Was Vegas a breakthrough moment when rugby league changed forever?

The NRL certainly put on a great show in Las Vegas but, asks STEVE MASCORD, what lasting impact will it have in the United States and beyond for rugby league?

MY luncheon companion looks confused. “Why would you come here if you didn’t support one of the teams?”

He’s wearing a Sydney Roosters jersey and we are in Peter Luger’s Steakhouse in Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada at 1.37pm on 2nd March. At the next table is a family decked out in South Sydney regalia. Our host, an Australian friend who lives in Luxembourg, says this could be the finest steakhouse in all of the United States.

I’m unspeakably grateful that I don’t even see the bill. In five hours, rugby league will embark on one of the boldest ventures of its 129-year history: four NRL sides from Australia will play at the venue of the 2024 Super Bowl, the US$1.9 billion Allegiant Stadium, a short Uber ride away.

We could regale you with tales of former internationals piling into cabs, casinos full of folk from Fassifern and Fev, US$25 beers and Peter V’landys getting mobbed. But you no doubt could read about that elsewhere.

My fellow diner’s enquiry cuts to the heart of rugby league culture and to the significance – or not – of the NRL In Las Vegas.

You, dear reader, already know the answer to his question. But it’s not obvious to an Australian who lives in a rugby league-soaked environment so I had to explain it to him.

“In most places rugby league is played, it’s a cult,” I say in response, before forking another tender slice of cow corpse into my mouth, “It’s like a band no-one has heard of. 

“Rugby league, in most places, is ‘other’. You hang out with your fellow freaks at every opportunity.”

My new acquaintance nods to signal he gets it, and talk turns to which clubs will be invited next year. You know what happens next: Manly beats Souths, the Roosters down Brisbane, a crowd of 40,746, Spencer Leniu racially vilifies Ezra Mam, record-breaking TV ratings in Australia and New Zealand but only 61,000 Americans tuning in.

The next day I set up shop in a bar at Resorts World – where everyone is staying – with three friends who live in the States. 

It’s like our own personal chat show set as familiar faces from back in Oz – and Rugby League Commercial MD Rhodri Jones – wander by and stop for a chin wag. 

With Aussie Test star-come-ubiquitous TV host Matty Johns, we chew over our sense of occasion the night before and how justified that might turn out to be. Is it up there with the first State of Origin match? The first game of 13-a-side? The first Challenge Cup Final? 

“First limited tackle game!” Johns offers.

Of course now I am home on my couch in Balham, I can see that these assessments are potentially ridiculous. I attended the first Toronto Wolfpack game too and that felt resolutely historic for many of the same reasons Vegas did – and look where they are now.

An event is only historically important if it changes the course of said history. If the 2025 World Cup was going ahead in the United States, the 2018 New Zealand-England Test in Denver would be remembered as momentous. Instead it’s a rather sad historical cul-de-sac.

So let’s attack this another way: not in terms of how historic NRL in Vegas was, with the teeming fan day at Fremont Street and the fact all merch inside the stadium was sold bar 14 t-shirts. Let’s assess what it says about rugby league, about us, that we were finally able to do this a century after the first plans were hatched to start the sport in the Land Of Hype And Glory.

Why now? Is it just down to one man, V’landys, or has our DNA perceptively mutated?

Certainly, walking back across the Hacienda Bridge to the Excalibur after myself and colleagues Brad Walter and Ben Everill found our way out of Allegiant at 1am (sports journalism isn’t all glamour – sitting working well into the night while everyone else is partying is par for the course), I found myself thinking over and over again “anything is possible now”.

Anything is possible now.

If you can go to the home the Super Bowl and attract 40,000 people and be all over billboards and casinos in Sin City, something must have fundamentally changed for a game previously defined by its regional and class affiliations and a resultant appetite for self-destruction. Some sort of glass ceiling has been smashed.

At the risk of being pretentious by quoting myself, I find myself going back to a chapter in my book ‘Two Tribes’ in which I attempted to distil the “the nobility that has a symbiotic relationship with pettiness, all of which lies at the red hot nucleus of the sport”.

After more than 100 interviews, I concluded that rugby league couldn’t afford not to keep making the same mistakes over and over as it was created specifically in 1895 for those who could not afford to play rugby otherwise. It is defined by what it’s not. 

A favourite quote on this subject comes from Jim Quinn, the CEO of Oldham in 1995, who said: “It is a game built by, played by and watched by working class people. They may not have much in their lives but what they have is that treasure.” 

Everill, who works for golf’s PGA tour and is based in Los Angeles, observed in Vegas that “the game is finally back to where it was before the Super League War”. That is, at the centre of pop culture on Australia’s Eastern Seaboard, cashed up and ready to expand.

In 1997, I found in doing the book, rugby league had tried to be something it wasn’t: global, glitzy, up-market, national. When it was left floundering, it was rescued by the same core demographic that had shown its disdain for those aspirations. Rugby league isn’t just a working class game; “it actually IS the working class, or a branch of it”. The sport is unable to do what the working class cannot do. Traditionalists saved the sport after the Super League War and the game has been fearful of ever upsetting them again.

THAT is what has changed forever after Vegas, whether lasting inroads are made into America or not.

NRL chairman V’landys – like the three of us crossing the bridge, raised in Wollongong- has shrewdly spoken the language of the game’s constituents by panning the AFL and courting the legacy media, which other sports have decided is old hat. He has bought himself so much credibility by appearing to be “rugby league right” that he has given himself space to do more than any “rugby league leftist” has ever been able to achieve.

It can’t be said that the game’s support base is no longer working class but with his duality V’landys personifies a working class that can afford to drop A$2000 on a flight to Las Vegas to follow their team and another couple of grand on accommodation. V’landys and the working class have risen and they have dragged the sport of rugby league with them. The pettiness and insecurity have evaporated.

Two Tribes concludes “the greatest service anyone can do for rugby league is to be its Oppenheimer – to split that atom at its heart and let it operate free of its cultural history without killing that component during the operation. That can perhaps only be done with new frontiers and new formats…”

Well, the Vegas Nines men’s and women’s divisions were won by coaches from the North East of England and from Fiji – themselves considered frontiers 25 years ago. And after a 16-16 draw with the US on the Friday, Canada coach Aaron Zimmerle pointed to his players and said “One day, 10 years from now, 15 years from now, North America will be deep in rugby league and there will be someone there who makes a good living out of it off the back of these pioneers.”

These people have their own rugby league patois – “He tries it down!” Dustin Zerrer proclaimed in commentary when points were scored” – and they are being taught the game by people who were only introduced to it themselves a generation ago.

I can only conclude, a few weeks on from that unforgettable week, that V’landys is our Oppenheimer and the sound you heard just after 6pm PST on 2nd March was an atom being split. 

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 495 (April 2024)

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