If asked, I would have described myself as a pretty casual rugby league fan. Someone who grew up watching it but whose interest had gradually waned over ensuing decades. So it came as something of a shock last week to find myself standing barefoot in the street screaming over a game of football. Clearly dormant passions ran deeper than I’d thought.
My fate was predetermined. At age two, my room was painted in garish blue and gold by dad, the colours of his beloved Parramatta Eels. Baptism by Dulux. Dad grew up near Parramatta, at least. I did not. Although I suspect many Australians know what it’s like to have their football allegiances brainwashed into them at a young age.
Mine turned out to be a somewhat dubious inheritance. The 1986 grand final is the first game of football I can actually remember watching, and it was all downhill from there. Parra have now gone 36 years without a premiership – the longest current NRL drought.
The Eels’ capacity for breaking hearts has become legendary. Abandoning an 18-2 lead with 11 minutes to play against the Bulldogs in the finals in 1998. Being eviscerated by Andrew Johns in the first half of the 2001 grand final. These, however, came in our good years. Far more of the past 36 have been spent in bumbling ineptitude both on and off the field. This is a team who cheated on the salary cap and still finished last.
While I never miss a State of Origin or grand final, my patience for regular-season NRL has eroded over the years. All sports have their patterns but rugby league is particularly repetitive – brutally so, as both teams wrestle for every single metre. And the more I read about on-field concussions the more uneasy I feel about supporting an empire built on sending young men into harm’s way.
Sport is far more than cheering on a shirt, it is subscribing to a shared experience
But a love of sport defies rational thought – especially for Parramatta fans, as I was reminded last week when a power blackout at home interrupted my preparations for their preliminary final. Another example of the Parra curse? Or the rugby league gods protecting me from myself?
I managed to tether the laptop to my phone, only to find the 4G network jammed. When my wife got home from a stressful 12-hour day just after kick-off, I barely said hello before commandeering her phone on a different network. Success! I forgot to tell her, however. So when she set off 20 minutes later to pick up our daughter from a party (after her 12-hour day … I know) the laptop froze. I froze. Then, like Maika Sivo down the touchline, I dashed out the door in my trackies and bare feet trying to head her off. I was less than a metre from the car running at full pelt when she started to pull away, my frantic waving and yelling failing to attract her attention in the rear view mirror.
On the third call she picked up and reluctantly returned home, making her late to pick up our eight-year-old girl. I knew my daughter would understand, though. I’ve been brainwashing her about the Eels all season. In fact, I put their last two wins down to the lucky blue and gold bracelet she made me for Father’s Day.
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once suggested loyalty to any sports team “is pretty hard to justify, because the players are always changing”. “You’re actually rooting for the clothes, when you get right down to it.” Having only been to Parramatta a handful of times, there’s an element of truth to this. It’s difficult to pinpoint why exactly I care about these 17 men in blue and gold, with whom I have very little in common, over 17 men in black with whom I have very little in common.
But as I sat on the edge of my couch in those final five minutes, while the buffering laptop exacerbated my nervous agony, it was clear sport is far more than cheering on a shirt – it is subscribing to a shared experience.
That’s true with friends and family, with whom I started immediately sharing texts once victory was sealed, but also the wider Eels fan base, most of whom I have nothing in common with except 36 years of heartbreak and nagging hope. As Badly Drawn Boy once sang, the joy is not the same without the pain. And nobody does pain quite like Parramatta.
I considered a whirlwind trip to Sydney for the grand final. I’ve got mates headed to the local pub or there’s the annual end-of-season tipping comp party. Ultimately, though, I think I’d prefer to watch the game with dad and my kids, three generations of deluded Eels fans pinning our hopes on an unlikely change of fortune.