Old Empire Dies Hard at Langlands (Tsunami Graciously Holds Off For Finals)

by matchdayburger

Valleys Diehards v Brisbane Natives; BSDRL Northern 1 Conference, Grand Final; Langlands Park; 31/8/2013

Whilst the impacts of a ‘bald veteran’ are not readily quantifiable, they are widely understood in rugby league circles…

Report by Scott Gittoes

As a keen student of world history will tell you, empires always fade.  The Fortitude Valley Diehards claimed Brisbane’s inaugural rugby league premiership in 1909 and became an indomitable twentieth-century force, once led by The King himself.  Today, decades after folding due to financial difficulties, Valleys’ record of twenty-four first-grade premierships is peerless.

Whilst collapse is certain, empires rarely meet with extinction.  The withered heart subsists; smaller, weaker, but still beating. Think of empires Ottoman, Portuguese, and Spanish.  Think Sizzler Restaurants.  Likewise, the Valleys Diehards Juniors remain; and a solitary senior team flies the royal blue out of the juniors’ clubhouse in the Brisbane Second Division Rugby League, Northern 1 Conference.  That’s what’s left of first-grade’s most successful club.

Today, the last of the empire’s soldiers, nineteen in fact, are walking out of the ‘home’ change-rooms – a formidable seventies-era brick bunker that appears capable of withstanding heavy shelling – onto a tightly-clipped Langlands Park for an afternoon Grand Final against the Brisbane Natives.  These Diehards emerge unimposing and rag-tag.  Their entrance is met with little fanfare.  The few royal blue colours I have seen in the crowd are mostly down the other end, propping up the bar.

The Brisbane Natives are adorned in black with red, gold and maroon trim – the Aboriginal Flag above their right breast and the Torres Strait Islander Flag above their left – an all-indigenous team.  Glancing at the match-day program, I spot three Natives with the same surname on the team-list.  I’m enthusiastically informed by a supporter that, yes, they are brothers.  She goes on, “they’re all related out there; uncles, nephews, cousins…” I’m not certain if the three are brothers in the traditional sense or more informally so, but it doesn’t really matter, it’s clearly a family affair.  The team-list reveals many repeated surnames: 3 x Cobbo, 2 x Kyle, 2 x Conlon, 2 x Malone.  And the extended family is proud of their team.  Supporters are alight with balloons, streamers, face-paint and team apparel, including shirts commemorating the club’s fortieth anniversary this year.  This familial culture appears to have fostered a culture of success; a long list of premierships runs the spine of the commemorative garment.

The Natives’ canter out of the ‘away’ change-rooms – a thirties-era cricket grandstand beyond the ground’s fences – through their tunnel of supporters and, at the tunnel’s conclusion, a banner made of crepe-paper.  The banner is split by their captain-coach, who debuted with the Natives back in ‘85.  Numbers and common sense determine that he couldn’t be younger than forty-five.  Veterans abound at this level but this is outstanding.

The Natives look impressive; strong, athletic and full of intensity.  At this early stage, at a glance, my money is on them.  As it turns out, these teams met in the major semi-final two weeks ago, and were separated by a mere two points at full-time.  I’m told this has been the story of their meetings all season.

Casting my gaze over the fastidiously manicured, cambered surface of Langlands Park (home to the Easts Tigers), it’s apparent that this field is treated with reverence.  It’s no coincidence that today’s BSDRL (Northern) Grand Finals are being held here, back-to-back.  This is one of the few remaining inner-city sanctuaries of grassroots rugby league.  It’s a remnant.  But not even this hallowed turf is immune.  A brand new polished-concrete two-story car park looms over the eastern touchline like an inexorable wave.  The ever-expanding Easts Leagues Club can only grow in one direction.  It’s mildly amusing when, on our arrival, the attendant asks if we are here for the footy or the club and, once informed, directs us accordingly to the open-air gravel car park out the back.   But this is commercial reality.  You either adapt and go with it, like Easts Tigers, a modern-day first grade rugby league powerhouse, or you fade away, like the Fortitude Valley Diehards.

The nineteen remaining Diehards aren’t fading today.  They are led up-front by the ‘Northern 1 Player of the Year’ and two bald veterans.  Whilst the impacts of a ‘bald veteran’ are not readily quantifiable, they are widely understood in rugby league circles; a bald veteran is reliable and unshakable.  The Diehards must feel privileged to have two on their side that every bit fill the type today.  That being said, the Natives are equally blessed with two bald veterans of their own and this balanced ledger reflects the larger picture; there really is nothing between these two teams once the pre-game histrionics are over and the pill is in play.

From the outset, the teams’ mutual respect is palpable; they’ve clearly met many times before.  Every metre and hit is genuinely hard-fought; each an attempt to reduce the health levels of the other ever-so-slightly.  Ten minutes into the second half I still cannot discern which team has the ascendancy.  This is a rarity for grassroots footy of any code.

League, even at its loosest, unbalanced worst, is an inherently physical game.  But at its raw best, when evenly matched teams are going toe-to-toe in a grand final, it’s a compelling contest of attrition between unyielding human walls.  There is no better way to put this; ball-carriers are simply running into, and attempting to move, largely unmovable (and advancing) walls.  Tight games really are won in the forwards.  And the key attribute, apart from physical strength, fitness and technique, is discipline.  Players from both sides have already been sent to the bin and I suspect that today’s victor will be the team that keeps the most men on the park for the longest time.

An incendiary red-headed prop from Valleys and a rather intimidating second rower from the Natives have been fanning the flames of conflict all game.  Surprisingly, neither has done time in the bin.  With around 20 minutes to go, the tightly balanced scales tip in favour of Valleys, who move ahead, 12 – 0.

Someone once explained to me that the art of a telling a joke involves bending the subject matter to create tension but not so far as to break it.  If it breaks, the humour is lost.  The same is true of footy-game conflict.  Niggle and confrontation is appealing, to a point, but if it goes beyond breaking point, the game’s appeal is lost.  With fifteen minutes to go a melee erupts and three Natives are sent to warm the pine.  The tension is now broken, drained, and then it’s thirteen against ten; the contest is over in more ways than one.  I hear someone behind me protest that three players should not be sent-off in a grand final, obviously channelling the same logic that expects penalty-counts to be square at full-time.  The binned players were asking for, and indeed commencing fights right under the referee’s nose.  They had to go.

Despite the anti-climatic end, it’s heartening to see opposing players, who minutes earlier were throwing haymakers and spitting vitriol, embracing and sharing a laugh as they trade post-game handshakes.  The boiled-over nature of the game seemed to have become more than sporting, so I really didn’t expect this.  But then again, the mutual respect of these sides was never really in doubt.  Their contest was real.

Match Day Burger: 6/10

MDB Cost: $6.00

MDB Service Atmosphere: 5/10

Match Score: Valleys Diehards 32 def. Brisbane Natives 0

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