It might be a little cheeky, but it’s probably not a stretch to suggest that historically and traditionally, Australia is a nation of pretty average sportsmanship.
In fact, only an Australian that would try to come up with an argument to the contrary. From underarm bowling to ball tampering in cricket, to supplement scandals in cycling, right through to salary cap breaches and betting scandals in league, football and AFL.
My all time personal favourite was the Aussie Women’s Gliding team who were found to have accessed the official tracking system to obtain real-time information on their competitors. Wow. Who knew gliding was so fiercely competitive? Like the Americans, our Aussie friends have even come up with a sport that no one else plays. Whatever it takes to gain the competitive advantage, I guess.
So as we build toward the annual ANZAC Day clash between the Melbourne Storm and NZ Warriors, you could be forgiven for viewing this event as yet another example of Australia exploiting any possible edge to get the win under the guise of fairness and provide themselves with a bloated sense of dominance.
Let me explain.
At the beginning of the season, Craig Bellamy would have looked at round 8 against the Warriors on Anzac Day and chalked it up as a win for his team.
Why wouldn’t he? The Storm coach knows he’s played the Warriors thirteen times since 2009 on ANZAC Day, and he’s won eleven of them, including all seven since 2016. The common denominator? All 13 games have been played on Aussie soil. Now if you’re good at maths, you’ll note one game missing. In 2015 the Warriors randomly played the Titans in New Zealand and lost. I guess that could explain Australia’s logic that home advantage doesn’t matter.
But let that sink in for a minute. The Warriors have played 13 games in Australia on ANZAC Day for two wins, with no victories in the last 7 years. Australians will argue the Storm have had a purple patch of form over the past 15 years and the Warriors … haven’t.
Yet ANZAC Day is when Australians and New Zealanders can and should come together to acknowledge our shared contribution in world conflicts and honour the sacrifices that were made and are still being made. The operative word being, ‘shared’.
However, after 7 straight ANZAC Day loses on the trot (last year’s game being a 70-10 rout), the NRL in their infinite wisdom have decided to celebrate the occasion this year, by playing the game in Australia – again. No sharing. This could have been a wonderful opportunity for the NRL administration to have, in some small way, acknowledged the Warriors sacrifices for all the clubs in the NRL, after having uprooted themselves for the past three years to play the game in Australia due to Covid. In doing so the NZ Warriors saved a lot of clubs and the NRL from financial uncertainty in a challenging fiscal environment. But instead, the NRL thought… Nah. Let’s just play it in Melbourne again. Well, my grandfather who fought in WW2 had names for such people…
Australians will say that the Warriors get to play the Storm at home later in the season, so why does any of this matter? Because it’s bloody ANZAC Day, mate. Not Australia Day.
The occasion has weight and history connected to it. It has pre-game rituals, national anthems, a moments silence, and someone bugling ‘The Last Post’. All of which, if played out in your home ground and in front of your family and supporters, gives you a much more distinctive advantage than the average home game. Oh, and by the way, the match officials are all Australian. But don’t worry, I’m sure their unconscious bias isn’t swayed by the ceremonial patriotism of it all, right? (Coughs into hand – “B…shit.”)
If the NRL were being good sports they’d honour the spirit of the occasion by alternating the venue between countries and allow New Zealand fans to share in the festivities and help promote the game here, so that friends and families on this side of the Tasman can cheer on their men, their brothers, who are representing them on the field within a sporting context.
How do you expect to grow the game in New Zealand if such a prestigious game is being played at 9pm NZT?
Kids have school the following day. Parents have work. Given the NRL has seven other games being played that weekend in Australia, why on earth do they feel the need to hog this one?
The answer isn’t money because there wouldn’t be a huge difference one way or the other. And this occasion shouldn’t be about commerce anyway. No, there’s really only one reason for it. The NRL administration is made up of Australians. And as we’ve already identified – Australians are wankers. Sure, they’re our friends, but we all have that one friend who is a bit of a wanker. I appreciate it may come across as a little immature to call then that, but have you listened to the Fox Sports commentary team lately? My conscience is clear.
This date used to be reserved for a Kangaroos vs Kiwis test match. With that now defunct, this is the one opportunity in which all Australians can get behind an Aussie side to beat those bloody Kiwis and remind them this is Australia’s game, and they should be grateful that they’re even allowed to play in their competition. Any advantage that can be acquired to provide the fanbase with a sense of moral superiority, well, they will take. That’s it. Nothing more. Pretty simple really. Maybe the NRL have realised the ANZACs at Gallipoli never had home advantage and don’t want to make the same mistake again?
But I’ve been asking myself, would we do the same if the shoe was on the other foot? And after some serious soul-searching, I genuinely don’t think we would. Because unlike Australians, most Kiwis have a true sense of fairness and sportsmanship. We’ve taken pride in how our athletes have conducted themselves fairly on the world stage. The Black Caps have been the pinnacle of that good sportsmanship in recent times. We’re often cast as the underdog – our population size already puts us at a distinct disadvantage comparative to many other nations. So, we empathise with the underdogs. Which means if we are thrashing someone, we often start to feel bad for them and don’t enjoy it. Kiwis enjoy the challenge. We enjoy the contest. Sure, the occasional thrashing can be fun. But we get bored of it if it goes on too long – you only have to look back at the empty stands at Eden Park when Auckland had the Ranfurly Shield for most of the 1980s to appreciate this.
So no, I don’t think we would hog the games on this side of the Tasman. I think we’d share the games because that’s the right thing to do. And I also don’t think we would thump a team that had made the sacrifices the Warriors had by 70 points to 10. Our sense of fairness would kick in. I couldn’t stomach watching all of that game. It felt wrong. Unfitting for the occasion. Oh well. The Warriors should have been better.
With this year’s game also being played on Aussie soil, will it be any different?
It’s possible the Warriors will get thumped, but I’d be surprised if we see anything resembling a similar score line. Why? Because this year’s side has something special that previous Warriors outfits in the last 12 years didn’t.
They don’t lie down.
They punch back.
Just when you think “here we go again…” they roll up their sleeves and refuse to give in. Which makes for an intriguing battle given the event being celebrated. The Warriors will also be bolstered by a lot of fresh reinforcements returning from suspension and injury. And despite winning 5 of their first 7 games, they admittedly don’t believe they have played very well.
I’m not confident the Warriors will win but one thing I am confident about is that if they do, it won’t be by much. I’m loathe to discuss the referees because it always risks coming off sounding like a sore loser. So, I’ll only do so within one evidence-based context. And I do so fully acknowledging the Warriors aren’t the only side in the NRL that get a raw deal from the match officials – although you’d struggle to identify a club that’s been on the wrong end of bad calls as consistently.
However, there is one slightly hidden statistic that’s worth taking a closer look at; the points differential for the top 6 teams on the ladder. Most have 15 to 60 more points than the Warriors. Yet the Warriors have won more games than everyone other than the Broncos. Of those six teams, the only other team with lower points differential than the Warriors, is Manly, who have had a bye and only won 3 games to the Warriors 5.
You can make a case the Warriors have just had some close games. But it’s a consistent theme. Back in 2018, the Warriors finished 8th on the table despite having as many wins as the Panthers who finished 5th, because the Warriors suffered from poor points differential. In fact, can anyone recall the last time the Warriors put on 40 more points than their opponents, let alone maintained a better points diff than teams that have won the same amount of games? All I’m really saying here, is that the refs are Australian. So, is it really such a reach to suggest that they aren’t prone to the odd bout of unconscious bias or occasional patriotism? Sometimes that’s all you need in a tight competition where the difference between winning a game is a slight momentum shift based on a refereeing decision.
So, with all the elements, history and hypocrisy conspiring against them, the 3rd placed Warriors will head into ANZAC Day as $4.30 underdogs and face the four-time premiership winning Melbourne Storm who currently sit 7th on the points table, and yet are overwhelming favourites.
Wrap your head around that?
Third takes on seventh and third are a massive underdog. And in the face of it all, the lowly NZ Warriors, having never won a premiership and only made the top 8 once in the last 12 years, will once again travel Melbourne and try to achieve the improbable.
But… should the Warriors overcome the auspicious odds on Tuesday night, they’ll celebrate, but probably won’t gloat (for too long. We’re not England after all). They’ll toast a beer in solidarity to their Aussie friends and remember to not get above themselves because life is short and good friends are far and few between. Even the wanker ones. But… the team, club and all their fans can feel entitled to cast their Aussie mates a sideways stare, and give a small tip of the chin, safe in the knowledge that a little overdue justice has been dished out.