|Issue No 83||09 February 2001|
Jim Maher: The Politics of Wendell
So, big Wendell's jumped the fence, and the rugby worlds are buzzing with talk of the implications.
Anyone who watched the recent World Club Challenge between Brisbane and St Helens, when Sailor contrived to completely miss the tackle which led to Chris Joynt's score-equalling try, might have thought the bloke was already playing union. That, however, is hardly the issue.
Columnists and spokespersons from both sides of the increasingly blurred rugby border are putting their own spins on Sailor's voyage.
The simple fact is that union, for the first time in the best part of 100 years, is comprehensively out-gunning its competitor everywhere, with the exception, so far, of Papua New Guinea.
The reasons, however, are not those generally put forward by advocates of the 15-man strain. More than reflecting that game's inherent superiority, or some form of justice after decades of pillage, they have to do with propitious timeing and more than a little splashing about within league's teepee.
When Brisbane stockbroker/entrepreneur Paul "Porky" Morgan crossed over to the other side recently he was hailed by no less an authority on the matter than John Ribot as the architect of Super League.
While there might be some suspicion that Ribot grasped the occassion to engage in a spot of Pontius Pilateing if, in fact, his assessment was accurate then it should, in future, be said that league was "porkied".
What happened to Rugby League was a classic example of the fatal flaw in new-right philosophy - the view which holds that markets are sacrosanct, independent, self-regulating arbiters of the next step in economic Darwinism.
In fact, as multi-billionaire currency speculator George Souris points out, markets are prone to every prejudice, whim and cultural attachment of their players.
When Ribot, Morgan and co kicked off Super League they did so on the conviction that, having the superior product, league would retain and gain market share.
Their ideology precluded them from taking into account the glaringly, obvious human factor that everywhere the two games were played, with the possible exceptions of Queensland and NSW, union was the game of choice for the wealthy and well-connected.
This was a serious miscalculation.
Peter Fitzsimmons gloats over Sailor's passage in the SMH, arguing, understandably, that big-money league has been allowed its wicked way, snatching and sullying pure amateurs for far too long.
League, however, in its pre-Ribot incarnation was not a professional outfit in the modern, market-rules, understanding of the term. Its payments started from the premise of allowing ordinary people to compete in the face of a union establishment that effectively blocked those without independent means from progressing through its ranks.
Certainly, that changed through the 80's and 90's, but even when Ribot began to wreak his havoc most first graders still worked for their livings. League, in fact, was a peculiarly Australian form of professionalism, built on the back of poker machines in non-profit clubs. Restrictions, agreed between clubs, prevented market forces ratcheting player earnings unrecognisably above those of their fan base, whilst still allowing them to derive significant material benefits from their talents.
Union, on the other hand, far from a bastion of amateur purity, was riddled with under-counter payments and deceit.
That it chose to rectify this state of affairs at precisely the same time as league was "porkying" itself was, from its point of view, a most wonderful coincidence.
Through little more than accidents of history, Australian union went into the head-to-head commercial battle needing to sustain just three Super 12 teams, playing infrequently, in the build-up to an extended international programme, tailor-made for trans-national broadcasting.
Its opponent, on the other hand, is trying to sustain a 14-franchise competition, playing every single weekend from early February until late September on the way to an international series that nobody, least of all international television, gives a flying footy about. It is no wonder that News Ltd wants to prune the NRL premiership back to clubs still.
Worse still, Morgan, Ribot and their fellow-travellers deliberately and with malice of for-thought tore apart the bonds that tied clubs, players and fans together in a common culture.
Once, it was quite conceivable that men in Sailor's position, would have pursued their code because they were leaguies. No longer, each is now a businessmen, looking after number one - Ribot and his allies convinced them of that.
It is generally accepted that league, at the moment, produces the superior athlete and more scientifically analyses its game. That's why its technical coaches are being grabbed by union across the world, even in New Zealand where Warriors failure Mark Graham has been snapped up by Auckland's Super 12 franchise.
But so what?
More players of Sailor's status will make the journey to union because product superiority, even when tacitly admitted, does not neccessarily equate to market share.
For the long-term interests of their game Ribot and his cronies might have been better listening to JK Galbraith than Bobby Fulton but it's a bit late now - that particular ship has sailed.
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