THE FINAL WINTER (2007) The Final Winter is not about today’s rugby league: a corporate entity worth millions with a high-gloss sheen to match. The Final Winter is set during the rough-and-tumble days of the 1980s, a bygone era when first grade footy players had to squeeze weekend games in between fulltime jobs. The film’s anti-hero is Newtown Jets captain and full-time brickie, Grub Henderson (Matt Nable, who also wrote the script), who we first meet in the middle of a bone-jarring, skin-splitting game against arch rivals, the St. George Dragons. Deepening the already violent conflict is the fact that Grub’s estranged brother, Trent (Nathaniel Dean), is the flashy five-eighth on the opposing team. The game ends in a send-off for the unreservedly brutal Grub, and sends the Jets’ owner – the cagy, money-obsessed Murray Perry (John Jarratt) – on a mission to cajole Trent into the Jets’ camp, as the team’s coach, Jack Cooper (former NRL star and now TV host, Matthew Johns, in his first acting role), looks on. Tough, honest, and surprisingly eloquent, The Final Winter is a great film about the greatest game of all.
THE FIBROS AND THE SILVERTAILS (2007) The great game of rugby league has more than its fair share of feuds – the festering hatred between the Roosters and Rabbitohs; the heated local derby of the Sharks and Dragons; Phil Gould versus News Limited (and just about everyone else) – but one of the greatest of all time was the bash-and-brawl dogfight that heated up between Manly and Wests in the late 1970s. Cashed up and confrontingly solvent, Manly were the comp’s golden boys, famous for “stealing” players discovered and developed by other teams. Wests were the classic underdog, and when their new coach, the wily and highly accomplished Roy Masters, cooked up an us-against-them attitude epitomised by his coining of the phrase “fibros and silvertails”, the stink was on. With referee, Greg “Hollywood” Hartley, allegedly in Manly’s corner, the stage was set for controversy and bloodshed. Featuring candid, insightful and honest interviews with major figures such as Max Krilich, Greg Hartley, Roy Masters, and Tom Raudonikis, The Fibros And The Silvertails is riveting, rousing stuff, and will enthrall anyone with an interest in sport or documentary filmmaking alike.
FOOTY LEGENDS (2006) A tough but warm-hearted look at life, family, and the healing powers of rugby league in Sydney’s west, Footy Legends revolves around Luc Vu (stand-up comedian, TV host, and co-writer, Anh Do), a young battler doing it tough: he’s on the breadline and after the death of their parents, he’s the primary carer for his little sister, Anne (Lisa Saggers). With no money and few prospects, Luc is fast heading towards losing custody of Anne, and soon has a decent but determined social worker (Claudia Karvan) snapping at his heels. When a rugby league sevens competition offering a decent prize pot is announced, Luc sees a way out. If he can win the comp, he could use the prize money to turn his life around, and retain custody of Anne. Luc reassembles his old high school footy team – a now battered but once high flying bunch of young Aussies from Lebanese, Samoan, and Aboriginal backgrounds – and pretty soon, they have their eyes on the prize. The only thing in their way is a smug businessman (Peter Phelps) who fields a team of top-flight superstar ring-ins.
LITTLE FISH (2005) Though Rowan Woods’ Little Fish is not a movie about rugby league per se, the great game certainly plays a major part in this grim but affecting drama. Tracy Heart (Cate Blanchett) is on the ropes. She’s kicked a serious drug habit, but the dark, tenuous world of addiction is all around her. The streets are littered with junkies: her own brother – troubled amputee, Ray (Martin Henderson) – is caught up in the drug trade, and her ex-boyfriend, Johnny (Dustin Nguyen), has returned after four years in Canada. Trying to start a new life, Tracy soon finds that the past is about to catch up with her in a big way. Also weighing Tracy down is her weakened father figure, Lionel Dawson (magisterially played by Hugo Weaving), a down-and-out heroin addict, homosexual, and former rugby league legend now miles and miles away from his glory days on the field. While he’s only a supporting player, Lionel is the most arresting and compelling character in the film, and in the process, Little Fish was an early entry in showing what can happen to great players after the final siren has blown.
THIS SPORTING LIFE (1963) Based on the book by David Storey, who also wrote the excellent screenplay, This Sporting Life (from British master, Lindsay Anderson) is nothing less than a British Raging Bull. Set in the coal-mining north of England (the appropriately bleak home of rugby league in the UK) and shot in stark black and white, the film explores the rise and fall of a working-class lad, Frank (British lion, Richard Harris, in one of his best performances), who becomes a rugby league star. After getting hit in a particularly brutal game, Frank slips in and out of consciousness and we see – in a series of harrowing flashbacks – the effect that his violent persona has on his teammates, as well as his love affair with a sad widow (a masterful Rachel Roberts). It’s a bleak story and it’s relentlessly relentless, but it never feels mucky for its own sake, and it helps immeasurably that Harris and Roberts give career making performances. Though not a “sports movie” in the traditional sense, This Sporting Life is a story of people wrestling with emotions that they just don’t understand.
THE FIRST KANGAROOS (1988) While Australian cricket has been extremely well served on television with instant classic mini-series like Bodyline and Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War, rugby league has been given extremely short shrift, despite the many great stories that litter its sadly untapped history. One of the rare films about the game’s history, 1988’s modest but highly entertaining telemovie, The First Kangaroos, was a co-production between Roadshow, The Australian Film Commission, Channel 10, and Britain’s Channel 4, and tells – as the title suggests – the story of the establishment of the inaugural Australian Kangaroos rugby league team. It all begins with top-flight rugby union player, Alex “Bluey” Burdon (Phillip Quast), who gets injured and fronts the NSW Rugby Union to ask for compensation. An amateur sport, they refuse, citing such a payout as a tip towards – gasp! – professionalism. The disgruntled Burdon then hooks up with entrepreneur, James Giltinan (Chris Haywood), and the pair set about recruiting players, most notably the legendary Dally Messenger (Dominic Sweeney), to form the breakaway NSW Rugby League. Once a team is in place, they then head to England to face off against British league pioneer, Albert Goldthorpe (the iconic Dennis Waterman), and his not-so-merry men.
BROKE (2016) In this striking low budgeter, towering screen presence, Steve Le Marquand (Two Hands, Small Time Gangster), stars as Ben “BK” Kelly, a former rugby league legend cut low by the dual demons of gambling and booze. Living on the street, he receives an unlikely helping hand from Cec (Max Cullen), an ageing garbage collector and former fan, and his daughter and fellow footy tragic, Terri (Claire Van Der Boom). Never afraid to get its hands dirty, Broke digs into dark, ugly territory, but ultimately tells a tale of hard-fought and heartfelt redemption with quiet but forceful grace. Gritty and authentic, Steve Le Marquand chatted with a host of former NRL players about the difficulties of adjusting to life after footy. “It’s changed a bit now,” the actor told FilmInk, “but until recently, nothing was done to help guide these guys in their lives after their football careers. A lot of these guys have fallen on hard times, and have gone out in less than a blaze of glory.”
The NRL Grand Final is on Sunday, October 2.