So, for this one, the NRL decided to ditch it? So, great!
The second reason it was an astute move, was because it allowed the NRL to skirt controversy – always a good idea for a code whose controversy cup doth always floweth over. Last week, as you will recall, the Wallabies were briefly engulfed in huge controversy after one player expressed the view that as this next Bledisloe was an Indigenous Round, and they would be wearing an Indigenous jersey, they might very well express base solidarity with the Indigenous struggle in this country and “take a knee”.
The result was – don’t get me started – a numerically limited but nevertheless loud outcry, led by my dear friend Nick Farr-Jones, that this would risk alienating rugby supporters just when the game was getting back on its feet, and in any case there was no such thing as racism in Australia. (Don’t get me started, I said!) Two days of narkiness later, and Rugby Australia folded, saying there would be no taking a knee.
This was despite the fact that in rugby league there have been many cases of NRL players taking a knee before club matches this season – most particularly in the case of the Penrith Panthers, earlier in the season – and, just as happened with AFL clubs who took the same approach, it was no big deal. Those individuals who wanted to it did so, and those who didn’t want to, were not obliged. League and AFL followers took it in their stride and no-one charged for the exits, simply because players wanted to show solidarity for a – you heard me – noble cause. And equally, if you can believe it, those who took a knee didn’t turn out to be Marxists wanted to overthrow the establishment! With the possible exception, I suppose, of Bronwyn Bishop – who likely fainted somewhere that the commies had taken over Australian sport – everyone else just got on with their lives with commendable maturity.
Nevertheless, what would happen if they played the national anthem at such a high profile event as State of Origin, and the many Indigenous players, particularly, took a knee? And were men whose forebears have been here for 65,000 years really expected to mouth the words “for we are young and free”, so denying the fact that Australia has actually had the oldest continuous culture on the planet, and it something to be proud of? In recent times we have had Indigenous players of the status of Latrell Mitchell and Cody Walker expressing strong reservations about singing such an anthem and it was canned before this year’s Indigenous All-Stars game.
This time, when some Indigenous players, it is believed, expressed reservations about singing it before the Origin, the league leaders took the decision: can the anthem. So, all good?
Yup, right up until one person in particular got wind of it. For when the word got out that there would be no national anthem, Prime Minister Scott Morrison got involved, more or less insisting that it be played as it would bring us altogether etc. In the face of that request, Peter V’landys – who has had a very good record on supporting Indigenous players and issues – nevertheless all but instantly said, “Yes, Prime Minister,” did a screaming U-turn on a sixpence, and the league administration roared back the other way.
League “never meant to make a political statement”, Mr V’landys said, and the anthem was restored.
“The NRL have done the right thing,” the PM purred in response. “We have all faced a year of struggle and heartbreak and it has never been more important to be coming together to celebrate Australia and to be able to sing together our national anthem at the game so many of us love.”
Yes, Prime Minister. After a very tough year of plague and pestilence, of lock-down and a languishing economy, having the league players sing the national anthem will make it all better.
Anyhoo, that is where it stands now. The interesting thing will be if any of the Indigenous players, particularly, do sing the words “for we are young and free,” and if any of them do take a knee.
If they decline to sing it, and or take a knee – possibly supported by non-Indigenous players – good luck to them. That will be their perfect right, just as it will be right of those who do not.
Over and out. Fire at will. See if I care. I will be in my trailer.
Sports news, results and expert commentary delivered straight to your inbox each weekday. Sign up here.
Peter FitzSimons is a journalist and columnist with The Sydney Morning Herald.