Steve Mascord: ‘Two Tribes’ and Rugby League’s Australian Civil War

Mascord Tells the Tale of How an Australian Media Conflict Created Modern Rugby League

Steve Mascord is one of rugby league’s top journalists. A maverick, a dreamer and something of a rugby league intellectual. His latest book, Two Tribes, tells the story of how Australian rugby league went to war with itself in the mid-1990s.

Of course, Mascord is a man who likes to do things a little differently. A titan of Australian rugby league reporting who now resides in southern England, the noted heavy metal fan is using Substack as a way to promote his new book. Betting.co.uk caught up with him to talk about the new book, but also about what the Super League War Down Under ultimately meant for the 13-a-side code, both in Australia and in Europe.

“For the first book I used Kickstarter, and it becomes like a race, you get stressed by the end and it’s a bit false really. People sign up out of charity and they feel harassed with Kickstarter,” he told Betting.co.uk.

“So I thought it was a good marketing idea. I thought that it also was good for pre-sales, but it’s very different for Kickstarter because you’re getting something immediately.

“You’re getting content immediately. So at the moment, I’m batting it every day. I’m not saying it’s going to last for 27 months every single day, but also you get a copy of the first book if you haven’t already got one. There’s quite a few copies of the first book in Sydney and I can get them here off Scratching Shed pretty easily, so it ticks that box.

“It also helps me with my research. I put up a story the other day on Reddit about the original court case where the Canberra players sued for inclusion in the 1995 World Cup team for Australia, and they won but were left out anyway.

“I’d never seen the judgement before and someone off Reddit said here’s the judgement. That is before the remit of the book – the book starts in October 4. But if that kind of thing happens further down the track when I’m working through the actual year in question then it’s going to help me write the book.

“It ticks so many different boxes. I like playing with new things and Substack is a new thing so I was just anxious to have a play with it. It’s really interesting the way it works, and I congratulate the people who set it up because it’s really cool.”

Australian rugby league’s civil war

The book deals with the ructions that occurred in Australian rugby league in the mid to late 1990s, when a war between media moguls Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch saw the sport split. In many ways, it was a typical rugby league story, with the sport prone to convolutions and ructions ever since the northern English clubs first voted to split from the Rugby Football Union in 1895.

The Super League War, as it was termed, saw Australian rugby league split. With Murdoch’s organisation backing the breakaway competition, it was a febrile time for the sport Down Under. Packer’s Optus Vision backed the Australian Rugby League. Legal action was plentiful, and Super League, after attracting dozens of the best rugby league players from both hemispheres, ran for one season in competition with the ARL, before a peace deal was reached at the end of 1997. From that deal came the National Rugby League, which is now the world’s premier club rugby league competition.

The war had implications for the sport outside Australia, though. It triggered huge changes in how rugby league operated in England too. British rugby league fans can well remember the often very bad tempered protests over ideas like club mergers that proliferated when the idea for a summer Super League competition was implemented in the UK.

“You only have Super League in this country (the UK) because of a battle over pay television rights in Australia,” Mascord explained.

“Pay television was being introduced in the mid-1990s in Australia. Kerry Packer, the guy who owned Channel Nine, he owned the terrestrial rights for rugby league. He bought them for $1million without any intention of using them because he didn’t have a pay television station.

“Meanwhile, it was also a period where the competition was expanding out of Sydney. The Brisbane Broncos had come in in 1988 and the Gold Coast Titans and Newcastle Knights 1988. Then in 1995, and this had nothing to do with Super League, North Queensland Cowboys, Auckland Warriors, South Queensland Crushers, Perth Reds [arrived]. So the game was at an all-time high.

“Within the game there were people like the Brisbane Broncos who didn’t agree with the way it was being run. There were tensions within the game that happen when you expand so rapidly. There was a lot of jealousy and a lot of money grabbing. It was difficult to manage the growth.

“So these two commercial pressures converged, where these dissatisfied people within the game found the opportunists outside the game, which was News Corp, who wanted content for their new TV channels.

New toys and a new cot

“So you had this explosion of a rebel competition. I think this is familiar to anyone who works in the game – there are people who throw their toys out of the cot and want to walk away every single day. It happens constantly in rugby league, but very rarely does a fairy godfather come along and actually finance your walking away and throwing the toys out of the cot, and set up a new cot for you with new toys – that’s exactly what happened this one time in a hundred years, precisely a hundred years [after rugby league was founded in 1895] which was so poetic as well.

“To go back and talk to people who lived through that – a lot of them haven’t really revisited their feelings on those issues. Some people have, but a lot of people’s feelings are still frozen in 1995 to 1997. The reason I’m focusing on October 4 1996 onwards is because there was a book called The Super League War by Mike Coleman which actually covered the beginning of the war right up to News Limited and Super League being outlawed at the start of 1996 by the courts. The book came out after that.

“So this book picks up where Mike’s book left off – where we have two warring competitions in 1997. And we also have the story about how the cake was sliced up at the end of 1997 and we got the NRL.”

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The implications of the Super League War went beyond Australia too. It is very doubtful that the Super League competition in Europe would have looked as it does today without those events in Australia. The move to summer rugby in Europe came about as a direct result of events in Australia.

“I guess we have the same arguments in both hemispheres in a way,” Mascord mused.

“Some people will say to you that it was painful but it made things more professional. In the UK a lot of clubs went by the wayside and they’ll never be back in the top flight again. A lot of clubs had a brief kind of moment in the sun and they won’t be back again – so in that way it was very painful.

“Neil Tunnicliffe, who was involved at the time, told me that there was this Framing the Future document, and he said that one of the big problems was that all the facilities were terrible – they were so run down, and it was cheaper to have crap facilities in nice weather than it was to fix the facilities and continue to play in winter.

“He said that the whole summer rugby thing was pushed by people who used the Murdoch money to push summer rugby through. But in fact it had been on the table long before the Murdoch money came along, and there was opportunism to push it through in 1995.

“What we’re seeing now in the Betfred Super League, especially with teams forfeiting games that get called off because of Covid, and the lower divisions in complete shutdown, we’re seeing the game in this country return to seed a little bit, where you could almost distil it as they’ve got to hit the TV money, and they’ve got Sky on board, and what else was permanent?

“I guess one of the things that was permanent was full-time professionalism. Would that have happened anyway? I don’t know. Certainly with the money that was being tossed around in Australia there might have been more of a talent drain if Super League hadn’t happened here.

“Some people point out to me that there’s a lot of facilities that wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for Super League. A lot of money went into the game – £87 million. I think everyone pretty much agrees that it wasn’t spent terribly wisely.

Expansion has failed everywhere

“Expansion has failed everywhere. Except for Catalans Dragons, though you could argue that that is expanding the comp not the game because it’s already a hotbed [in that part of France].

“In Australia, I looked at the video yesterday of the promo campaign for the beginning of the 1995 season – Tina Turner standing on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The Perth Reds with Brad McKay putting on his jersey, the Crushers  – it was a rugby league dream.

“I can’t imagine that things are much better now. The player wages exploded, then they bounced back down to something more realistic, and now they’re going to go down again in Australia because of Covid, because of the income of the game shrinking again.

“I can’t imagine that that period of optimism – that one weekend in 1995 when we welcomed the teams and I was on the trip. We were in Auckland on Friday, Brisbane on Sunday afternoon, Townsville Saturday night. Then Perth on Sunday. That optimism right up until the Sunday paper came out and they said Super League’s back on. Just those couple of days – you can’t imagine that the game ever really recaptured that optimism and innocence.

“I can’t say nothing good came out of Super League, I think a lot of good things came out of it – it added a level of professionalism and all that sort of stuff. I think the trajectory the sport was on in those couple of days at the beginning of 1995 was a good one.”

The events didn’t just affect rugby league either. The game’s more sedate older brother, already riven with pseudo-professionalism by the mid-1990s, saw what was happening and decided to go open. Rugby union going openly professional also had consequences for rugby league, especially in the northern hemisphere.

“I interviewed David Moffet recently,” Mascord explained.

“He ended up in rugby league after the Super League War, but he was at the pointy end of Super Rugby and Sanzar and all of that. He said that the push to professionalism in rugby union was definitely accelerated by Super League. It kicked the arse of one of rugby league’s major competitors to get its act together and turn openly professional.”

This book is a very different beast to Mascord’s last one. That volume, entitled Touchstones: Rugby League, Rock ‘n’ Roll, The Road and Me was very much about the author’s personal odyssey and journey through life. This book returns Mascord back to his roots as one of rugby league’s most respected reporters.

“The only they’ve got in common is that they’re both books,” he said, when quizzed as to the differences between his new project and the previous one.

“There’s no similarity at all, aside from the fact that I think where appropriate I’ve thrown in a few of my own memories, because I think it adds to the story. But the first book was something where I wanted to get it out of my system. It was a piece of self-expression.

“At the time I was reading a lot of pop culture memoirs, and I thought I’d like to have a go at it. There’s no comparison between the two books. This is a piece of journalism, it’s not like me waffling on!”

Read about Two Tribes HERE!

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