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Loyal to the bitter end

Warriors 4, Sharks 45
Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland, August 5 2012

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When I was a teenager I loved the game of rugby league. It was the early 1990s, League’s heyday in New Zealand when thousands of Kiwis relished watching ‘Aussie League on Two’. There was no New Zealand team in Australia’s NSWRL (New South Wales Rugby League) at that stage, but a great many New Zealanders had an Aussie team they supported with much passion. The various team jerseys went through a period of being quite fashionable. You couldn’t walk down the street without seeing people wearing them. The Manly Sea Eagles, the team of New Zealand hero Mathew Ridge, was the most common sight but kiwis were also particularly fond of the Canterbury Bulldogs, the Balmain Tigers and the Eastern Suburbs Roosters, all hailing from parts of Sydney where migrating Kiwis liked to settle.

On Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights we would get three games on free to air television per week. But at the height of my madness, the goggle-box wasn’t good enough. I tuned in to Australian radio station 2GB and Greg ‘Holywood’ Hartley’s call so as not to be restrained by whatever game the TV was showing. The radio went ‘around the grounds’ so you could constantly have your finger on the pulse of what was going on with every team in the days before the internet. I could hole up in my room, curled up in anguish, to hear the all-important results come in and find out how my team and others were fearing.

Like football, league can inspire real passion and love for the teams you support. Me being me, I like to be different. My team was the unfashionable Cronulla Sharks, because I liked their shirts, because I liked underdogs and because of my hero Andrew Ettingshausen, in his day the Francesco Totti of Cronulla. I was such an ET fan that when Australia’s Kangaroos played New Zealand I would secretly hope that he would score tries against us. I have owned multiple Cronulla jerseys, made a special trip to Sydney just so I could visit the Cronulla area on the back of my obsession and above all I hoped for a premiership for my team with every fibre of my being.

When the New Zealand Warriors came into the competition in the late ‘90s, Kiwis at last had a team of their own to cheer for in the Australian competition. Most of us switched allegiances immediately. Not me though, I value loyalty and I was determined to not waver from my support of the Sharkies, at least until they won their maiden premiership. I’m still waiting. In almost fifty years of existence, the Sharkies have never once won a single brass razoo.

In my eyes, the shine came off Rugby League’s chandelier at the turn of the millennium when Rupert Murdoch’s empire tried to take over the game for the benefit of gaining the Television rights from fellow billionaire Kerry Packer. Clubs and players suddenly became for sale to the highest bidder. The period known as the ‘Super League War’ shattered illusions of the observance of tradition and loyalty, to clubs that had been around since 1905, and to the people who built the game from scratch. Money became the only thing that mattered and we saw what damage can be done when clubs stop representing regions and become no more than a collection of animal names. Both Cronulla and the Warriors turned their backs on the organisation that created them, selling out for Murdoch’s millions.

I grew further disillusioned with Cronulla when I found out more about the place. It’s a pretty right wing little ‘shire’ that was the scene of the Cronulla riots, an awful episode in recent Australian history that saw a terrible string of violence directed at ethnic minorities.

I now find myself as a Warriors season ticket holder, but my heart isn’t really in the sport anymore. I go because it’s the only game in town with big crowds and good atmosphere that runs for a decent length season. I also love the comradry with the people who have sat in the seats surrounding mine since the club’s inception. However I only watch the games I go to. I no longer have much interest in watching League on TV and I need to buy a programme at each home game so I can find out whether they won away last week or not. I would still like to see the Sharks win a premiership – it’s still unfinished business. Perhaps I need it to happen so I can be set free. Perhaps if it happens, I will be able to let go of all the unsavoury history, rediscover my love of Rugby League and become a true Warriors fan. I don’t know, and I’m not sure I’ll ever find out. They are going alright this year though!

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Enzo Giordani

A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.

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