Marie-Louise Ayres: Good evening everyone, and a very warm welcome to the National Library of Australia, and to this special event, "Played Strong, Done Good. Has Rugby League's Expansion Been Successful"? I'm Marie-Louise Ayres. It's my privilege to be the Director General of this National Library of Australia. And you may be very surprised to know this, I've never played rugby league. Oh you don't have to laugh that much, I know who's laughing like that.
As we begin I'd like to acknowledge of course Australia's First Nation's people's, the first Australian's, as the traditional owners and custodians of this land, and give my respects to elders past and present, and through them to all Australian, Aboriginal, and Torres Straight Islander people. Thank you for attending this event in person or online, coming to you from the National Library building on beautiful Ngunnawal and Ngambri country.
And for those who come into the library this evening, it is the most glorious sunset. We can see the outlines of our beautiful mountains and think about how long our culture, language, story, has been tended on this country.
So tonight's event is presented in association with the Tom Brock Bequest. The Tom Brock Bequest supports research into rugby league history and provides scholarship for researchers, and to also to host an annual lecture on rugby league history.
So this year's events have been timed to coincide with the Australian's Society for Sport History's conference, one day of which we've been really pleased to host here at the library today. And it also coincides with the launch of the library's new exhibition, "Grit and Gold: Tales from a Sporting Nation". Our exhibition explores the library collection of Australian sporting history material, and celebrates Australia's sporting heritage, and the effect on our culture over the years. The exhibition's on show at the library until the fifth of November, and we hope you'll take the time to have a wander through the exhibition following tonight's event.
Now rugby league as you'd expect, features quite prominently in the exhibition. Now noting our green lights here tonight, I was reflecting today that I'm a Canberra girl, I grew up in Canberra, and I was reflecting today that although some of the boys that I went to school with played rugby league. My memory of Canberra as a kid and a teenager is very much as an AFL town. I was away at university from 1981 to 1986, and by the time I came back it had turned into Raiders territory. And if you'd been away, that change felt really quite profound. So I'll be happy to be corrected by Canberra sports historians, but I think it was a turning point of course in our city as well.
So with us this evening we're very fortunate to have Sia Soliola. Now unfortunately due to family commitments Alan Tongue was unable to join us, but Sia has kindly agreed to come off the bench and join our panel tonight. Sia has played a combined total of 336 matches across the NRL and super league, with 130 of those matches for the Raiders over seven seasons. And as well as playing 17 years of club football, Sia has played 12 test matches for New Zealand and four for Samoa. A tough hard running player, well liked by fans, team mates, and opponents, is certainly a good description. And post football, Sia is a well being and education manager at the Raiders, and gives his time to a number of community and charity organisations.
Joining Sia on our panel is Wiradjuri woman Katrina Fanning. For over 25 years, Katrina has lived and breathed rugby league. Following a successful career as a player, she was appointed manager of the Indigenous Women's All Stars team, chair person of the Australian Rugby League Indigenous Council, and President of the Canberra and Australian Women's Rugby League Associations. And that's only a little bit of what Katrina has actually done in her life.
Tim Gavel, and I've just confirmed, we are actually neighbours, I drive past Tim's house every day and have done for 26 years. Tim will bring his broadcast expertise to bear, in facilitating tonight's discussion about the expansion of rugby league over the last 20 years, beyond its strongholds in Sydney and Brisbane to becoming a national code. As a sports commentator with ABC Grandstand for more than 30 years, Tim has called an unbelievable array of sports, of which rugby league is just one. For so long, Tim was the voice of sports, certainly that we heard here in Canberra. And Tim now works for Sports Integrity Australia as a media adviser.
So before we throw to the panel I would like to invite a representative of the Tom Brock Bequest, Andrew Moore to say a few words on behalf of the bequest and to award this scholarship. Thanks very much, Andrew.
Andrew Moore: I'm a bit of a last minute stand in for Richard Cashman, who if he's here I'll never forgive him. But. Okay, well I will forgive you then, I guess. Yeah my name is Andrew Moore, I'm not the Andrew Moore, we just checked into a hotel and there was a bit of confusion about that. The Andrew Moore calls rugby league on the ABC. My only claim to fame in the rugby league is that about 100 years ago I wrote "A History of the North Sydney Bears". And a year or two after the book was published they had the bad grace to fall apart and disappear from the competition for a number of reasons that I won't go into here. And I have been a member of the Tom Brock Committee, which I'll just explain a little bit about, might not be the best known group. But anyway we have been going since 1999 on money that was donated to the Australian Society of Sports History by Tom Brock, who was a great fan and historian of the South Sydney Rabbitohs. In fact as we've recently established beyond all reasonable doubt, he gave 200,000 dollars in his will to the South
Sydney Rabbitohs, and he gave 200,000 dollars to the Australian Society for Sports History to set up a group that would promote, this always gets a bit of a laugh, the scholarly history of rugby league. Ho ho ho. But in fact we argue that it's important to study the social history of sport. And sport is a really important topic in our country and it shouldn't just be left to, sorry for all journalists, it shouldn't just be left to journalists and whoever. We historians are also very interested in football. It occurred to me, I might know rather too much about football as I was walking around at the top and happened to recognise all of the players in that image of Balmain meeting the queen in 1973, you know. CD Welsh and Keith Alton and whatever, but I mean that's the fate of the sports fan isn't it? All this useless information.
So we are still going, the Tom Brock Committee. Each year we have this lecture, and we're just delighted to be reaching beyond Sydney. Thank you very much to Guy, thank you very much to Marie-Louise for hosting us tonight, and thank you very much indeed to our three panellists, it was very much appreciated.
And I don't know much about the scholarships, so maybe I should hand over to Richard, yes? Oh okay the scholarship is in abeyance but I'm sure it will be awarded. But it's a scholarship in which we pay fair amount of money to a scholar who's interested in promoting the social history of rugby league. And we interpret that very generally, we've had all sorts of people presenting books, articles, plays, whatever. And we've been going since 1999, we must be doing something right. Thank you very much for your welcome, and I'll hand over now. Thank you. Thank you.
Tim Gavel: Thank you. Guess you could write a thesis on the angst caused by the Canberra Raiders at the moment, leading by 18 and winning by two. But as you walk in and you see that famous quote immortalised by Jack Gibson and you think to yourself, gee, Jack Gibson, what an iconic image you have of that man as a Rugby League coach and later as a commentator. My famous quote from Jack Gibson just while we're on the topic, is when Barry Gomersall was refereeing a state of origin game, and Jack reckoned that Barry Gomersall had an egg timer on him 'cause he blew the whistle every four minutes.
Anyway so it's great to be talking about rugby league. If I was on Master Mind, Canberra Raiders would be my special subject, 1998 to the current day. But we are very fortunate to have two iconic figures in rugby league for varying reasons. Katrina Fanning played 26 tests for Australia but was part of that inaugural first Australian's women's side. And she's got a fascinating story about growing up in country New South Wales, and the fact that not many women played rugby league back in those days. And Sia Soliola who came across from New Zealand, and made his debut as a 19-year-old in 2005 for the Roosters. You can imagine just as a 19-year-old, and I do have memories of the likes of Brad Fittler playing origin as a teenager, and Bradley Clyde as a teenager, Laurie Daley as a teenager playing state of origin. And at 19 I could hardly tie up my shoelaces let alone play state of origin or play for my country. Sia was selected as a 19-year-old in 2005, but was injured unfortunately, but played the following year.
So firstly, to you Katrina, just on those early days growing up playing rugby league. And I guess you were regarded by many as the pioneer of women's rugby league in Australia.
Katrina Finnaing: Yeah probably for two reasons, as an eight year old in Junee wanting to play 'cause that's all anyone in town ever talked about was rugby league, so I thought, "Why can't I give it a go?" The local club not really sure whether a girl was allowed to play or not. As it turned out, no one had thought that far ahead wit the forms, so it just said, "Player", it didn't say, "Boys" or "Girls", so... I also , for people who don't know Junee's not a huge town. And for some reason in my age group there was not as many boys as they probably needed, and so they were a bit short of numbers so they let me play. The first year they didn't pass me the ball once in a whole season, but by the second year they certainly did. And years later when I asked them about that I hadn't taken into account what it was like for them being the only team to have a girl in it and some of the flak that they copped as well. So I've had some good yarns about that since. So you know got to 12 and that was the end of that, and really didn't give rugby league another thought, didn't have any visibility of women playing at that stage at least out in group nine. Came to Canberra, was playing national league soccer for the ACT and came across some women watching a Raiders game at the Irish Club as it turned out. And they'd made a couple of off comments about Laurie who's a cousin of mine. So I felt like I needed to defend his honour. And the basic response was, "Well if you know so much why don't you go and play?" And I said, "Well okay I will," and got back into playing women's rugby league. And that was in early 1995, and by the end of the year I was lining up, well actually by the first of July that year had league come over to play the Kiwis for the first ever women's test match.
Tim Gavel: 'Cause you played 14 seasons but only played 26 games, which is an indication of how few games there were for women. And I mean we've got 10 teams for the upcoming NRLW season, but that's an increase of four from last year. So it's a slow burn isn't it?
Katrina Fanning: It is, but I was trying to do some, 'cause the records back in my under eights days was pretty minimal but it was probably something like girls registrations as far as a proportion for the game in those days might've been one in 1,000, today it's one in five.
Tim Gavel: Wow that's great. We'll talk about those early days in a moment, love to hear any Laurie Daley stories you've got too.
Katrina Fanning: He wasn't very good at tying his shoelaces either.
Tim Gavel: But Sia you came across, and there weren't too many Polynesian players in rugby league. If you have a look, for instance the Canberra Raiders in 1989 when they won the premiership they had seven local players, seven players born in either Goulburn, either Queanbeyan or Canberra. They had six players from Queensland, they had John Ferguson, Dean Lance, who'd come across from playing in Sydney. An indication of you know, there weren't many around. But now there's 45% of the players from Pacifica.
Sia Soliola: Yep.
Tim Gavel: Well why has there been that incredible influx? Because weren't they all playing rugby union back there, were they sort of?
Sia Soliola: Oh they are just a lot of them that probably didn't qualify for the union, come over to rugby league. But I was quite similar. I grew up watching rugby union a lot. I was actually, when I first came to Canberra, when I saw like Jared Roth and, you know, those guys who were the Brumbies 'cause we basically watched the Brumbies always smashed the Auckland Blues in that era when they were dominant around that rugby union career. But I always enjoyed the game of rugby league. How I actually come over to Australia and actually get a shot to be contracted here over to the Roosters was we came over for a football trip with our local football trip. We fund raised, we went over and played St. Mary's and Penrith with SG War team at that time over in St. Mary's. And I was fortunate enough that a few scouts were there. Some big fella come up to me after the game, said, "Hey how are you going? We got Ricky Short over there, he wants to have a chat to you." So I was like, "Oh yeah?" So I had a chat to stick and...
Tim Gavel: That was when he was catching the Roosters?
Sia Soliola: Yeah that's when he was catching Roosters at the time, sorry, and yeah, he asked me if like I was interested in actually moving over to Australia and come over to the Roosters. And I was like, "Oh look I'll have a chat to mom and dad and see how we go. Went back into the shed and my mates grandfather was like, "Do you know who that was?" And I was like, "Yeah that was Ricky Short." And he was like, "No you idiot, the other guy." And I was like, "No." Little did I know it was Arthur Beetson, one of the. I was like, "Yeah he's that guy." But yeah it was Artie Beetson, and fast forward, I ended up signing with the Roosters, come over, still didn't know who Artie was. He picked me up from the airport, took me over and get all the papers done at the leagues club over there at Bondi Junction, and I was like, "Hey Artie there's a picture of you there." And he was like, "Yeah mate, I used to play footie back in the day," and you know the rest was history and then I just got to know everything about rugby league 'cause obviously rugby union was quite a dominant sport over there in New Zealand.
But yeah when I came over here like you said, there weren't too many that were in the first grade sort of arena. A few of them in the Bulldogs. I was probably quite similar to like Ruben Wiki when he came over. And he was probably, you know, a lot of the guys that we would look up to when we would watch them on TV playing for New Zealand. A lot of them would play that we would look up to in regards to rugby league was more the Warriors because that was, we only had free to air TV, and the Warriors games were the only ones that we got to watch. So we didn't really get to watch many of the Australian teams, only when it came to finals series, which Canberra was very very dominant around that era. And I was fortunate enough to get to watch them. But yeah, coming from New Zealand and being a part of the NRL system and watching it grow, especially in the Pacifica space, it's been really awesome to see the numbers really grow right through.
Tim Gavel: How were you as a 19-year-old playing first grade first league? You played 19 games in that 2005 season and then selected for New Zealand but you had an injury. As a 19-year-old how did you cope with playing against players who were far older and wiser to a certain degree?
Sia Soliola: Yeah it was a bit of a shock, bit of a, obviously coming to Australia I understood what my job was in terms of putting in all the hard work, but in terms of the culture and how to handle it all, we didn't really necessarily, there's no really play book for that you know, you sort of just have to sort of handle it on your own stride, try and work side-by-side with a lotta the guys that you really connected with.
And yeah, Ricky was always a really good mentor and a still a good friend of mine. Being able to stay connected, stay grounded. But you know the only knowledge that you can learn from the greatest is obviously experience. And so being that young, and being in entrenched, you know, in that very mature environment with all the guys, there was that gap but there was still a really good connection, just given the nature of rugby league and how close we all have to be in order to sort of gain that trust to actually sort of go out there and play.
Tim Gavel: Like Ruben Wiki, started in the centres and finished in the front row so. Jason Croker actually started on the wing and finished in the front row so.
Sia Soliola: I've never seen too many go the other way, start the front row and go...
Tim Gavel: Well the topics we're gonna talk about is whether expansion has worked. I would argue that it's been at times two steps forward one step back. Do you remember in 1997 when they joined, well the two competitions going at the same time, and you had 22 teams. And by 2000 it was back to 14, now it's 17. We're starting to talk about resurrecting the North Sydney Bears and putting them in Perth. And who remembers the Western Reds, or the Adelaide Rams, or the Hunter Mariners? I do, 'cause the ABC had me calling them, so I was constantly on a flight to Adelaide over to the . Playing the Hunter Mariners in Newcastle. I mean, who thought that was a good idea to put another team in Newcastle up against the Newcastle Knights? You know like, and it was a lotta hatred there in Newcastle towards it. I remember being in the middle of it at times when you'd walk out the ground and there'd be people with signs saying, "We don't want the Hunter Mariners." "We don't want super league." They're very much an NRL team, NRL town, with the Newcastle Knights. And we're seeing obviously expansion now with 17 teams. So the South Queensland Crushers another side, the Gold Coast Chargers. So there's a few embers there of teams. I guess we've gotta take it slowly. You're on the board of the Canberra Raiders, Katrina you'd know the nuts and bolts of this. And the bottom line is very important, but so is the expectation of success and how you manage that expectation.
Katrina Fanning: Yeah and I think the key, what didn't happen with the Western Reds, the Adelaide Mariners team, and to extent the Hunter Mariners, oh sorry the Adelaide Rams and the Hunter Mariner's was a little bit different 'cause of the super league war that gave itself enough fuel to implode. But not enough lead in time to grow the path way in location. I think one of the best things about the Raiders is a commitment to the south coast, to the riverina, to sort of bush communities and not just to Canberra and Queenbeyan. And I think that Red Cliff, and now the Dolphins, certainly a good example of making sure you get that pathway right and to keep committed to that.
Six weeks ago we had clubs sort of under the pump because they were having a week off in their bye week and gone to Bali and those sorta things. The Dolphins took half their playing group and did a mini tour of the Northern Territory which is per head a population has the highest registrations for rugby league, and they just saw this heartland it's untapped. And so they've got a much better commitment to the pipeline and growing their own pathways. And I think we've done an expansion before. And I know with the Raiders, the commitment to taking games, to catch whether it's pre season or regular season, getting out to our regional community and making them feel like they're part of the Raiders family is incredibly important.
Our strategy includes the conversion of local talent into NRL Raiders contracts, and a real commitment to trying to optimise that. Because then the kids sort of grown up in our community, people that follow the Raiders probably follow the Tuggeranong Bush Rangers, or the Gungahlin Bulls, and they see these kids coming through their own club systems, that to us builds a lot more momentum around the playing group. And it's a lot more sustainable for us as a club.
Tim Gavel: I think you're right there, because when the Raiders started it was very much a local team borne out of the Queanbeyan Blues. And if you remember that 1989 season, as I mentioned a moment ago there was seven local players, seven locally bred players if you include Laurie Daley. There were seven local players, six from Queensland, it was pretty much a local team. I would argue that rugby league has become, almost mercenary now because you've got players just moving from one club to the other, doesn't seem to be that connection to the community as individuals. But as a club you do have that commitment.
The Raiders have got two local born players in the team at the moment, or on the weekend anyway, Matt Frawley was born in Canberra, Zac Guildford was born in Canberra, Sebastian Chris came here when he was eight-years-old. As you can see, Nick Cotric I think was born in Kuma, but the rest are from everywhere, but we do regard them as our own. I think it's a sign of maturity more than anything else, that we are accepting of players from elsewhere and adopt them as our own. We're all sad that Jack Wighton for instance is going. Been a great player for the Raiders. Came across from Orange. We almost regard country New South Wales as their own.
Katrina Fanning: Anything that's not on the coast is ours.
Tim Gavel: What's that?
Katrina Fanning: Anything not on the coast is ours.
Tim Gavel: Yeah, that's right. But that's the way that we feel about it, isn't it? That we feel as though even though they're not born here they're very much ours. And I think it's important in the maturity of rugby league.
Sia Soliola: Yeah, no that's definitely something that we... I know for me personally when I first come to Canberra, Ricky spoke about that when Mal and I think, it was Mal Maningo when he made the comment of, "You don't have to be from Canberra to be a Canberran." And I think we've all adopted that, that's definitely a quote that we tell a lot of the parents, a lot of the players when they come into Canberra that we can make it as much as our own as we want to.
‘Cause we're like, you know, being the wellbeing and education department we help out with the communities and academies as well. And so we go out to the riverinas, monaros, we talk to those kids. And we deliver all the education parts and you know it's always nice to sort of be someone that's sort of been in the environment to actually deliver messages from real time experience.
You know I was born in New Zealand, travelled everywhere, but this is definitely a place I really love calling home. And so when I'm actually talking to people about the Canberra Raiders, it's actually, it goes to a little bit deeper than when you're just actually spitting out facts, it's just real time truth.
Tim Gavel: One of the good parts about rugby league back in those innocent days, 1989, my favourite year. But if you look back at 1989 you had the players having jobs. And so Gary Coiner on the video, here's his shop, main street of Queanbeyan had John Ferguson coming around to your work putting fire extinguishers in, you could buy a car from Glen Lazarus or Brent Todd. Mal, the company president, might've even been selling real estate or something.
So they were just everywhere the Raiders. It wasn't as if they'd turned up to training and trained full-time back in those days, they'd go to Seiffert Oval and train from about five o'clock onwards, and they'd train 'til about, I remember some of them sort of training 'til about 10 o'clock at night. You'd have father John Woods doing laps of the oval as the club chaplain, like, it was quite an extraordinary experience if you have a look back at it now. And then you had, soon as super league came in you had players turning up in flash cars, no longer beaten up Utes. And driving mom and dads car, no roaring into the car park, and it was a different time.
Do you remember those days at all, Katrina? And Laurie Daley, I mean he had his name on the top of a trophy shop in Queanbeyan next to the Queanbeyan leagues club.
Katrina Fanning: We did used to be amused on the Friday night football when he had different jobs came up. Like I think like one time he was listed as a forklift driver. Never drove a forklift. And he was a green keeper at one stage. He might've turned up at the bowling club at Queanbeyan a couple times which was next door to Seiffert a couple times. But certainly seeing the impact on him and the family decision making when super league came, because it was a quantum leap in professionalism, and player contracts, and really for him not having done much more at high school than play football to be honest. Some really big decisions to make sure that he was thinking about life after football. That was probably the first time I ever heard him even talk about those sorta decisions.
But what super league did besides the sort of pressure and feeling like well we signed early on the thinking everyone was signing it, now they're not, what have we got ourselves into? But certainly that difference in what they were now earning, and what they're now responsible for, and trying to hold the legacy of the game together really was the start of something very different for the game. And it did take it away from the catching up with everyone up the street and we're all working together to that's what you do full-time now. And that took a while for I think all players to adjust to, which whatever side of the super league war they were on.
Tim Gavel: That was one of my favourite parts of the channel 10 broadcast back in those days, when they listed the players occupations as they were about to kick a goal, or that score at try and they'd put their occupations at the bottom.
Katrina Fanning: Ours was listening to Laurie on the radio and counting how many ums and ah's he said.
Tim Gavel: Well funny you should mention Laurie because he had a ghost written column in the Canberra Times written by Brad Turner, a journalist, about 30 years ago. And apparently Brad told me this story, that Brad was somebody else that Laurie's English teacher from Junee was mightily impressed with Laurie's use of the English language in his ghost written column in the Canberra times so.
Katrina Fanning: Yeah mister Brown actually lives at Kingston now and still makes comments, although Laurie does do a lot more media now so he's sort of obviously improved a lot, but it was quite interesting in those days how quickly his English had improved.
Tim Gavel: Yes and spelling and grammar, exceptional. What about you? Did you have a job when you came to the Roosters in 2005, or had super league, sort of in the money and the game?
Sia Soliola: Yeah, no.
Tim Gavel: Made it fully professional.
Sia Soliola: That was long gone. My memory of super league was when we were over in New Zealand and they obviously switched over to super league. And so I was wondering why the team that would score a try would have to kick off again, so that you know when they sort of changed the rules. So that was sorta my memory of super league, but when I came over here that was we sort of just got the stories about the after effects that happened from super league.
Tim Gavel: In terms of being a professional, you didn't have to have a job?
Sia Soliola: No.
Tim Gavel: Playing rugby league in those days?
Sia Soliola: No, no 'cause I was in school. And then once I finished school, then I was fortunate enough to go into full- time training.
Tim Gavel: Yes. Craig Bellamy used to make the Melbourne Storm players go and work on a building site for a week before they--
Katrina Fanning: Yeah, he still does.
Sia Soliola: Yes,
Tim Gavel: Still does, yeah?
Sia Soliola: Yeah, I heard that.
Tim Gavel: So yeah, those sort of things are so important aren't they, to ground the players, just to make sure that they understand how privileged they are.
Sia Soliola: Yeah, that's right. And that's something that we try and tell like a lot of our part-timers that aren't in the full-time system yet. Really understand what the value of things are 'cause that's probably some of the things when guys will come straight into the full site and system, they get a lot of things done for them, in terms of scheduling, they're financially stable, a lot of support sort of around 'em if they're in NRL contract. And so what we try and tell a lot of the part-timers that are coming into that system, is really understanding the value of, 'cause they'll be working a lotta those guys, they're just really getting understanding the value of it, how hard something is, you know, before they get it sorta given to them when they're in the full-time system.
Tim Gavel: Yes just on just how hard rugby league is, I would argue that it's tougher getting up now than it has ever been. It just seems to be so physical, so fast. And just how tough is it, as a player? 'Cause you see players just getting absolutely smashed, you think, "Well how are they "gonna get up, continue playing?" And then walk around the following day and play with the kids you know.
Sia Soliola: Yeah it's probably, Katrina could probably back me up on this, it's probably more the training that's probably a lot harder nowadays. When I see the guys, I always get asked the question, do I miss the game? To a degree, but when you actually see them training and all the amount of effort and work that it actually sorta goes into that 80 minutes in the field. Alan Tongue always talks about it all the time in terms of 10,080 minutes that we have throughout the week, the actual 10,000 minutes that you have to look after yourself, prepare yourself for that 80 minute period, there's a lot that really goes into it.
And the game part of it, it's more of you're just ready and you actually I guess when you're doing anything, when you're sort of preparing something, like if you're going for a dance or whatever, 'cause we're in the entertainment business, you're actually performing. But all the things that lead up to that, that's all the hard slogging 'cause you have to get up, whether you want to or not you have to do your weights, you have to do the conditioning, you have to do the wrestling sessions.
Tim Gavel: And you got a stack of kids, too. They all want you to play with them.
Sia Soliola: No that's right. So you gotta be calculated in how you sorta manage your time and energy. And on top of that you've got club commitments as well. So yeah there's a lot that really goes into it.
Tim Gavel: You're not too sore to, you know, get the kids?
Sia Soliola: I was but now I'm all good now, now that I no longer play.
Tim Gavel: But when you were playing?
Sia Soliola: Oh when I was playing? Yeah, no it was, I was sorta had like a time limit. You know with all the kids and stuff like that I would be like, "All right, all right, "daddy's gotta rest now." And so put all the ice packs on and they'll start playing with the ice packs and all that, say, "All right kids, get away."
Tim Gavel: What about you Katrina, what was the hardest part, the pre-season training with preparation or the games themselves?
Katrina Fanning: Probably the first couple of weeks of games, there's nothing like match fitness, those first couple of Monday's waking up after actual games. Always felt much sorer then late in the season even though the games were a lot higher intensity by then. But I think Sia's point's right, I watch our girls train at the moment and there's a big difference between hitting the tackling bag for 20 minutes at training and hitting each other for 20 minutes of training. And that gone are the days of sort of light contact, it's, you know, the whole training week is game-like now, there's no sort of difference between that and what you might do on a game day. For us half of the things that was difficult was you know train Thursday night, Friday night we'd be at Morson's selling raffle tickets to pay for referees on Saturday. So we were sort of juggling a lot more of those sorts of things than probably the physical elements that the athletes juggle today.
Tim Gavel: There's still an element of that isn't there, in women's rugby league because it's only a short season, and you still have to work, they've still got jobs. I think the wage at the moment's 32,000, it's gonna be increased to 62, 67 in about five years, four or five year's time. But still gotta work and still gotta get to training, and play, and recover.
Katrina Fanning: Yeah, 32,000 is not bad for if you're just purely look at the 12 weeks, but if the players aren't doing something the other 40 weeks then you can't make it to the 12 weeks. So you know it really is money that's meant to cover the time that you're playing in the NRL competition. But the girls have to find the same amount of training hours for the other 40 weeks that they're not getting paid as well. So we've been lucky with our playing squad. Of the 24 I think we've been able to find at least part-time work for the majority of them. Some were lucky to have, one of the girls, for example, works for Auckland University and is working from here and kept her job. So things are starting to be a bit more flexible, I think COVID helped a little bit with that. But a lotta the girls haven't started careers yet, so they're really just taking part-time jobs in quite manual or sort of casual type of things 'cause it's just easier to pick up and move. And they're really desperately following their dream of playing the NRLW 'cause they're a long time retired and they'll start on their second career once that dream's done.
Tim Gavel: Did you have a manager when you were playing?
Katrina Fanning: To manage what? Yeah, no, nothing like that.
Tim Gavel: You would've had a manager Sia?
Sia Soliola: Yeah same one as , actually. Steve Gillis.
Tim Gavel: Yeah. How much you get in your first contract?
Sia Soliola: Which, uh, 30.
Tim Gavel: 30,000 at the Roosters, yeah?
Sia Soliola: Yeah
Tim Gavel: 2005? Not bad for a 19-year-old.
Sia Soliola: Yeah.
Katrina Fanning: I reckon my career cost me that much.
Sia Soliola: Yeah, so I was very very lucky.
Tim Gavel: Wanna do, just on the Canberra Raiders, and given we are in Canberra, we've got the green lights here, we've got the theme going, and you're on the board, Sia played for the Raiders. Who do you think the most influential person has been when it comes to the Raiders? Apart from the McIntyre family which of course, instrumental in setting up the team. But I know a lot of people say Mal straight away. But, was he the most influential do you think?
Katrina Fanning: Look, what he was influential in was the sort of players that were attracted to the club once he was here. I guess that depends how you measure it. I'd probably look at some of the players in our harder years that keep things together. I think once sorta Mal signed there's a avalanche of great players signing up, it's sort of easy to be successful then. So I look at someone like Tongy, or even Jarrod Croker who, you know, what an amazing achievement to be, was it third or fourth all time point scorer in a team that hasn't won a grand final. He's played very little representative football. For probably two-thirds of that time we're barely atop eight side. So to have some players who still can show that they come from the region, for me, that's the sort of ingredient that shows that we're serious about our bigger commitments and those sorta things.
Mal's certainly helped with the success and attracting players, but, for me, the sign of good teams is, sort of, on our hardest days who do we look to? And some of those guys have been that. And I'm sure if when Mal was playing we were having those hard times he'd have lifted us out of it but he had a different era to sorta navigate. And I think I've got a lotta respect for some of those players who gave a lot more, went probably above and beyond for the club when it was tougher, when it wasn't media beating down our door 'cause we've stacked with glamour side. It was harder chasing our sponsors and those sorta things, they absolutely did extras and worked really hard with the playing group around them to bring the best outta them. And so I sort of look at it that way.
Tim Gavel: Alan Tongue didn't have a manager through his career, managed himself. And I said to him one day I said, "Bit hard to negotiate with another club given you're playing with this one if you're your own manager." He said, "Oh I know what I'm worth." So that's fair enough.
Sia Soliola: Good point.
Tim Gavel: Jarrod Croker he's one of my favourite players, I'll tell you why, he's so humble, he's so unassuming, nothing seems to rattle him. I asked him about social media one day, and I said, "Oh listen do you cop a bit on social media, and does it impact you? And he said, "No, most of the people" "that get stuck into me on social media are my mates." I kept reminding him about that missed goal kick at Canberra stadium against the West Tigers. He says, "They're the one that get , "I don't really care." And he tells a lovely story actually, last year, when he got dropped at New South Wales, he's coming back from injury. And he tells this story about how humbling it is playing in New South Wales when your dad drives you to the Big Merino at Goulburn waiting for the bus to go to Sydney. And then you play, then you catch the bus home, and then you see dad waiting for you at the Big Merino once you finished playing. He said, "How humbling is that." Whereas the first graders are flying up, staying in nice hotels, ferried to the game. And there's poor old Jarrod. But he did the hard yards and an absolute champion according to those around him. So such an influencer, and a positive influence on those young players. So you are right, I love the Jarrod Croker influence on the Canberra Raiders. What about you Sia, who do you?
Sia Soliola: Yeah, probably like obviously with the obvious with Mal, Sticky, Jerrod, all the points that Katrina pointed out. For me personally from a Pacifica point of view, and probably those same points as well, is Big Poppa, Josh Papali'i. You know, he came through that era where it was probably a tough period there. But you know he's been a really, yeah, just a influential player in our squad. You know he probably was at that period where we were probably struggling a bit, but he was still the guy that was able to get selected for Australia and Queensland consistently. We've looked to him on numerous occasions for us to get us outta trouble.
Tim Gavel: He's become a cult hero, hasn't he?
Sia Soliola: Yeah.
Tim Gavel: And they call him Big Papa now. And he's got his mullet and he...
Katrina Fanning: He needs a few more dollars in his contract so he can pay for the other half of that haircut.
Tim Gavel: Yeah, you know. I love the players out there, given that Jamal Fogarty went and played for the Gold Coast Titans, got run down by Josh Josh Papali'i. So they've all got , or that sort of thing, with the sort of run down by Papali'i. So they do remind Jamal Fogarty that he was run down by a prop when he was 30 metres in front.
Sia Soliola: They remind him 'cause they made budgie smugglers out of them too so.
Tim Gavel: They made costumes out if it yeah. The other player of enormous influence, before I get onto my player that I reckon was the most influential. Ruben Wiki when he came to town, and Ruben signed two contracts which wasn't legal at the time. He signed with both the Raiders and the Auckland Warriors, the New Zealand Warriors, Auckland back in those days. It went to court and in the end Ruben stayed in Canberra, thankfully. But, used to have a couple of stories about Ruben, and one that he always used to get suspended when his wife went away. He just sort of lost his compass a bit. But the other one was he was just so giving to people around the club. And I have this story because I was there, Tony Wood who was Victor the Viking suffered a heart attack. And he was convalescing anyway, and so Ruben decided along with David Furner that they'd do a backyard blitz for Tony's back yard, and they'd laid grass, and they'd laid a lotta landscaping in Tony's back yard while Tony was away. Tony came home and of course it was a big surprise. But to me that's Ruben Wiki to a T.
Katrina Fanning: I was lucky enough when Ruben was here to play union with Santa his wife. And we played for Easts. And I remember one presentation night at the deacon sports club, and Santa got for the first time, the club gave the club player of the year to a female and she won it. And Ruben walked around all night in the jersey that they'd given her going, "You know, that's my wife and she's the best footballer in our house." Like, he was just this fantastic, he was at all the games, he'd run the water for us, yeah, just a brilliant guy. And his sister actually played in the first Kiwi test team as well.
Tim Gavel: You know, I look back in of all the players, and I love Mal, Laurie, I used to get so excited when Laurie got the ball 'cause he's 100 mile an hour. But Glen Lazarus, if you ever look at the influence Glen Lazarus had on not just the Raiders, but he went from the Raiders to the Broncos after '91. So he's played in two premierships, 1989, 90, he's played in a grand final '91, he's gone to the Broncos that won the premiership '92, with Lazzo. He's left the Broncos I think in '96 or '97. The following year the Melbourne Storm won the premiership. Three premierships from one player.
Katrina Fanning: His only failing was that handstand he tried to do after the grand final at the Melbourne Storm--
Sia Soliola: He did a cartwheel or whatever it was.
Tim Gavel: He's lost 58 kilos, looks totally...
Katrina Fanning: Yeah, looks good, yeah looks good. But you're right, and as a front rower, and I really changed how those roles were seen to sort of be built around rather than expandable. Especially early on with so many more interchanges, and he adapted as the game changed around him as well.
Tim Gavel: Just on Indigenous players, so we've got 12% players who are Indigenous in the competition, yet we've got no coaches who are first grade coaches who are Indigenous.
Katrina Fanning: Not in the NRL but 60% of the NRLW coaches are.
Tim Gavel: Isn't that great? Yeah how do we--
Katrina Fanning: It's got Jamie Soward, It's got Prince, those sort of guys.
Tim Gavel: How do we get more in NRL?
Katrina Fanning: Yeah, look it's interesting because we have such a structured pathway programme for players but not for coaches. And I think it's very similar probably for Pacifica as well. And really until we sort of make a really dedicated effort to give opportunities in coaching systems for that sort of experience, we won't see that, sort of, happen? So certainly we don't have any lack of numbers coming through. Probably JT's the closest at the moment doing a little bit of coaching with Queensland. But out of that sort of, Greg Inglis and that sort of era of players, they're not really converting into coaching. We're not seeing, not giving opportunities for those to be, sort of, genuine career status for them.
So certainly with Indigenous council that's something that we're focusing on and trying to use the Indigenous all-stars coaching roles as pathways to elite coaching opportunities. We don't have as much influence over the club, so we're trying to do it through and Queensland Systems and the representative processes to show that these former players have, particularly for many of 'em who just sort of understood and read the game so well, to provide those sort of opportunities. 'Cause certainly, like you said without our representation of numbers, more than one in 10 players, you think that that should equate to one or two in NRL coaching roles as well.
Tim Gavel: Yeah so tough job coaching isn't it?
Sia Soliola: Yeah, yeah.
Tim Gavel: Being covered from everywhere Have you been to the box with ?
Sia Soliola: Oh no.
Tim Gavel: No?
Sia Soliola: No, that's how much I sort of stay away from coaching.
Katrina Fanning: During COVID it was interesting, next to our boxes where they put the opposition coaches, and the week we played Melbourne Storm security got called because the people on the other side of that thought the board was having a blue, they didn't realise that part of our box had been cordoned off and it was actually Belamy going off during one of the games. It is fire cracker for sure.
Tim Gavel: Yeah my favourite about coaches of course is that 'cause we broadcast right next to coaches, and you hear them you know, yelling down messages, tell him he'll never play for first grade again if he doesn't catch the balls, but anyway. The message once it gets to the players is going really well just, keep on focusing. I say it a lot because in New South Wales cup because we're not actually calling at the time, but we do here, pretty plainly, what's happening in terms of the coach, so they do hear. But once the message gets out onto the field, you know, it's..
Katrina Fanning: The interesting part to watch is whoever's got the head set on the bench 'cause they look up at the box and you can see them going, I hear what you're saying, I don't know what I'm gonna tell the runner.
Sia Soliola: Yeah that's the filtering--
Katrina Fanning: You're trying to translate.
Sia Soliola: That's the filtering process we call it. Nowadays gotta filer the the message to how he receives it pretty much. But yeah, no just a extension to what Katrina was sort of talking about as well from coaching, obviously commentary's probably another thing as well. Trying to get just people out there in the media space whether it's on the lens or in the background. Whether it be Pacifica or Indigenous, I think it's just probably a huge thing that we can try and promote, and recognise, and make it aware that these pathways or these guys to try and normalise these things, or give a lot more confidence to a lotta kids that are sort of growing up to say, "Well if rugby leagues' probably not a playing might not be the right pathway but these other avenues where I can talk about the game, love about the game, and express ad give my contribution to the game" in different avenues.
Tim Gavel: On the weekend I commentated that Parametta versus the warriors, at Parametta Stadium, CommBank Stadium, and Dean Hallotell is my co-commentator. A very proud Pacific man, had Ruan Sims on the sideline, and she played in a rugby league game in the NRLW in a troll game, and then raced across to be the side line eye. at CommBank Stadium.
Katrina Fanning: Probably 10 hours later she was starting a shift as a Firie. She's still an active fire fighter for New South Wales as well.
Tim Gavel: Anyway we've chatted for a while. We're going to open it up now to questions if anybody's got some questions. We do have a microphone so.
Marie-Louise Ayres: Yeah, I was just going to say if you've got a question, can you wait for the microphone, because we're streaming, and for people using the hearing loops. So put your hand up if you'd like to ask a question and I can direct it that way so. Okay. Don't be shy. Okay, down the front.
Katrina Fanning: Yep they're coming, yep.
Sia Soliola: Right there.
Audience Member 2: I suppose this is really for Tim, but Sia would know. He started with one referee and two linesmen. We then got two referee and two linesmen. Now they're supposed to be human and prone to make mistakes, so we did away with the second referee and we put the bloke in the bunker. And they make mistakes. Which do you prefer, the bunker or the two referees?
Sia Soliola: I probably still prefer the bunker really 'cause we actually get referees that we had been commenting that come in, and I actually asked that question what it's like to going back to one. He said there was a little bit of confusion when you sorta have the two. And that was probably the general feel around the referees. Going back to one obviously makes things like a little bit harder in terms of ruck recognition, but definitely in terms from having one person to consult and interpret the game and lifetime. It was probably a lot more easier, more manageable, a lot more smoother and that as well with that respect. But yeah obviously with the bunker and that as well we all have our opinions, and yeah I'll probably keep my opinion to myself. But, yeah.
Tim Gavel: Yeah I would I agree, I think it's far simpler to follow because when you had the ruck referee you weren't sure who you were supposed to be looking at, and other players were confused. So yeah, I don't mind. Like, the bunker at least gives you something to talk about, I guess. And they do it in slow mo and...
Sia Soliola: Actually, speaking to one referee, is that still going? Actually, speaking to one referee, he did mention that he would like to see the viewers have a few other angles that they probably, that the viewers probably aren't privy to, that what the bunkers probably reckon I see. And that might cause lot less confusion.
Audience member 1: Could the bunker intervene if they notice a glaring mistake by the referee.
Sia Soliola: Yeah, yeah, a good question.
Tim Gavel: I think so. But sometimes the game has moved on by the time the bunkers had a look and seen an infringement, a knock-on, or whatever. So it's part of the game to a certain degree because there are mistakes made but you just get on with it. And with the bunker being in Redfern, like, he's not at the ground, so you know it's a fair way away. Decisions get made quickly, but I just think well it's okay, okay as it is. We kept tinkering with it. I wouldn't like to see it tinkered any more with another two referees or another referee.
Audience member 2: Thank you, is that on? Thank you Sia, Katrina, and Tim. I'm wondering, in Australia we've got a battle for eye balls, a battle for the dollar, a battle for players. And for a game, any of the games, the football codes in Australia to not only survive but to thrive. How does rugby league approach that? And is that about expansion into new markets or is it in fact about building the core of the game and using that as the fundamentals to grow the game over time when there's just so much competition out there?
Katrina Fanning: Two things for me in that the growing and maintaining the game, especially in the bush is just incredibly important. I don't know if we're quite getting that right. And I think just moving the deck chairs around about what sport kids play isn't enough. The data sorta tells us that after 12 and up to 18 we have almost a cliff that our kids fall off as far as participation in sport. So I think that's an incredible challenge for all four codes.
And as far as growing the markets, it's more about how you diversify the income in a way that's sustainable. So maybe a little less reliance, or over reliance on some of the ways that income's generated. But certainly using streaming and other platforms to make the game more accessible for people to watch in real time is important. And they've done a fairly good job at that. I still think rugby union hit this hurdle when they expand into South America and to South Africa and into Asia. When you start having games happen at a time that our kids can't, and our families can't watch the game because it's two in the morning, once you lose followers they're hard to get back. And so we need to do things that are at family friendly times, that are at viewer friendly times, that in ways that make the game more appealing to more people.
And most of the data tells us that the closer a competition is the more times the lead changes during a game the more engaged fans are with it. And so the best thing that we can do is to build, make sure there's a really strong pipeline of players coming through to the elite level, and to make sure that the competition is managed in a way that makes sure that all clubs have something to cheer about and something to follow. Maybe not have a system where it's sorta the haves and the have-nots, just based on what funding you might have in the bank.
Tim Gavel: Rugby league's tried to kill itself so many times whether it be super league, the super league war, kicking South Sydney out of the competition, North Sydney Bears. Amalgamating clubs that don't like each other. And various off field issues. It's tried very hard to do its own massacre, but it seems to grow back like a triffid doesn't it, rugby league, which is good. One of the big issues, just on that too, with terms the popularity of rugby league, have a look at the top programmes on Fox Sports, rugby league is still very very popular. Might only get 15,000 to a game, but you know it is enormously popular still on television.
One of the things I think rugby league has to be very wary about in terms of getting numbers, young players playing, is concussion. Because you can see that parents in particular are taking a keen interest in concussion and whether or not a code is doing enough to police it, and protocols in place. I know the players who you've probably experienced this Sia where players don't wanna come off, you can see them arguing with the medic whos on the field, and the decision's been made remotely by a doctor watching it on television.
Sia Soliola: Yeah and you know they've obviously put things in place and enforced fines and stuff like that in order to protect the players, and obviously the game in itself. You know so we don't have these players sort of leaving the game and forcing to sort of retire and then trying to sue them later on. So there are sort of things put in place for the safety of the players. And obviously just to try and promote a really safe game.
Tim Gavel: Hopefully.
Marie-Louise Ayres: We have time for one more question.
Audience member 3: Sia I'd like to thank you for the work you do for the disadvantaged in Canberra when you were playing it shows you the community connection that we'd like to see the players have. But my question does relate to expansion, and relates to the possibility of a Pacifica team if based in P and G or Fiji coming into the competition for giving the identity for those communities.
Sia Soliola: Yeah no definitely, there's definitely high interest in a lot of Pacifica, in all the Pacifica communities in order to create a team. I think the question is where would you put it first and foremost, and then how would it sort of be run. And like Katrina was sorta talking about was it's more so just trying to just figure out, just trying to strengthen what we sorta got at the moment. And I think if there was an opportunity I think the NRL would really recognise that, you know, with the game sort of grown in the Pacifica space that there could be an opportunity to sort of have a base somewhere. But I think we gotta really sorta try and pilot something first and foremost, maybe like a junior team, or a pathway team, or something like that to see how they would sort of navigate that. 'Cause you're not just talking about one country, you're talking about multiple countries as well. I guess they've got it with the Moana Pacifica team in the rugby union. So maybe that could be a platform that we could sorta bounce some ideas off and maybe learn from.
Tim Gavel: 'Cause you've got the P and G Hunters.
Katrina Fanning: Yeah so we have P and G Hunters in the Queensland Cup and Fiji Bati coming through New South Wales Cup. So I think they're learning a lot about also what does that take out of the teams travelling to those locations? There's no doubt in both locations there's a good fan base, but the infrastructure, and some of those sorta things. So it's a longer term project for it to be in country, versus something, even maybe New Zealand based as a stepping stone into the Pacific or another location in Australia. But certainly something that's being strongly looked into given such strong representation in the prior registrations that we see at the moment.
Tim Gavel: And there's enormous support too for the Warriors at the moment, even more so than the Auckland Blues rugby union side. So there is a feeling that there might be room to base another team in New Zealand. Wherever there's a 17th team competition, there'll always be speculation about where's the next team going to come from, because you don't want the buyer system to continue.
Marie-Louise Ayres: Okay, well, thank you. Look, before we finish I'd like to invite John Brock, cousin of Tom Brock, to give a vote of things for our panellists for the evening so.
John Brock: Thank you Marie-Louise. It's great to see a crowd here. And my relation to Tom is that Tom's father Syd, was my grandfather John's brother, so I was his second cousin. Yeah and although I was born in Sydney I have a great love of Canberra because in 1978 I worked in here for 12 months in my country time was a surveyor, and I played for the in the local competition. And we played Captains Flat one day. And Gary Marmont was the captain of that team, and his nephew was the ball boy, Ricky Stewart, on that day. So I think we might've beaten Captains Flat that day, I'm not too sure but anyway. On behalf of the Tom Brock community and two of my compatriots are here, Andrew and Richard, we'd like to thank very much Katrina, Sia, and Tim, for giving their time to explain the issues of the sports from Pacifica and First Nations and women's sport. And unfortunately last week I was listening to that game that Tim broadcast because I come from Parametta, and they got flogged by the Warriors so. Thank you very much indeed, we really appreciate it on behalf of the Brock family, thank you very much.
Marie-Louise Ayres: Thanks very much. And that was a great, you know second, are you sure it's only second cousin or about seventh cousin possibly? I hope you can join us in the foyer for light refreshments and a chance to take a look at Grit and Gold: Tales from a Sporting Nation. And a reminder also that our library book shop is open and it has plenty of copies of the excellent exhibition book, it's a terrific little book actually on hand. So please join me once again in thanking Sia Soliola, Katrina Fanning, Tim Gavel, and the sports history community for tonight's event. Thank you.
Follow a conversation about the history of rugby league with Sia Soliola and Katrina Fanning, and facilitated by Tim Gavel. This panel event looked at some of the changes and big milestones which have happened in professional rugby league over the last 30 years.
Rugby league has always been a sport which has rapidly changed as society has changed. One of the periods which saw a massive transformation of the code was the game’s expansion in the 1990s beyond its strongholds in Sydney and Brisbane to becoming a national code. It was also a period that the game became more inclusive with the emergence of women’s rugby league.
About Sia Soliola
Throughout his stellar rugby league career, Sia Soliola played a combined total of 336 matches across the NRL and Super League, with 137 of those matches for the Canberra Raiders over 7 seasons. Soliola made his NRL debut for the Roosters in 2005. He arrived in Canberra in 2015 as part of a club rebuild under Coach Ricky Stuart after 5 years playing for St Helens in the Super League in England. His influence was immediate, and his contributions helped the club achieve some wonderful successes in his time in green, including winning the Meninga Medal in his first season and helping the Raiders make their first preliminary final in over two decades in 2016.
About Katrina Fanning
For over 25 years, Wiradjuri woman Katrina Fanning has lived and breathed rugby league. Following a successful career as a player, she was appointed manager of the Indigenous Women’s All Stars team, Chairperson of the Australian Rugby League Indigenous Council, and President of the Canberra and Australian Women’s Rugby League Associations.
About Tim Gavel
As a sports commentator with ABC Grandstand for over 30 years, Tim Gavel has called a range of sports including NRL, Super Rugby, Wallabies, Rowing World Cups, Rugby World Cups, Socceroos, Matildas, Opals, Boomers, WNBL, NBL, International Netball, Men’s and Women’s One Day International cricket, Big Bash, World Volleyball League for Fox Sports, Rowing World Cup and National Championships for Fox Sports and the 2000 Paralympics.