And yet we’re stuck with them! This weekend’s Canberra-Roosters match, even without the Sonny Bill Sideshow, is a grand final rematch and was a grand final rematch when the schedule was set. But due to the inflexibility of the arrangement between the NRL and the Nine Network, owner of this masthead, free-to-air viewers get not the most-anticipated game of the past month but … the Broncos. Again.
The market forces that inflict the Broncos on us are the same as those responsible for their continued over-exposure. One club for a city of 2.3 million is a monopoly, and like all monopolies it has grown fat, complacent and inward-looking. The team’s on-field deterioration and off-field indiscipline is one symptom of this, and the reaction to it – the infighting, the vicious small-town gossip campaign launched against Anthony Seibold – is another.
In light of the week’s political events, it’s hard to dodge the suspicion that the 2020 Broncos aren’t just an unfortunate accident but a coded message from Queensland to us.
The Queensland premier’s insistence on health standards in NSW that are unattainable anywhere in the world before consenting to open the border is obviously a symbolic gesture, but symbolic of what? Queensland’s health, the rest of Australia’s dirtiness? The unimpeachability of Queensland’s pristine bubble, against which everywhere else is an infected wilderness? A not-very-well-hidden yearning for secession (again)? In this context, the disengagement of the 2020 Broncos from this year’s competition – they began thinking about 2021 before this season was half-done – is just another raised middle finger to the rest of Australia.
The danger for rugby league is that the Broncos become, through their weekly prominence, a powerful advertisement for the rival code. As league viewers switch, especially in Brisbane, over to the resurgent Lions, the AFL has pounced.
It has already shown a greater flexibility than league in being able to redraw and relocate its entire season (so why can’t league and Nine reshuffle their timetable to get the Broncos off?), and now the AFL has rewarded Queensland’s behaviour with its grand final. There are worthier reasons to hold the event in Adelaide or Perth, both of which have better stadia and larger committed AFL fan bases, and there are solid commercial reasons for holding the match in Sydney. But the AFL, like Gillon McLachlan’s hair, just couldn’t help itself. The AFL pretends that the grand final is a practical solution and recognition of Queensland’s sanitary bubble, when in reality the move is just more of the pandering to Queensland on Queensland’s terms that has landed the NRL with its Broncos problem. Queensland responded to the deal by flying McLachlan, with an extra A-class seat for his hair, up there for the announcement, and hey presto, no quarantine.
This response might be seen as Queensland bashing, but I can’t believe Queenslanders could be so thin-skinned. Before they do something radically insular and vindictive like unreasonable border closures to NSW people, they ought to remember that we do love them. We secretly cheer for them in Origin. We rush there with our holiday dollars, or if we can’t, we wish we could. We envy our relatives who live there. They’re beautiful one day, perfect the next. We really, really love the place, but right now our affair feels even more one-sided than usual.
The most optimistic outcome of all these events is that even Queenslanders will eventually realise that they’re part of a federation and the ultimate victims of exceptionalism will be themselves, just as the Broncos have fallen prey to their own monopoly power.
The case for a second Brisbane NRL team is now urgent. Perhaps while it’s being arranged, the de facto second Brisbane team, the Storm, can be permanently resettled there and Cameron Smith can have it both ways, moving to Queensland and still playing in purple. Then he really will go on forever.
A more flexible free-to-air TV schedule is also imperative. If the Warriors and Storm can turn gypsy for the year, can’t our friends at Nine manage to relocate their crews? Out of 17 rounds so far this year, 13 have featured the abominable Broncos in prime-time on Thursday or Friday.
We get a break next week, but then they’re back for the last two rounds, just like those missing sideburns on all the players, an ugly emptiness, a 2020 fashion statement making this year memorable for all the wrong reasons.
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Malcolm Knox is a journalist, author and columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.