‘Violent and original’: Rugby league masterpieces are drafted away from the big stage

If you seek to understand the actions of the big-game footballer, such as Queensland and the Storm’s Cameron Munster, visit a training session and then read Gustave Flaubert, the 19th century French novelist.

Flaubert once wrote: “Be regular and orderly in your daily life, so you can be violent and original in your work.”

A footballer’s life is humdrum. Meetings followed by training/weights and physiotherapy. Every second week a bus trip to the airport, a flight to an away game, a night or two in a hotel, more bus trips and a return flight. The cycle repeats, with a free day two days before game-day.

Training is also routine, akin to Kabuki theatre, without the stylish Japanese costumes but the same polished sequences over and over.

Most training, as well as the off-field existence is, as Flaubert writes, “regular and orderly”.

However, for the Munsters, training is an opportunity to experiment with the unconventional – be it a kick, a pass, an evasive action – yet always within the strictures of coach Craig Bellamy, whose dictum is: “Don’t try to do it in a game, unless you practise it at training.”

Cameron Munster lead the Maroons to victory and was named man of the match.Credit:Getty

For the best players, a match is an opportunity to rise above the ordinary and be “violent and original”.

To this extent sport and arts are the same, with the player/actor expected to reserve their best for the stage.

Munster says there are times on the field he doesn’t know what he is doing until it is done.

This is only partly true. There was a moment in the first State of Origin match when I spied Munster glancing to the Blues’ right-hand defence. He detected weakness of some form – a forward standing wide, a discordant defensive line, an injured or tired player.

He may not have known precisely how he was going to breach the defence but, like all great players who are “original in (their) work”, he exploded into open territory, setting up a Queensland try.

Not all the great ones are like this. Munster’s long-term Storm and Queensland captain, Cameron Smith, played like he trained and lived. He moved on the field with the same seeming effortlessness of his daily life, never wasting energy, rarely gulping for air, never seeming to tire. Always making correct decisions, even with his son’s maths homework. But he did all this on the field at his pace, slowing it down in defence, ratcheting it up in attack.

So, Munster and Smith are the same in the Flaubert sense of rising above the mundane and dominating the match.

NSW doesn’t have a Munster but the Blues do have a coach, Frederick Fittler, who resembles him. Both were erratic off the field well into their twenties, reached the top very early in their careers and could turn a game in a moment of improvised magic.

Who can forget how Fittler was brought back from retirement to rescue NSW in a State of Origin series and scored a try. With a record 32 Origin games, he has the medal for the Blues’ best player named after him.

Coach of the century, Jack Gibson, often said that when players become coaches, they turn into the reverse of what they were as players. Perhaps Jack was thinking of himself. Never a great defender, he introduced tractor tyres to training as a coach, demanding that players leave the ground when tackling.

Maybe Frederick, the instinctive player, has transformed himself into a conservative coach. The NRL does this to the best of them with its regimented grind. Let’s hope Frederick releases the shackles and does an “Arnie” in Origin II.

Flaubert practised what he preached, taking the realism of his daily life and perfecting it in words. His best known work is Madame Bovary which took him five years to write.

In fact, he spent a week writing a page. This is probably equivalent to the 80 minutes a footballer is expected to be at his best in a week of 10,000-plus minutes.

Flaubert didn’t believe in synonyms. There was always the “unique right word”. Ditto the difference makers of sport who find spontaneity in every opportunity.

Flaubert once said, “I am a man-pen. I feel through the pen, because of the pen.”

So it is with Munster, who is more artist than athlete. Once he gets into his flow and becomes seamless with the ball, before anyone else knows what’s happened, the game is his.

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