July 2019

The Nation Reviewed

Statement of origin

By Lech Blaine
Illustration
Indigenous rugby league players lead a silent revolt on the national anthem

If on a Wednesday night in winter you find yourself on a Brisbane street teeming with grown men wearing maroon wigs, you must be marching towards Suncorp Stadium, the spiritual home of Queensland rugby league, for a State of Origin game.

Crushed tins of XXXX Gold and Bundaberg Rum & Cola scrape underfoot on the exit from The Caxton Hotel car park. A generation ago, enraged and inebriated patrons used to throw brimming cans at the passing bus of the New South Wales team, a ritual that fell by the wayside due to stricter liquor licensing laws.

Now the primitives cock iPhones instead of hurling projectiles. They pant for breath and chant a three-­syllable war cry – QUEENSLANDER! – into the faces of both their allies and the enemies brave enough to wear sky-blue NSW jerseys.

Nothing better exemplifies the psyche of Queenslanders than the fact that they still have an inferiority complex despite winning 11 of the previous 13 State of Origin series, including eight in a row: the sporting equivalent of the mining boom.

And nothing unites the normally irreconcilable sections of society like sport does. But tonight imperils this unity. Usually nobody blinks an eyelid when players don’t sing the national anthem. At this game, however, black athletes have given their silence a motive, led by the example of Indigenous All Stars captain Cody Walker, a 29-year-old late bloomer on debut for the Blues.

“For we are young and free” is the lyric that many dissenters take particular exception with, given that Aboriginal Australians have the world’s oldest continuous culture, as well as now being the most incarcerated people on earth.

Those who say rugby league and politics shouldn’t mix are oblivious to history. The sport was started as a protest movement by working-class battlers in northern England sick of playing rugby pro bono for their aristocrat overlords in the south. Racially diverse athletes have always gravitated more naturally to the unfashionable code than to the more bourgeois activities of cricket and rugby union.

In 2019, a near majority of National Rugby League players have Indigenous or Polynesian heritage. Queensland has long embraced this multiculturalism. The first Indigenous person to lead a major national sporting side was Arthur Beetson, the beloved captain and later coach of Queensland. His beefy physique is immortalised with a bronze statue outside Suncorp Stadium, not far from a statue of his protégé, Mal Meninga, a proud South Sea Islander man who captained the Australian Kangaroos and coached Queensland during the record-breaking eight straight wins.

White Australia has a rich history of lauding Indigenous athletes, provided they don’t mention the invasion, ensuing genocide and continuing disparities. How will the crowd respond when confronted by a mild protest against the status quo?

The pre-game entertainment is performed by Briggs, the outspoken rapper, who wears a black jacket with an Aboriginal flag on the back. Former Queensland and Australian player Johnathan Thurston – whose skinny arms and legs will surely one day be immortalised in bronze – recites a welcome to country.

Then the opening chords of “Advance Australia Fair” blare into the tense cauldron. “Australians all let us rejoice…” Eleven players appear to remain tight-lipped during the anthem: six Indigenous, two New Zealand–born, and three more Australian-born with Polynesian ancestry. One of the silent Australians is Sydney-born Payne Haas, a 194-centimetre, 119-kilogram teenager who recently converted to Islam. His dad is of Swiss and Filipino descent. His mum has Samoan heritage.

It isn’t just the players. At least a quarter of the stadium isn’t singing. Patriots forget about vast swathes of a diverse nation who don’t intone the jingle for a range of reasons. Some in solidarity. Many with mixed heritage. Others due to indifference. Silence is a modest riposte to nationalism in the age of globalisation.

The game begins. Players collide with the force of car crashes and play through the pain of fractured bones. NSW takes an eight-point lead with a conservative game plan, and seems fated for a safe victory. The crowd savours underdog status, screaming obscenities at referees and baying for penalties. The state war cry is delivered much more vociferously than the national anthem.

QUEENSLANDER! QUEENSLANDER! QUEENSLANDER!

The Maroons return from the break and execute one of the second-half ambushes for which they are famous. The comeback is orchestrated by one of the muted superstars: Kalyn Ponga, born in Western Australia to a New Zealander mother and Maori father, throws a miracle ball for his left-winger to score.

The home side rides a crest of momentum. Dane Gagai, the Mackay-born son of a Torres Strait Islander man and Maori woman, intercepts a certain NSW try and sprints 90 metres to put Queensland ahead. Four minutes later, Ponga and Gagai combine for the match winner, proving that the boycott wasn’t a recipe for defeat.

Certain sources will partly attribute the Blues’ capitulation to the political preoccupations of their Indigenous players. “GIVE US A FAIR GO: Cody, don’t stay silent on anthem” reads Friday’s back page of The Daily Telegraph. “National anthem stance saps energy from NSW Blues” reads a headline on its website.

Not singing the anthem doesn’t make a difference when you win: Gagai is anointed the new king of Suncorp Stadium by an adoring crowd. “HOW GOOD IS QUEENSLAND!” reads the next day’s front page of The Courier-Mail, below a picture of his post-try celebration. After all the hoopla, it turns out that Indigenous athletes can draw attention to the crimes against their ancestors and the plight of their contemporaries while triumphing on rugby league’s greatest stage.

Lech Blaine

Lech Blaine is the author of Car Crash: A Memoir and the Quarterly Essay Top Blokes: The Larrikin Myth, Class and Power.

 

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