Finding a balance

ANZAC spirit is internationally renowned, but in sport it is often obliterated under a tsunami of nationalistic fervour. As a New Zealander I am confronted regularly by rabid anti-Australian sentiment, which despite its force tends to be good-natured. New Zealanders don?t hate Australians; we just like to compete with them, and to beat them. Cricket, soccer, basketball and league fans all revel in occasional victories over Australia, knowing that for one brief moment four million were able to beat twenty million, and big brother was humbled by little brother.

Of course, there is a grudging admiration in all this. Most Kiwi rugby league fans are quick to admit that Australian league is a model everyone should aspire to. However, I feel that a bit of good-natured anti-Aussie feeling wouldn?t go amiss when it comes to Warriors fans (and critics). A common topic whenever the Warriors are discussed is the need for a ?balance? between Kiwi and Aussie players. Australian players are seen as hard working, industrious and intelligent. Kiwis are ?flair players?- this has almost become regarded as common knowledge. They are big, strong, and can offload- they are also erratic, defensively poor, and inept at reading a game. These stereotypes might be amusing if they were used tongue in cheek by Australians taking a shot at Kiwis, but they are not. This is the average New Zealand fan?s conception of our own players, and as such is a disturbing comment on our attitude.

Perhaps it is best to put these comments into context, which can be summed up in four words- Ivan Cleary, Kevin Campion. When a New Zealander thinks of hardened Aussie pros, he thinks of these two. They were the archetypal ?old heads? that provided the much sought ?Kiwi/Aussie balance? at the Warriors. Campion and Cleary didn?t make 50 metre runs and throw behind the back passes- they couldn?t. They were journeyman who joined the Warriors without a rep game behind either of them. They played in a team full of internationals and got credit for ?doing the hard yards?. If either had run the length of the field to score they probably would have offended their Kiwi fan base. They were Australians. They didn?t do things like that.

But how was their nationality relevant?

It?s puzzling. Kiwi league fans seem to be beguiled by an incorporeal idea of ?Australianness? that makes their players different and ultimately superior. These fans do have some valid points. Most of the world?s best players are Australians? No doubt, but most of the world?s players are Australians, full stop. Australia has the best coaching structure and the best junior development? Definitely. Australia has the best of everything when it comes to rugby league- they are the best rugby league nation in the world by a country mile, because they have the most fans, the most players, the most public interest. This much is obvious- if anything, it makes it all the more astonishing that the Kiwis are capable of toppling the Kangaroos from time to time.

New Zealand players have become increasingly prominent in Australia in recent years, from Dane Sorenson and Mark Broadhurst, to John Lomax and Quentin Pongia, to Benji Marshall and Sonny-Bill Williams. They have even started popping up in Australian schoolboys and age group teams in amazing numbers. Talent scouts are quick to point out that New Zealand is the best source of rugby league talent in the world- a far cry from suggesting that our players are somehow intrinsically less equipped for the game. It is a rare case of Australians praising Kiwis while Kiwis do all they can to drag themselves down. The stereotypes are ridiculous- would anyone suggest that Ruben Wiki was all flair and no substance? Does he need Australians around him to stop him getting lazy and doing something stupid? Maybe John Hopoate could tell him what to do.

I?m certainly not suggesting that the Warriors become an all-Kiwi team. No team in the NRL sticks entirely to players from its catchment area. Players should be considered individually on their merits. Australian players should be signed if they serve a purpose and are the most effective and economical option available- not because of what it is assumed they will provide as Australians. Kiwi players can be exciting, industrious, erratic, or consistent- so can Australians. New Zealanders should be promoting local players. It?s important to talk ourselves up and bag the Aussies as often as possible; that?s the ANZAC way.

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