August 2020


The art of class war

By Lech Blaine
Image of Sydney Roosters versus St George Illawarra Dragons, 2020

© Dan Himbrechts / AAP Images 39

How decades after Murdoch and Packer destroyed the popular appeal of a game created for the masses, Peter V’landys is putting rugby league back on top

Peter V’landys is a man with a plan to make Australia sane again. His straightforward vaccine for the financial stress and social isolation of COVID-19? The Greatest Game of All: rugby league, which, with his unapologetically bogan persona, he pronounces rugba league, a sure-fire source of amusement for smug southerners.

“An Australia without rugba league is not Australia,” declared V’landys at a press conference on March 14. 

V’landys is the freshly crowned chairman of the sport’s governing body, the Australian Rugby League Commission, as well as the long-serving chief executive of Racing New South Wales. He has a twang more associated with tradies, the legacy of a working-class upbringing in Wollongong with migrant parents from the Greek island of Kythera, where his grandfather rode a donkey for a living. In Australia, his parents worked 12-hour shifts and personally skipped meals to put food on the table for three kids.

As a tribute to his blue-collar roots, V’landys dresses like a suburban justice of the peace who’s stumbled into the Supreme Court, with scuffed shoes, boot-cut trousers and untucked shirts – a subtle fuck you to the Establishment he keeps running rings around. 

“The concern I have,” says the league chairman, “is more people are being affected by mental illness than by the coronavirus.”

This isn’t V’landys’s first rodeo, or, indeed, his first public-relations campaign triggered by a plague. In the dying months of John Howard’s political supremacy, the little-known racing executive sought to rescue the industry from equine influenza by seeking a $110 million bailout – he got $235 million. His style of megaphone negotiation also clinched another $42 million sweetener for Racing NSW when the Catholic Church, led by then Archbishop of Sydney George Pell, wanted to use Randwick Racecourse for Pope Benedict’s visit on World Youth Day in 2008. 

“Mr Pell is a bully,” V’landys said at the time. “He’s refused any meeting with us because he realises he’s not in a position of strength, because he’s forcing his strength on someone who doesn’t want to comply.”

The wins kept coming. With Racing NSW he took gambling companies to the High Court and received an estimated billion-dollar dividend over a decade, then used the influx of money to launch an all-out war on Victoria, the superpower of Australian racing. Long story short, V’landys masterminded the richest turf horserace in the world – The Everest – to occur on the same day as Melbourne’s Caulfield Cup.

Victoria was home to “the most dreary city on Earth with the worst weather”, he complained to The Daily Telegraph, “yet NSW bows and scrapes to it all the time.”

Not anymore. The inaugural $10 million Everest race in 2017 was a smash hit, attracting 33,000 fans and more than $50 million in gambling revenue. To coronate his success, V’landys attempted to use the Sydney Opera House as a billboard to launch the second year. A public outcry was led by Nine newspaper columnist and popular historian Peter FitzSimons, prompting a petition signed by 300,000. 

FitzSimons grew up on an orange orchard before boarding at Sydney’s prestigious Knox Grammar. Sitting on the lounge in his North Sydney home, with panoramic views of the dusk-lit harbour, he’s apoplectic.

“To put fucking betting ads on it?” he says, of V’landys’s plan to project promotions onto the Opera House. “That is a desecration of a work of art!”

According to V’landys, the saturation negativity from Sydney’s loud “elites” provided $25 million of free PR for The Everest, leading to a record crowd in 2018 of 40,578, with betting revenue exceeding $100 million. He declared that the Melbourne Cup – held on the first Tuesday of November for 150 years – should be rescheduled to accommodate Racing NSW. Victoria’s racing boss Amanda Elliott, a Melburnian from old money, called V’landys “a silly little man with silly little plans”. 

V’landys tells me that the success of The Everest didn’t eradicate classist assumptions about his competence as a sporting official.

“No matter what results you get,” he says, “they still underestimate ya. ’Cause you’re not a private-school kid – you’re this little migrant kid from Wollongong.”

Rugby league’s patron saint of class warfare is respected journalist Roy Masters, the former high-school teacher who became the Shakespeare-quoting coach of Western Suburbs Magpies in 1978. He dubbed his team the “Fibros” – the material used to build the council houses he passed on the way to training from Penrith – while nicknaming rival North Shore glamour team Manly Warringah Sea Eagles the “Silvertails”.

“I want you to show two million people out there that rugby league was born in the western suburbs, not on the beaches,” said Masters in a profane pre-game motivational speech recounted in a 1978 Fairfax profile.

Even though most of the Sea Eagles players were themselves working-class fibros, the rivalry worked because most Magpies players lacked the amenities provided by intergenerational wealth. Masters’ approach sparked a series of violent encounters between the sides, resuscitating the underdog Magpies into temporary contenders who won the minor premiership in his first season as coach. Today, the game he loves is once again being run by someone who grew up in a fibro home. 

“V’landys is instinctively rugby league,” Masters tells me. “We’ve reverted back to a street fighter from the wrong side of the tracks.”

Peter V’landys’s capacity to ruffle the feathers of aristocrats made him the dream candidate to run a game historian Andrew Moore called the “Opera of the Proletariat”. 

For decades, rugby league had been led by diplomats with sophisticated wardrobes and vocabularies, who were eaten alive by Sydney’s shark tank of tabloid journalists and shock jocks. V’landys’s appointment was a moment of self-determination for a working-class sport: their new leader was a true believer in egalitarianism.

“The beauty of me is I’ve come through the public-school system,” V’landys says. “I don’t see a difference between the prime minister and the local council worker.”

Powerbrokers of the National Rugby League (the NRL, the flagship competition administered by the ARL Commission) hoped that their pugnacious peacekeeper, after reunifying the divided People’s Republic of Rugby League, would repel a well-resourced onslaught into the rugby-league states of NSW and Queensland by the Australian Football League (AFL), the undisputed superpower of Australian sport. 

According to Nine journalist Andrew Webster, AFL club Greater Western Sydney Giants’ chairman and Racing NSW board member Tony Shepherd warned AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan not to underestimate V’landys, the stocky steelworker’s son. 

“He’s the best administrator in Australia,” Shepherd told Webster. “The AFL will be worried about this appointment.”

V’landys, a man who once compared himself to Napoleon Bonaparte, doesn’t shy away from militaristic rhetoric. “If you don’t spill blood for your organisation,” he tells me, “you’re not doing your job … So I’ll do whatever I have to for rugba league to succeed. That’s the Wollongong boy coming out in me.”

March 14, 2020: Australia is suffering from a collective panic attack, but V’landys doesn’t stutter. The emergencies that normal people dread are his bread and butter. 

“Everyone’s panicking,” he says of the pandemic. “The best way to handle these things is to stay measured, stay calm – y’know – to live your life as normal.”

V’landys guarantees NRL games will continue to be played – in closed stadiums without crowds – until explicitly forbidden to do so by the government. He must anticipate derision from the usual suspects – Victorians, Peter FitzSimons – but he isn’t here to make friends, just influence people.

The NRL is bucking a pattern of administrative self-immolation. V’landys has spent years preparing for the challenge of running a sporting empire during COVID-19. He jokes he will start by asking the prime minister for $500 million. Given his record on that front, nobody is laughing. He demands a stimulus package commensurate with the antidepressant value that televised football has for its working-class fans.

“Rugba league has been a fabric of our society for hundreds of years,” he says. “It is people’s escape. It is people’s relaxation.”

After the press conference, V’landys is accused of hyperbole for treating sport with life-or-death importance during a pandemic, but none of his key constituents within the league community doubt their leader’s sincerity.

Phil “Gus” Gould – a personal confidant to V’landys – captained the Penrith Panthers at the age of 20, coached the Bulldogs to a premiership at the age of 30, and the Panthers to their first premiership at the age of 33. He remembers seeing fans in Panthers jerseys wandering around the streets of western Sydney like zombies during preseason. 

“They’re lost, because the football’s not on,” Gould tells me. “It holds their families together. People don’t understand that … Their life begins in the second week of March, and it ends in October.”

Gould fuses the expertise of a former player and coach with the communication skills of a commentator and the influence of a kingmaker. He accuses V’landys’s screeching detractors of lacking empathy for the unobtrusive blue-collar battlers whose lives revolve around the consumption of NRL. 

“People think rugby league just appears under lights at 7.30 on a Friday night,” he says. “They’ve got no idea where it came from, or how it got there. And they don’t care about what they don’t know.”

To understand rugby league requires a history lesson. In the 1890s, British rugby union was seen as a character-building exercise for Anglo-Saxon aristocrats before they became doctors and stockbrokers. Money would sully that moral purity, so bosses refused to pay athletes, or compensate them for injuries, despite roaring profits.

Fuelled by a deep hatred of the London aristocracy, northern English battlers claimed independence from 15-man rugby union in 1895, and started the 13-man code of rugby league, where teams operated as local sporting franchises of the global labour movement. The result was a new game in which, as British rugby historian Tony Collins described, “the advantages of birth, education and title conferred no benefit”.

In 1908, the sporting mutiny spread from England through the rough, inner-city suburbs of Sydney, such as Redfern and Bondi Junction, capturing Irish-Catholic battlers sick of exploitation by a protestant Establishment segregated on the north and east shores, before spreading to Brisbane, Newcastle and Wollongong. 

The bitter split between league and union intensified after the outbreak of World War One. The British loyalists running rugby union suspended games until the end of the war, but the Irish nationalists running rugby league kept the show going as a way to boost the morale of spectators. Treason was added to the proliferating list of league’s sins, and it was around the same time their players were nicknamed “mungos”, short for mongrels. 

“Rugby league was the bastard child that got away from rugby union,” says Peter Beattie, the former Labor premier of Queensland, and V’landys’s predecessor as chairman of the ARL Commission. “It really fitted within that whole Ned Kelly psychology of rebellion.”

Peter FitzSimons, a former Australian Wallabies rugby union player, was coached by Tony Abbott at Sydney University and Alan Jones at Manly Rugby Union Club. He mourns the loss of “the romance, the chivalry, the poetry” when union finally went professional in 1995.

“Traditionally, rugby union was for the masses to run around,” he says, “not to make money. The whole raison d’être of rugby league was … making money out of playing football.” 

Motivated by feeding their families, the blue-collar league revolutionaries also simplified union’s rules about rucks and scrums, to encourage a more eye-catching and therefore popular and profitable spectacle. While a try scored in the rival codes appears identical to the untrained eye, FitzSimons insists there is something inherently more pleasurable about the climax of a union game. He delivers the commentary from a famous play by Wallabies legend David Campese. 

“I likened it in one of my columns to orgasm,” he adds with sincerity, before miming a man at the moment of ejaculation and howling with pleasure. “Ahh … Ahh … Aaaaahhhh! Got it! It’s loooong … Rugby league, he just bursts through and scores.”

Sydney’s early 20th-century bourgeois media predicted a quick death for the more down-to-earth rebel code. Yet league was a stunning success, largely because there were far more Peters in Sin City of the V’landys rather than FitzSimons variety. 

In cutting loose from the upper classes, rugby league presented fewer barriers to allcomers, such as Indigenous athletes, whereas rugby union never grew significantly enough outside of the elite private school systems of Sydney and Brisbane. 

“Rugby league was a game founded on the principal of equality,” historian Tony Collins explained. “The emphasis on merit meant that racial barriers did not carry the same weight in the game as they did in other more socially conservative sports.”

According to ARL Commission member Megan Davis – a proud Cobble Cobble woman from regional Queensland – rugby league’s relative lack of discrimination was created by class solidarity between black and white players. Davis is the Balnaves Chair in Constitutional Law and pro vice-chancellor at University of NSW, and has researched the unsung history of Aboriginal men from Queensland missions and reserves receiving special permission to play rugby league on weekends.

“The connection to rugby league within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is visceral,” she tells me. “League offered hope and freedom for so many blackfullas during the most draconian periods of racial segregation.”

Rugby league’s most celebrated forward is Queenslander Arthur Beetson, whose mother was a member of the Stolen Generations. In 1973, Beetson made history by becoming the first Aboriginal captain of a national sporting side. 

“Rugby league has played a massive role within Aboriginal communities,” says Johnathan Thurston, who cites Beetson as a big inspiration for league’s present-day melting pot of cultures. “The game has given me so much.” 

Thurston is the pin-up boy for league’s commitment to rehabilitating players with behavioural issues. The son of an Aboriginal mother and Kiwi father, he was raised in Sunnybank, a low-socioeconomic area on the fringe of Brisbane. During adolescence, “JT” overcame flirtations with substance abuse and petty crime to chase the dream of a sporting career, which most scouts believed was destined for failure.

He learnt more about his Aboriginal ancestry via the NRL’s Indigenous All Stars games, which he tells me was “the missing jigsaw piece” of a newfound wisdom. Post-retirement, he started the JT Academy, a platform to promote school attendance and employment opportunities within underprivileged communities. 

“I’ve been where these kids are,” he tells me.

In 2015, JT won his fourth Dally M Medal for best NRL player of the season before captaining Townsville’s North Queensland Cowboys to their first premiership, and winning the Clive Churchill Medal for man of the match. He was photographed in an iconic post-game hug with his daughter while she gripped a dark-skinned doll, at the same time that the AFL was grappling with the booing of Adam Goodes. In 2020, the Cowboys unveiled a statue of Thurston at their new stadium. He still can’t fathom the difference between the treatment he and Goodes received from their respective sports.

“I’m speechless when I try to think of why,” he says. “I guess rugby league is a working-class game. Nobody is better than anyone else.”

By 2018 – Thurston’s final season – 12 per cent of NRL players identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, compared to 3.3 per cent of the 2016 national census. Players with Pacific Islander ancestry made up 45 per cent of NRL squads, while comprising 0.88 per cent of the population. Anglo players are now within the minority.

“Rugby league has a long history of leading Australia when it comes to bringing the rights and voices of marginalised groups to the forefront of sport,” Davis says.

She laments that the game’s radical history of embracing Indigenous players and supporters is underappreciated by a southern media that paints Aussie Rules as Australia’s native sport and rugby league as a cultural backwater. “Blackfullas have been a very visible feature of rugby league’s architecture since it arrived here,” Davis tells me. “It’s an extraordinary part of the Australian story that doesn’t get much recognition, because everyone’s too busy running the NRL down.”

Notwithstanding regular allegations of copyright infringement and moral inferiority, “mungoball” became the dominant winter code in Australia’s north. Working-class roots meant it nonetheless lacked the institutional power enjoyed by cross-class Aussie Rules in the south, where teams always belonged equally to trade unionists and Tories. 

League’s lack of access to Establishment money was assuaged by digital disruption: first poker machines, then pay TV. The NSW pokies revolution of 1956 provided a financial moat for working-class castles, securing the sovereignty of clubs, but it handcuffed them to a business model that subsidised economic recklessness and the outright corruption of some officials. 

One man at the centre of rugby league’s twin financial revolutions was John Quayle. Circa 1968, he relocated from the bush to play for the Eastern Suburbs Roosters, getting a job at their flourishing leagues club. Quayle’s first coach in Sydney was Jack Gibson, a 188-centimetre former prop forward and former standover man for gangsters. The apprentice drove his master to illegal gambling dens across Kings Cross. 

“One week he’d have a Cadillac,” says Quayle, “and the next week he would have an FJ Holden.” 

Two high-rollers within those open-secret casinos were Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch. Decades before launching war on each other for rugby league’s pay-TV rights, Packer and Murdoch practised poker faces over high-stakes games of blackjack and baccarat. 

Packer’s kinship with rugby league wasn’t destiny. His grandfather, Herbert, was a Scottish rugby union player, and Kerry's education featured an ill-fated stint at Geelong Grammar. But when chain-smoking Packer once returned fat from a trip to America, Easts Leagues Club employee Quayle – soon playing league for Australia – was appointed his personal trainer, taking him for sprints in Centennial Park.

“I took Packer to his first Souths game at Redfern Oval,” says Quayle. “He arrived at Redfern in a tracksuit and a terry towelling hat. We had a pie, and he loved it.” 

At the home ground of the South Sydney Rabbitohs, even Kerry Packer was expected to assimilate with the working-class fans, including a sizeable proportion of migrant and First Nations supporters. In that same melting pot was Nick Pappas, the son of Greek World War Two refugees, and the chairman of the club today. He describes his first game at Redfern Oval as “a religious experience”. 

“You’d see every type of person,” Pappas says, “from the destitute to the privileged. The club embraced anyone … It felt like the safest place in the world.”

Rugby league has a matching capacity to inflame infatuation and betrayal. Packer’s first love was the Rabbitohs, but it wasn’t long before he bankrolled their sworn enemy the Roosters to lure superstar Ron Coote from Redfern Oval. In 1974 and 1975, the Roosters won back-to-back premierships under Jack Gibson’s phlegmatic coaching and the charismatic captaincy of Arthur Beetson.

The Beetson-led reign of the Roosters attracted the attention of a Greek-born Australian named Nick Politis. In 1976, the Sydney car-dealership tycoon became the sport’s first jersey sponsor. He is now the longest-serving chairman of the Roosters, having taken over the club in 1993. Whereas Pappas is a rugby league romantic, Politis is a pragmatist.

“I wasn’t into the sport,” he tells me. “I did it for commercial reasons … Easts were the glamour team. They were the talk of the town. So I went and got the name City Ford – my brand – on their jumper.”

Like Peter V’landys, Politis was born on the Greek island of Kythera. Along with Pappas, the trio of Greek Australians are now three of the most powerful people in Australian rugby league. Politis was instrumental in V’landys’s appointment as ARL Commission chairman, though V’landys denies he is a stooge for anyone. He says he owes a debt to the game. 

As a “little wog” in Wollongong, V’landys suffered horrific racial abuse from playground bullies. “So I started playing rugba league,” he tells me. “The more I played, the more friends I got, and I became an Aussie, basically.”

The competing egos and media empires of Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch are at the heart of Australian rugby league’s past and future. Packer’s reference got his former training partner and friend John Quayle the job of chief executive of the NSWRL competition, following a 1983 royal commission into the corruption of NSW league officials. It might be difficult to imagine today, but league was once the geopolitical equal of Aussie Rules, which was partly thanks to Quayle.

“When I started there were six clubs broke,” Quayle says. “So was the league. We had to borrow $6000 to keep the office running.”

Quayle incorporated the board, before expanding the NSWRL competition to Newcastle, Gold Coast and Brisbane in 1988, triggering a golden era. A hit TV campaign featuring Tina Turner helped attract women to the game. League had become the highest-rating Australian sport, with State of Origin matches – contested by the NSW Blues and Queensland Maroons – providing three of the most-watched TV programs each year since an inauspicious beginning in 1980.

“It’s a war-like game,” says Roy Masters. “You’ve got two lines: one of attack, one of defence. There can’t be another game in the world that’s more suited for TV. Whereas Aussie Rules just isn’t.”

The year after the Brisbane Broncos’ 1992 premiership victory – their first of five in a decade – the privately owned club was attracting an average crowd of 43,000. But the dominance of one-town teams such as the Broncos and the Canberra Raiders – which won three premierships in five years – created a two-speed economy within league. In 1993, foundation clubs the Roosters, Rabbitohs, Magpies and Tigers finished eighth, 13th, 14th and 15th, attracting average crowds of under 9000. 

Since the 1970s, administrators had floated the prospect of mergers and relocations to consolidate fan-bases, but the farthest that any Sydney club had moved was 40 kilometres. The Rugby League Digest podcast records the period extensively, including an audacious provocation from Broncos chief executive John Ribot, a former Magpies player.

“Aren’t you blokes interested in finance?” asked Ribot, after proposing grand finals be played at night in Brisbane rather than on the traditional Sunday afternoon in Sydney. He was laughed out of the boardroom, before nearly getting in a punch-up with Quayle. 

The stoush added to a growing list of grievances, including Quayle’s introduction of a salary cap and his proposed addition of a second Brisbane team called the South Queensland Crushers. The latter move was interpreted by the Broncos as a tax on their success by a Sydney Establishment in the pocket of Kerry Packer. The chairman of the pre-Commission ARL, Ken Arthurson, dared the Broncos to start their own competition. 

Enter Rupert Murdoch, educated at Geelong Grammar and Oxford University. He became a major sponsor of the Broncos in 1994 after meeting their owner at a cocktail party. That year, a pay-TV consortium comprising Murdoch, Packer and Telstra disintegrated, after which Packer joined forces with Optus and Kerry Stokes to create a rival to Murdoch’s Foxtel cable service. The enemy camps engaged in an arms race to lay cables along the same streets. 

“Everyone knew,” says Quayle, “the pay-TV product that was going to sell the most subscriptions was rugby league.”

Packer and Murdoch were back at the blackjack table, and Packer had an ace up his sleeve: he owned the pay-TV rights to rugby league. After Packer had received the gift horse of his old Nine Network from a bankrupt Alan Bond, Quayle sold Packer the pay-TV rights for $1 million. Packer traded these rights in return for a significant chunk of the cable-TV network Optus Vision. Optus’s new chief executive was ex-ad man and future eco-warrior Geoff Cousins.

“You sell pay-TV door to door,” Cousins says. “It’s a long, cold winter if you’re knocking on somebody’s door without sporting rights.”

In 1995, rugby league’s top competition was to be renamed the Australian Rugby League, with Quayle its chief executive. Franchises were added in Auckland, Perth, Brisbane and Townsville. Expansion to Melbourne and Adelaide seemed inevitable. 

According to Masters’ book, Inside Out, Murdoch sent News Corp chief executive Ken Cowley to strike a peace agreement over pay TV with Packer in late 1994. The belligerent mogul peppered Cowley with f-bombs and legal threats.

“I will paper the walls of your office with writs!” Packer roared. “Life has become boring. This is the fight I’ve been needing for some time.”

Murdoch responded with a gargantuan power move. He dispatched his eldest son, Lachlan – fresh from a thesis at Princeton titled “A Study of Freedom and Morality in Kant’s Practical Philosophy” – on a vulture capitalist’s gap year to create a breakaway competition called Super League, including poached clubs and players from the ARL, thereby forcing Packer back to the negotiating table. Packer’s TV rights would be as good as worthless without the game’s biggest names.

The utopian blueprint for Murdoch’s Super League was a 12-team competition with franchises in Townsville, Brisbane, Newcastle, Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Auckland. That left four licences to be divvied up between 11 existing Sydney ARL clubs. Sworn enemies such as the Roosters and Rabbitohs would be pushed into shotgun mergers. 

On paper, rationalisation made financial sense. Eleven struggling Sydney clubs would be replaced by four equals of the all-conquering Brisbane Broncos. In reality, Super League was more like a billionaire trying to buy a bunch of mosques and synagogues, before merging them together overnight to create a new uber-religion. 

“The rationale that they gave for doing it was: we want to take rugby league to Asia!” says Geoff Cousins. “It was complete rubbish. They simply wanted to grab hold of these television rights by stealth.”

On April Fool’s Day, 1995, the front pages of News Corp papers prematurely declared victory over Packer and the ARL, after Lachlan Murdoch caught a Learjet to poach the coach and players of the Cronulla Sharks. The Sharks were joined by the Canterbury Bulldogs, Penrith Panthers, Canberra Raiders, North Queensland Cowboys, Auckland Warriors, Perth Reds and Murdoch co-conspirators the Brisbane Broncos, whose chief executive John Ribot became the public face of the new Super League competition.

After the defection of the Sharks, the ARL regrouped with shell-shocked officials from Optus and Nine. Geoff Cousins provided the ARL with $20 million to fund a fightback. Kerry Packer’s son James went head-to-head with rival heir Lachlan Murdoch, taking the reins of a battle that his father was pessimistic about winning. 

“This was a Civil War fought not with guns but with $100 notes as bullets,” wrote western Sydney wunderkind Brad “Freddy” Fittler in his autobiography. The son of a single mum and star for the Panthers, Fittler went from earning $160,000 a year to inking a new five-year ARL contract worth $600,000 per annum with a $300,000 bonus. Silvertail James Packer threw in a $20,000 cheque to fund a month-long bender. 

Ultimately, the battle for the soul of rugby league dragged through the High Court for two years, and a straightforward corporate takeover turned into a lengthy bloodbath. Super League officially cost News Corp $450 million.

The two parties staged separate competitions in 1997, but public interest in the sport had been decimated. John Quayle was bruised by the duplicity of old friend Kerry Packer, who had started the war by threatening to sue News Corp, before cutting a secret deal upon Rupert Murdoch’s yacht to televise Super League on Nine.

The only way forward for the game was to merge rival competitions. Quayle quit the ARL to provide a clean slate, and a peace deal was negotiated that produced the NRL, a crossbreed league half-owned by News Corp. Teams in Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane and Gold Coast were scrapped. The Western Suburbs Magpies were forced to amalgamate with the Balmain Tigers, and St George Dragons with the Illawarra Steelers. The Manly Warringah Sea Eagles merged with sworn enemies North Sydney Bears, a foundation club from 1908, to form the Northern Eagles. The latter lasted three years before the Bears’ half of the venture collapsed. 

The Rabbitohs refused to merge with the Roosters or the Sharks, and were culled from the competition at the end of 1999, leading 80,000 people to march on Sydney’s streets. “Cowboy solicitor” Nick Pappas became the legal counsel for his boyhood team, though his colleagues warned a fight with News Corp was career suicide. 

“This is a class of people, Your Honour,” said Rabbitohs barrister Tom Hughes. “Some people like opera … These people like football.”

The moneyless Bunnies waged a bitter Supreme Court battle against a global empire, and gained reinstatement for the 2002 competition, before winning the 2014 premiership under the chairmanship of Pappas and ownership of actor Russell Crowe. 

“That’s what others misunderstood,” Pappas tells me. “Fans don’t follow a code. Without their tribal colours, they follow nothing.”

The Super League war annihilated rugby league’s strategic advantages within Australia’s sporting marketplace, giving a free kick to the AFL that has lasted more than two decades. News Corp retained a 50 per cent stake of the NRL until 2012, drawing extensive reparations. But the biggest winner was Kerry Packer, who received a 50 per cent stake of Foxtel, which he later sold for $1 billion – all thanks to the pay-TV rights he had first purchased for pocket money. 

“Packer and Murdoch won,” says Roy Masters. “The game lost.”

The AFL channelled soaring revenue from TV rights into southern consolidation and northern expansion. Rugby league’s complete retreat from Adelaide and Perth allowed the AFL to concentrate its resources on an invasion of Sydney and Brisbane, where bitter infighting left disgruntled league fans ripe for recruitment. 

“It’s where AFL got the jump on us,” says Phil Gould.

In 2011, Gould returned to the Panthers as an administrator, with the club on the brink of extinction. It relied on James Packer’s accountants to do a pro bono audit.

“We were days away from folding,” Gould tells me. “The AFL was spending $120 million fighting for western Sydney. But the NRL had no strategy.”

In 2012, league gained liberation from News Corp through the establishment of the ARL Commission, which aimed to mimic the AFL’s independent governance model. Queenslander John Grant was appointed as first chairman. Grant had played league for Australia and enjoyed a decorated career as an IT executive, but he was derided by Sydney journalists from the get-go for being a gaffe-prone technocrat who wore tailored suits and drove a Maserati. He later made a fatal faux pas by calling Cronulla Sharks the “Hawks” and Manly Warringah Sea Eagles the “Seagulls”. 

The People’s Republic of Rugby League had been emancipated from Rupert Murdoch, but the game’s leaders remained adrift from grassroots. Grant’s fate was sealed in 2017 when he ambushed Foxtel by signing a bombshell new free-to-air TV deal with Nine. News Corp journalists propagandised against Grant, and a vindictive Rupert Murdoch overpaid for the AFL rights by an estimated $200 million. 

“We have always preferred Aussie Rules,” Murdoch said. 

Disgruntled club bosses staged a coup against Grant for the spoils of the salvaged television deal, and Peter Beattie was appointed the new chairman of the ARL Commission. The powerbrokers hoped that Beattie’s mastery of Labor factional politics would make him more Machiavellian than Grant. 

“The Labor Party factions are absolute amateurs,” Beattie now tells me, “compared to the various factions within rugby league.” 

Meanwhile, influential figures from across the league divides watched with envy as Peter V’landys rebuilt the NSW racing industry. The Daily Telegraph sports editor Phil Rothfield lobbied Sydney clubs to appoint V’landys to the ARL Commission board, which was achieved with the support of ARL loyalists such as Nick Politis. Beattie, under siege from tabloid journalists and club bosses, identified the well-connected racing supremo as the heir to his throne. 

“I didn’t have the sort of clout that he has in Sydney,” Beattie says. 

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of V’landys’s ascension to the chairmanship in 2019 was his ability to seem like an ally to enemies. Phil Gould, for example, was a consigliere to the Packer family during Super League. He still commentates for Nine and writes columns for The Sydney Morning Herald. On the surface, not many factional rifts in the game run deeper than the one between News Corp editor Phil Rothfield and Phil Gould. Yet the two men are variously identified as V’landys’s biggest fan.

“Peter is close to everybody,” Gould tells me. “But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t had his own run-ins with News Limited … He can’t be intimidated.”

March 23, 2020: Rugby league falls victim to the COVID-19 pandemic. The NRL bows to public pressure and suspends the season after just two rounds, despite Peter V’landys privately avowing that the game should keep going. NRL officials secretly war-game scenarios where six clubs from a competition of 16 might perish.

Foxtel and Nine stop making their monthly pay-TV rights payments once the season is suspended. In 2019, the NRL generated revenue of almost $556 million – for a profit of $30.1 million – of which roughly 60 per cent was derived from a five-year, $1.8 billion TV deal with the game’s two main media partners. Unlike the AFL, which owns Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, the war-torn NRL has no asset base to secure a short-term loan from banks, and needs the TV money to start flowing again.

V’landys makes it his mission to resume the NRL season as soon as humanly possible, forming an “innovation committee” to launch “Project Apollo”. The committee blows sporting thought-bubbles towards drama-parched journalists, headlined by “NRL Island”, a proposal for quarantining 400 testosterone-fuelled athletes at a luxury mining camp in Central Queensland, or at the Tangalooma tropical island resort. 

“It’s just part of our psyche,” says Roy Masters, fibro-in-chief, who now resides in Melbourne. “Rugby league is the cockroach of sports: you can’t kill us.”

Each day, by not denying the latest outrageous rumour, the chairman drip-feeds kerosene onto the NRL’s bonfire of controversy. To widespread disbelief, Project Apollo recommends restarting the season on May 28. Meanwhile, Nine accuses NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg of arrogance and economic vandalism. Greenberg soon falls on his sword as a prerequisite to a new deal. Not much unites league’s powerbrokers, but they seem chuffed about the removal of the executive, a cricket fanatic they see as an elitist, and who was unsuccessful at cutting expenditure within a proliferating politburo.

Officials in clubland accuse the NRL of trying to be an omnipotent dictator, rather than a silent partner of the 16 armies that breed the soldiers to fight the battles. This philosophical rift dates back to the makeshift NRL competition created in 1998 in the aftermath of Super League, which gave the pretence of peace to a sport that remained at war with itself.

“It’s been an absolute shitfight in our game for 25 years,” says a survivor from the Super League days, on the condition of anonymity. “There was always going to be a day of reckoning. COVID-19 just shone a light on the financial problems a lot sooner.”

Chairman V’landys becomes the de facto chief executive. He attempts to navigate landmines from the Super League war and renegotiate the TV deal with old enemies News Corp and Nine, which share the position that NRL will cost them too much post-COVID, without the atmosphere provided by crowds, and as advertising revenue shrinks. The pragmatist tries to use their mutual paranoia to his advantage.

“Both organisations think I’m acting in the best interests of the other one,” V’landys tells me. “Which is probably a good thing, ’cause I’m not acting in the best interests of either of ’em!”

As V’landys boldly leads rugby league to its D-day of May 28, the NRL becomes embroiled in a series of off-field scandals. Instagram photos show Rabbitohs fullback Latrell Mitchell and Melbourne Storm winger Josh Addo-Carr riding motorbikes on a family camping trip, while TikTok videos expose Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary dancing with a group of girls. A rebel group of players refuse to take flu vaccinations before the restart. Rabbitohs five-eighth Cody Walker is the subject of a blackmail attempt, before leaked videos show him street-fighting after a funeral. 

The NRL is Australia’s most popular reality TV show, like Survivor and Married at First Sight crossed with Australian politics, but with 16 major parties instead of two, providing an inexhaustible source of soap opera. The paradox is that even the most heinous misbehaviour has done little to dent the NRL’s TV dominance. In 2018, league attracted more viewers over the season than the AFL, despite plummeting global audiences for sport.

The cockroach-esque persistence of league’s popularity coincided with the decline of rugby union, which enjoyed a temporary renaissance on either side of its 2003 World Cup, at a time the NRL remained in the foetal position. By 2018, Super Rugby games between Australian teams on Foxtel received a paltry average audience of 71,000, compared to average NRL ratings of 240,879 on pay TV and 600,181 on free-to-air. 

2018’s TV rating triumph was followed by the so-called Summer of Shame, an off-season that included accusations of domestic violence, sexual assault and rape against some of rugby league’s most famous names, along with garden-variety DUI and fighting. Yet the NRL narrowly retained the television crown from the AFL in 2019.

“The fireflies of controversy dance around the game,” says Roy Masters. “They get burnt by the flames, while attracting more fireflies.”

Also dancing around the flames are fans reticent to advertise their secret allegiances, especially in status-obsessed Sydney – unlike Melbourne, where citizens risk ostracism by not incessantly publicising their devotion to the civic religion of AFL. Nick Pappas says that Sydney has a silent majority of white-collar rugby league diehards, who rarely attend live games and would never wear their tribal colours to the office, due to the long-term stigma of supporting a working-class sport. 

This arctic class war is a major reason why the AFL’s corporate revenue continues to dwarf the NRL’s. Sydney’s titans of industry are drawn exceedingly from elite private schools. Pappas tells me that potential white-collar sponsors deny requests for funding due to league’s blue-collar base, while confessing that they follow the people’s game religiously within the intimacy of their home cinemas.

“We’ve got a whole lotta people in the eastern suburbs on 100,000 a year,” agrees Peter Beattie, “and even higher. They are rugby league supporters, but not all of them admit it.”

Peter V’landys’s battle to restrain the coronavirus’s impact on the game, combined with a slew of new NRL scandals, triggers persistent stigmas about rugby league, which have evolved little since working-class players were nicknamed “mungos”. 

“NRL players are the thickest, stupidest sports people in Australia,” read a recent tweet from ex-ABC and Fairfax journalist Mike Carlton, a rugby union lover and alumnus of Barker College on Sydney’s North Shore. 

Judging football gladiators by their IQ seems akin to choosing a heart surgeon by their skin folds, or an accountant via a beep test. Yet few other countries critique the education levels of athletes quite like Australia. Megan Davis says that this sensitivity to schooling is a hangover from the British class system, which attempted to preserve rugby union as a playground for eloquent Anglo-Saxon aristocrats. 

“The narrative about poorly educated rugby league players is incontrovertibly classist,” Davis tells me. “I’m sure it is extremely hurtful for the families of players from lower-socioeconomic homes who were not academic, and for whom rugby league was emancipatory.”

Carlton is a former radio colleague and close personal friend of Peter FitzSimons. FitzSimons – the chair of Australia’s republican movement – cites the disobedience of rugby league players as a reason the NRL should remain in hibernation.

“If you had to invent an activity,” FitzSimons tells me, “to spread coronavirus among people as quickly as possible … [You’d] need some guys who for a hundred years have not really been notorious for obeying [the rules]. And you’d come up with rugby league.” 

Nick Pappas claims the game is under siege from all sides of the media. Right-leaning News Corp tabloids feature blanket coverage of the NRL, but frequently demonise officials and sensationalise player misbehaviour. Progressive commentators often promote stigmas about league, while ignoring the rich experience of the likes of Pappas, who is a successful lawyer and leader within Sydney’s arts community. 

“There’s a pseudo-intellectual critique of rugby league as being the mug’s game,” Pappas tells me, “that has gone on for way too long.”

Fifteen days before the restart of the 2020 NRL season, ABC show The Weekly with Charlie Pickering summarises a century’s worth of disparaging clichés about mungoball into a five-minute comedy segment called, “Everything you need to know about rugby league”. Pickering finished with a greatest hits of league’s most disgusting scandals. 

“Most sports pick players using the draft system,” said the Brighton Grammar School alumnus. “Rugby league prefers to use the court system.”

Megan Davis suffered visceral disgust watching the segment. 

“Class is the last taboo,” she says. “Nobody wants to talk about how it’s become socially acceptable to denigrate an entire sport because their supporters are poor.”

If sections of Australia’s middle class seem allergic to the NRL, and simpatico with the AFL, it might be because the latter’s leaders and officials look and speak more like them. The class differences between Peter V’landys and Gillon McLachlan aren’t merely a cosmetic coincidence. 

Nine journalist Jake Niall has written about the increasing social stratification of the AFL. In 2017, Victoria’s 11 Associated Public Schools – the elite independent schools – yielded 25.6 per cent of players in the AFL draft. This was despite APS representing only about 0.4 per cent of Australian high-school students. 

“[Aussie Rules] remains the glue that binds disparate tribes in the southern states,” Niall wrote in late 2019. “Yet the drift towards private-schooled footballers in this egalitarian code is undeniable.”

Meanwhile, the equivalent elite schools in NSW and Queensland refuse to field rugby league teams, favouring rugby union – a state of affairs dating back to 1908 – despite league-loving public and Catholic schools happily entering union competitions. 

Peter V’landys has no intention of gentrifying NRL fans, and is tired of waiting for elitists to demonstrate respect to “rugba league”. Despite being deep in TV-rights renegotiations, he is fully abreast of the ABC’s comedy segment from the night before, and takes personal offence at the stereotypes about criminals and simpletons.

“To me, it’s inhumane,” he says, about the frequent outbreaks of classism. “If you are secure in your own skin then you don’t need to destroy people’s self-esteem.”

May 28, 2020: The NRL is one of the first professional sports in the world to resume during the COVID-19 pandemic, saving its clubs from economic oblivion. High-profile AFL club presidents Eddie McGuire and Jeff Kennett lead a chorus of figureheads who accuse V’landys of moral irresponsibility, despite the AFL postponing at the same time as the NRL and planning for the resumption of their season just two weeks later. 

“It comes back to this perception of the two different sports,” V’landys tells me. “We don’t get things handed to us on a silver spoon.”

The only tradition more knitted into the fabric of rugby league than class warfare is radical rule changes. V’landys makes a range of alterations to create a more addictive product, headlined by the return of a single referee, to limit the game’s interruption by pedantic penalties. TV producers loop in fake crowd noise to airbrush the crushing emptiness of the stadiums.

After two months cold turkey, 1.3 million NRL addicts mainline a free-flowing exhibition of rugby league, watching the Broncos get thrashed 34–6 by the Parramatta Eels in a mellow Brisbane coliseum. It is the highest-rating regular season game since 2014. A month later, an anaemic 69,000 Foxtel subscribers watch the Australian rugby union relaunch between the Queensland Reds and NSW Waratahs. 

Even indefatigable V’landys critic Peter FitzSimons admits to switching off from union, making him a member of Sydney’s quiet majority of white-collar NRL watchers.

“In a pick between rugby union and rugby league on the TV right now,” he says, “I’d watch the rugby league.”

On the resumed league’s second night, Nick Politis’s Roosters defeat Russell Crowe’s Rabbitohs 28–12. Politis and Crowe have rebuilt two clubs once threatened with amalgamation into standalone superpowers. In 2019, the Roosters became the first club to win back-to-back premierships since the Broncos. Now they stand a strong chance of winning three-in-a-row. The tycoon wants to bequeath the Roosters a $500-million property portfolio, futureproofing his tribe against dilution by colour-blind colonisers. 

“Ten years from now,” Politis grumbles to me with a highly rational paranoia, “who knows? It could be bloody Amazon versus Apple or something.”

The football is eclipsed by the canonisation of Saint Peter V’landys. Penrith newspaper The Western Weekenderdistributes posters of the chairman to be applied to fibro walls with Blu Tack. Shirts declaring SIMPLY V’BESTare produced. Peter Beattie compares V’landys’s connection with common people to Bob Hawke’s, and argues the NRL should build a statue of him outside the new Sydney Football Stadium. 

The triumphant return of the NRL leads to the outbreak of a bloc-measuring competition with the AFL. Victorian Aussie Rules legends Garry Lyon and Tim Watson nickname Peter V’landys “Push-ahead Pete”, and blame the AFL’s slower return on its greater geographical footprint. Scotch College alumnus and former Liberal premier of Victoria Jeff Kennett likens watching rugby league to submarine knitting. 

Everyone contrasts the ARL Commission chairman to AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan, and most of the juxtapositions aren’t flattering to McLachlan. So, the usually insouciant executive is over the moon when a record-breaking audience of 1.63 million viewers tune into the AFL restart between the Richmond Tigers and Collingwood Magpies. 

“The AFL leaves [V’landys’s] code for dead right around the country,” Hawthorn president Kennett later tells Nine, citing membership, attendance and TV figures.

Kennett is mostly correct: the geographic footprint and economic infrastructure of the AFL is significantly ahead of the NRL. Yet it’s a testament to the quality of league as a TV product that a two-state game has cumulatively out-rated the national sport over the space of the past two seasons, and generated four of the top-five rating free-to-air TV programs of 2019, with the first State of Origin match number one. 

“Rugby league is an incredible survivor,” notes John Quayle.

Forget about winning pissing contests: it’s a miracle that league still exists. The prescient question is what the NRL can become once the game stops merely surviving, as union fades from the mainstream, and the AFL faces its first credible rival since 1995. 

The sole survivor from the Super League war who will remain at the core of rugby league’s next epoch is Lachlan Murdoch. Unlike Rupert, Lachlan doesn’t prefer AFL. He is a diehard Broncos devotee, who has maintained News Corp’s majority stake of his favourite sporting team long after bailing out of the Cowboys, Raiders and Storm. His wife, TV presenter Sarah Murdoch, is an avid Sea Eagles supporter. 

But league didn’t just need to rely on the younger Murdoch’s favouritism to get a sweetheart deal during digital transition. The NRL outstrips AFL on pay TV, thanks to higher market penetration in NSW and Queensland. Plus Foxtel doesn’t rely on the higher number of ad breaks that makes AFL so profitable on free-to-air.

Peter V’landys met Lachlan Murdoch in Los Angeles at the start of 2020. 

“When I go into meetings with the media moguls,” he tells me, “I don’t bow and scrape. I treat them like we’re two mates having a discussion. The funny thing is that they like that – it gets outcomes.”

V’landys secured an extension with Foxtel until 2027 for a confidential amount, and the contract provided a discount to Nine for the final three years of their deal. Gillon McLachlan extended AFL rights with Seven for less of a free-to-air reduction, though he was unable to secure an extension with Foxtel, which wasn’t willing to overpay like it did last time. Nine newspapers reported that V’landys tried and failed to insert a clause during negotiations with Foxtel ensuring that the NRL received more per game than the AFL. The AFL backgrounded the media that their deal was superior.

“I didn’t go out there bragging that I got more than the AFL,” V’landys says. “It was them saying that we did a dud deal … They might be in for a shock.”

V’landys cultivates the image of a ruthless warmonger. Privately, officials witness a sensitive listener and shrewd peacekeeper who obsessively analyses fan feedback, and is far more worried about addressing internal flaws than code wars. V’landys seems to intuitively subscribe to a truism from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” He has no intention of launching expansion attacks on Perth and Adelaide, outside of possible one-off club and State of Origin matches played there. Instead, the NRL will shore up its fortresses in NSW and Queensland, including a possible 17th team, based in Brisbane. 

“Peter has been depicted as a bull in a china shop,” Pappas says. “He’s actually not like that. He listens, takes everything into account, and makes a reasoned decision.”

Choose your fighter: Wollongong battler or Adelaide aristocrat. Boyishly handsome AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan boarded at St Peter’s College in Adelaide before attending Trinity College at the University of Melbourne. His father, Angus, inherited a merino-sheep stud in the Adelaide Hills. His uncle Ian was defence minister in the Howard government. One of their forebears owned a horse that won the Melbourne Cup, and Gillon played polo for Victoria.

McLachlan learnt the art of sports administration during 28 years of unbroken economic growth, while the AFL’s main rival was fighting a quarter-century civil war. To borrow a cricket analogy, the AFL is a flat-track bully. Now they’ll be playing on the fifth-day pitch of a major recession, against a newly unified competitor whose leg-spinner has been bowling on brittle wickets his entire existence. 

Megan Davis admires the ARL Commission chairman’s lack of pretentiousness, and believes that many underestimate the human ingenuity it takes to successfully navigate poverty.

“Peter operates like the kids I grew up with who knew how to manage playground politics,” she says. “You can only get those skills by being a working-class Greek kid … And that kind of grounding makes a huge difference to the way that you listen to marginalised people.”

Whatever the outcome of short-term skirmishes over TV rights, V’landys has achieved what none of his slicker predecessors could: the reunification of rugby league. Peace might be fleeting, but for the first time since April Fool’s Day 1995, league isn’t gripped by civil war. All sides of the code’s kaleidoscopic divides are united behind his leadership. It took someone who looks and sounds like the true believers. 

“Peter can talk with kings,” Phil Gould tells me, “but not lose the common touch. He’s coming from a very, very, very deep place.”

At 18, V’landys became manager of the Unanderra Hotel in a rough-and-tumble strip of Wollongong, across the road from the local rugby league club where he gained a reputation as a kamikaze tackling machine. After hotel staff went on strike, the publican taught the young battler a saying that stayed with him for life: “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, you baffle them with bullshit.” 

The Sun Tzu of Unanderra isn’t the most brilliant at any single skill, nor is he physically intimidating, but he has thicker skin than any of the slicker competitors flinging shit at him. In the sports-administration business, he fuses a knack for strategic patience with a capacity to attack much larger opponents with maniacal bravery. 

“If your opponent is of choleric temper,” wrote Sun Tzu, “seek to irritate him.”

As Victoria descends into a second lockdown, and the entire AFL is relocated to Queensland, Collingwood president and broadcaster Eddie McGuire claims that an AFL grand final in Sydney is V’landys’s “worst nightmare”. V’landys responds that the best city in the world would be more than happy to host a “second-rate” event. Jeff Kennett loses his temper even more than usual. 

“We don’t even know who he is,” Kennett tells Nine, despite frequently speaking about V’landys since the start of COVID-19. “Peter is an absolute irrelevance.”

Public tit-for-tats bely the asymmetrical ambitions of the AFL and NRL, stemming from their conflicting self-images. The imperious AFL wants to conquer the foreign lands of NSW and Queensland, due to an innate sense of its greatness. Rugby league wants to consolidate its strength within its traditional territories. The potential reward from expansion for the AFL is enormous, but history is littered with indestructible empires buckled by their own chutzpah. 

“The NRL is gonna be a lot leaner and a lot meaner coming out of coronavirus,” Peter Beattie says.

The People’s Republic of Rugby League is the snoozing superpower of Australian sport. In 25 years’ time, COVID-19 might be remembered as the moment that a broken game woke up from the coma induced by Super League and stopped losing ground to the AFL. For Peter V’landys, the scraps are about much more than sport. This is class war, and he’s made a habit of winning.

“Nothing in my life has come easy,” he tells me. “I’ve always had to fight for everything I get … If I have to go into battle with someone for the benefit of rugba league, I’m not gonna take a backward step. That’s just the way I was brought up.”

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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