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From Semi-Pro to Pro

Viewed 801 times 2017-4-21 00:28 |System category:News| football, popular, sports

I am from Australia and when I was a young kid in the 80s all of the athletes that played team sports in Australia were still semi-pro. In my state NSW the most popular footy code was/is Rugby League and back in the 80s even the best players all had jobs on top of their football contracts. For many of the good players their rugby league clubs would set them up with jobs that were flexible and these jobs were often token jobs of sorts but like I said, back in the 80s even the best players all had day jobs. It is only NSW and QLD that play Rugby League while the rest of Australia plays Australian Rules Football/AFL ( formerly Victorian Rules Football/VFL ) but in the 80s it was the same with the AFL players in that they all had day jobs so our biggest professional team sport competitions were all semi-pro.

With Rugby League there were two competitions - the NSWRL in NSW and the QRL in Queensland, and the teams from each state did not play each other. So we had two state comps rather than a national/interstate comp. Since NSW is Australias premier state and the biggest market due to the fact that Sydney is the nations largest city, it was the NSWRL that was able to pay the higher contracts and many of the best Queensland players would come to our competition to play for a Sydney team. Initially the NSWRL was a Sydney comp featuring teams only from Sydney suburbs but the competition was able to expand into outer Sydney regions Penrith, and later to Illawarra and to the ACT ( which is within NSW ) with a team in Canberra. Due to the bigger market in NSW the NSWRL was able to develop into a more professional competition but the talent from Queensland was just as good, if not better than the talent from NSW.

It wasnt until the NSWRL expansion in 1988 that brought in the new NSW team the Newcastle Knights, and two Queensland teams in the Brisbane Broncos and the Gold Coast-Tweed Giants that the NSWRL had truly emerged as the dominant Rugby League comp in Australia. But even in 1988, despite growing revenue from sponsorship and television/radio deals, the sport of Rugby League in Australia was still essentially semi-pro with most players still having day jobs. In 1995 the NSWRL became the Australian Rugby League/ARL and further expansion was attempted into with four new teams being added to the comp - two more QLD teams in the North and South QLD, a team from Western Australia and a team from New Zealand. The South QLD and WA teams both ended up failing but this 1995 expansion marked a point where the game of rugby league could be described a truly pro-sport rather than semi-pro. By 1995 being a Rugby League player in the top competition was a full-time job and players could earn big enough contracts that they no longer needed day jobs as well.

So it was around 1995 that the Super League War began with Rupert Murdoch attempting to take control of professional Rugby League, not just here in Australia but in the UK/Europe and New Zealand. Both the ARL and Murdoch wanted to reduce the number of teams playing out of Sydney so the big Super League War was not so much a fight over the direction of league so much as a fight for control of rugby league. The ARL did want to reduce the amount of teams in Sydney but they wanted to still keep control of league in Sydney, for example - the war began in many ways over the fact that the ARL refused to consider the idea of allowing the Grand Final to be played in Brisbane rather than in Sydney where it had always been played in the past. But both sides did agree that to expand the sport there was a need to make the competition less Sydneycentric. Murdoch wanted to create an internationally televised World Club Series contested by the best teams from Australia, New Zealand and UK/Europe, which would have been a lot like the Champions League they have in soccer.

So anyway, there was this big fight for control over rugby league that was fought between the ARL which had come from the NSWRL - and Rupert Murdoch/News Limited backed by the powerful Brisbane Broncos of Queensland, and others. By 1997 Murdoch had enough support to start his break away Super League, so in that year we had two top rugby league comps in Australia - Super League and the ARL - with 22 teams between them. The Super League War actually turned many Australians off Rugby League and the support that the sport did have was diluted by spreading the teams out so much and also by expanding into places that really didnt even like Rugby League. At the end of this 1997 season of two seperate competitions there was a truce between Murdochs Super League and the ARL and the two comps were merged to create the NRL which is still in place today.

So a consequence of this obsession with expansion and the creation of a truly national/international rugby league competition was that a lot fo the Sydney teams - which were traditional pillars of the sport that had very loyal fanbases - were merged with each other. My team when I was a kid was the Western Suburbs Magpies and they were one of the Sydney teams that the ARL itself was trying to get rid of even before the Super League War. By 1999 the Western Suburbs Magpies were merged with the Balmain Tigers to form the 'Wests Tigers'. The same thing happened with the North Sydney Bears being merged with the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, and the St George Dragons being merged with the Illawarra Steelers. These mergers attacked the traditional die-hard fans of the sport of Rugby League. For me I feel as though I no longer have a team because I used to support the Western Suburbs Magpies and I really do not want to support a team called the 'Wests Tigers' because I supported the Wests Magpies not the Balmain Tigers - and I know that supporters of other clubs that were forced to merge feel the same way. If I have to choose a team I support the Wests Tigers but it is just not the same as supporting my team - Wests Magpies.

So anyway, that is a brief history of the Rugby League transition from semi-pro to pro. These days scouts sign young kids to feeder schools and clubs at an early age and the majority of todays League players have never worked a day in their lives. But even though we can safely describe Rugby League as being a professional sport these days the fact is that the leadership in Rugby League is still quite amateurish when compared to other professional sport competitions around the world. The leadership of Rugby League in Australia is very amateurish when compared with the leadership of rival Australian footy code, the AFL who have managed to create a truly national competition at this point. Despite the dreams of expansion it is still only people in NSW and QLD that care about rugby league. We have a Melbourne team in the Melbourne Storm and they are a success but Victorians will always be AFL people and really it is still just NSW and QLD that care about League. Television rights and corporate sponsorship only go so far and that is the main reason the number of top rugby league teams has had to be limited, and the reason for the forced mergers of traditional Sydney teams that allowed for more teams in Brisbane and the Melbourne team but in my opinion it would have been better for the fans of League if the two original competitions - the NSWRL and the QRL - had merged to create an interstate competition that featured all of the teams that generations of Australians had loyally supported. The players would not be earning as much money and maybe a lot of them would still need day jobs but I would argue that the professionalism has led to players that no longer care about games the way players used to in the old days when they were playing for their clubs - and for the winning bonus. Compared to the great players of old, these new pro players are soft and they just dont care like players did when the sport was semi-pro.

Another thing that has changed since the sport became professional is that nowadays a one club man is a true rarity. Back in the day the majority of players only played for one club for life. Nowadays the players are not loyal to their clubs or fans at all - it is all about the money.

So all of this brings me to the big news in League today which is that the Wests Tigers have failed to sign three of their so-called 'Big Four' players that are all off-contract this year. All players are Wests Juniors that have come up through the club - and made a name for themselves at Wests Tigers - but three have decided to sign with rival clubs. In my opinion all three of these players are very overrated because none of them have actually done anything. With this so-called 'Big Four' the Wests Tigers have not even been able to make the semis/playoffs. Two of the three that are leaving have made some rep teams but at the end of the day none of them have done a thing for the Wests Tigers. I still have a casual interest in Rugby League and I am happy to see these players leave the club because like I said, in my opinion all of the Wests 'Big Four' are highly overrated, but in a lot of ways I do not blame them for leaving because the way that the Wests Tigers have handled their free agencies has been bizarre and it is interesting n the context of the semi-pro to pro story that I have briefly described above.

Like I said - a one club man is a true rarity in league today but the Wests Tigers were lucky enough to have one in modern club legend Robbie Farah. Last year was an odd year at the Wests Tigers because the Wests coach Jason Taylor ( former Wests Magpies halfback ) decided that he did not want Robbie Farah in the team, arguing that even though Farrah is a good hooker, his creative style limited opportunities for the two young halves which make up two of the so-called Big Four. So despite the fact that Farah was being selected for the NSW representative team Jason Taylor dropped the guy to reserve grade. The NSW coach said that he would pick Farah for NSW out of reserve grade if he had to, and he did. So even though Farah is getting on in his career he was still a quality player last year but he was unwanted at the Wests Tigers due to the coach wanting to invest in the future in this so-called 'Big Four'. The Balmain Tigers used to have a NSW hooker called Benny Elias and Farah was like the new, modern Benny Elias, and he had played his entire career for the Wests Tigers, was still being selected to represent NSW in State of Origin games which are the highest level of Rugby League - yet the Wests Tigers didnt want him and they did everything in their power to get rid of him to make way for this so-called 'Big Four'.

In the old semi-pro days of League it would have been unthinkable that a team would treat a one club man team legend the way that the Wests Tigers treated the second coming of Benny Elias - Robbie Farah. Whatever conflict there was between the club great and the younger generation coming through would have been managed so that Farah got to see his career out with his team and retire a one club legend. But in the new pro environment of Rugby League loyalty means nothing - not just between player and club - but between club and player. many of the Wests Tigers fans were outraged by how club legend Robbie Farah was being treated and they held protests at reserve grade matches that Farrah was forced to play in, holding up signs calling for coach Jason Taylor to be sacked rather than Robbie Farah. But Wests Tigers management ignored the diehard Wests Tigers supporters and gave full support to Jason Taylor and this so-called 'Big Four' - that have never done a thing.

So at the end of the season last year Wests Tigers great Robbie Farah was forced to leave his beloved Wests Tigers and sign with Russel Crowes South Sydney Rabbitohs. South Sydney was a victim of the Sydney team cull just like the Wests Tigers were but rather than being forced to merge the Souths team actually folded for many years before Russel Crowe and a wealthy mate brought them back, much to the delight of Souths fans - many of which come from families that had supported Souths for generations. So anyway, Farrah is hunted out and has to sign with Souths - and the Wests Tigers management puts their full support behind coach Jason Taylor and his overrated 'Big Four'.

So the Wests Tigers start out this season with a big win in their opening match over Farah and his new team Souths and everyone is thinking that the Wests Tigers must have gotten things right to get rid of Farah in favour of this 'Big Four' - but they follow their season opener victory with two terrible losses and all of a sudden the pathetic American wanna-be Australian sports media start asking if coach Jason Taylor should be fired - because after two losses - maybe he got things wrong.. Feeling the pressure of the media attacks on coach Jason Taylor and wanting to right the ship the clown management of the Wests Tigers decide that it would be a good idea to fire coach Jason Taylor.

So the Wests Tigers fire Jason Taylor after the Tigers lose their third in a row - only four games into the season. So after backing Taylor over club great Robbie Farah - the Wests Tigers management decides to fire coach Taylor after only four games. These people have been watching American pro-sports on tv and they were thinking - fire the coach - thats the solution! But they had only just sacrificed a club legend in Farah by backing Jason Taylor throughout the previous season. If they were going to get rid of Taylor only four games into the new season then they may have well of gotten rid of him last year and kept club great Farah around to finish out his career as a one club man - especially since Farah was still making rep teams last year. So instead of keeping Farah or Taylor - the Wests Tigers get neither. Firing Taylor was a truly bizarre decision considering what had happened with Farrah.

So Wests get rid of the coach that has backed this so-called 'Big Four' and then only a few short weeks later the top three of this 'Big Four' have all signed with rival clubs. In todays pro league environment I really do not think that these players had any loyalty to coach Jason Taylor even though he backed them over Robbie Farah, and I think that it is likely that all three would have left Wests even of Taylor had not been fired. These modern players love the attention of free agency and they love the attention they get from switching teams. The fact that all three are Wests Juniors means nothing to them - Rugby League is a pro sport and players no longer feel loyalty to the clubs that develop them. You just dont get loyal one club man players like Robbie Farah anymore - if you do you should treasure them because they really are a true rarity. I honestly believe that these three young overrated Big Four players would have jumped ship whether Farah had stayed or gone, and whether coach Taylor had stayed or gone. But you have to admit that the utter clown show that is Wests management didnt make it difficult for these guys to leave did they? Wests Tigers showed no loyalty to club great Robbie Farah, so why should anyone be loyal to the Wests Tigers?

So I guess the question in the modern game of Rugby League - and in the modern world in general - is - is loyalty still worth anything? I would argue that yes it is. You will get a lot more out of someone when their primary motivation is loyalty rather than money. But to inspire loyalty one must be worthy of loyalty. Maybe the three 'Big Four' Wests Tigers would have jumped ship no matter what, we will never know, but the way the Wests Tigers treated both Robbie Farah and then Jason Taylor could have done little to inspire any amount of loyalty in these three Wests Juniors that were supposed to be the future of the club.


- Robbie Farah/Wests Tigers


- Robbie Farah/NSW Cockroaches


- Robbie Farah/Souths Rabbitohs


- Western Suburbs Magpies

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)


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