the establishment ARL, meant there were would be two rugby league competitions in Australia in 1997 – Super League’s Telstra Cup, and the ARL’s Optus Cup.

Super League had a much wider geographical spread, with teams in Adelaide, Canberra, Perth, Brisbane, Auckland, Townsville and Newcastle and three in Sydney – Canterbury, Cronulla and Penrith. All of those clubs, with the exception of Adelaide and Newcastle’s Hunter Mariners, had been established under the auspices of the ARL, before the rebels hit.

In 1997, the ARL was left with teams on the Gold Coast; in Brisbane, Newcastle and Wollongong, and eight sides in league heartland, Sydney. The ARL probably could boast a bigger fan base, and certainly more traditional derbies. But Super League had more appeal to those who believed the game had to expand or die. It could no longer remain a ‘parish pump sport’. (Although, it has to be said, the Gaelic sports in Ireland continue to thrive).

Anyway, back to the ‘Alfie will be big in China’ promise.

Today it would not seem so ridiculous, especially as rugby union is so big in Japan. And I believe the Japanese would be more suited to league than union, given there are not many tall people in the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’.

The 1997 Super League season began with a World Nines in Townsville, and leading up to the tournament there was a meeting of Super League’s International Board. (The ARL was even isolated at international level, with only parts of Papua New Guinea and Fiji staying loyal).

I was sent to Townsville by ‘The Courier-Mail’ to cover the Nines, and the Board meeting, which was chaired by Maurice Lindsay from England. I reported that the most notable thing from the meeting was the introduction of a rule to help protect players who leap for the high ball, a rule that was already in force in rugby union.

Greg Pichard from the Australian, led his story on the fact that Australian Super League CEO, John Ribot would meet with the Japanese Finance Minister, with a view to starting an eight-team competition in Japan. The Board heard there were plans for a similar ‘self-funding’ competition in the United States.

I also reported on the plans for international expansion, but, from a readers’ point of view, I felt the rule change was the most noteworthy story, as they had heard it all before about how rugby league would be played in this new country, and that new country, without anything eventuating.

Former Australian skipper, Waly Lewis covered the board meeting in his role as sports reporter for Channel 7, and shook his head in dismay, as details of the proposed rule change were announced by referees’ director, Greg McCallum.

Wally believed the mid-air collisions were part and parcel of rugby league, and should remain. Like me, Wally probably has had a change of heart, given how high some of our players leap, and how unfair it is they can be taken out before they hit the ground. Super League, and rugby union, had it right in ruling there should be a contest for the ball, not an opportunity for some hit man to take out a rival.

On the ARL administrative front, it was foreshadowed that Toowoomba’s former Test centre, John ‘Cracker’ McDonald would succeed Ken Arthurson as national chairman, becoming the first Queenslander to hold the post, full time. Ron McAuliffe had been interim chairman in 1982, after the resignation of Kevin Humphreys, following corruption allegations.

Footnote: Leading up to the World Nines, I interviewed New Zealand halfback, Robbie Paul, the captain of Bradford Bulls in England, who had spent part of the off-season playing for Rugby Union Club, Harlequins. Paul’s long-term commitment was to rugby league, as Bradford had signed him to a three-year deal. Bradford coach, Australian, Matt Elliott, declined an offer from Harlequins to loan him a player, saying there was no-one in the London club who interested him.

Robbie Paul had got in hot water with League officials in 1996 when he said he preferred the 13-man game to union, because it was more ‘Neanderthal’ than rugby union, and there was “a Neanderthal in all of us.”

‘The Courier-Mail’ gave my interview with Robbie Paul plenty of space, but the sub-editor stuffed up the heading, which read:  – ‘Bradfield’s skipper loves the fury of battle.”

Wally Lewis in the middle of an Australian huddle
Allan Langer receives a best player award from Channel 9’s Darrell Eastlake

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