Ahead of the NRL grand final, ACM journalist Barnaby Smith reflects on a strange couple of years.
Penrith Panthers are in the NRL grand final, and as well as the club's many Blue Mountains fans, one woman living in the suburban East Midlands of the UK is excited.
"I like Cleary, he's one of my favourites," my mother told me earlier in the season over FaceTime. "He always seems to get man of the match."
She has become quite the authority on the strengths and weaknesses of the 2020-21 Panthers. Over the past 18 months, we have together ridden the highs and lows of this eventful period for the club via WhatsApp messages and video calls: the stylish weekly dismantlings of other teams, the rise of a charismatic group of young players from a historically deprived part of Sydney (Mount Druitt) and indeed the form of Nathan Cleary. From the cheap upper tier of Stadium Australia on cold and wet grand final day in October 2020, I was in touch with her, gloomy and sullen after Penrith's loss to Melbourne, before a grim drive back to Katoomba, Elliott Smith's most lachrymose songs playing on repeat. And now we are here again: Penrith will play South Sydney for the Premiership this Sunday.
Jarome Luai and Brian To'o are other favourites, and she likes Parramatta fullback Clint Gutherson. But Cleary is number one.
"He's amazing," she said after Cleary scored a hat-trick against Gold Coast Titans during Magic Round in May 2021, "and he seems to be able to talk well, for a footballer anyway."
With it still unclear exactly when Australia's borders will reopen, I am unsure of when I will see my mother, who just turned 70, again. By then, it will be close to three years. She was widowed in October 2019 when my father died, and there are two Australian-born grandchildren whose early years she has missed. Yet amid all this, there has been enthusiastic discussion of Cleary's growing stature in the game, as well as various other aspects of the NRL - such as Ryan Papenhuyzen's style choices. "Is it mandatory that NRL players have to have silly hair?" she says whenever she sees the extravagantly mulleted Storm fullback.
In short, the NRL, which my mother can watch in the UK via Sky Sports, and the Panthers in particular, have been a source of solace, binding and bonding while the international borders have been closed. And for a second season running, it reaches a point of trans-hemispheric fever pitch with Penrith's participation in the game's showpiece.
It all began when the NRL started up again in late May 2020 after its COVID-enforced hiatus. For a time it felt like the only elite sport in the world that could be watched live, and after my encouragement that she tune in, my mother was curious, perhaps dubious, then intrigued.
And it's been an odd experience, cementing a connection with a 70-year-old middle-class English woman through the Panthers, the Blue Mountains' much-loved local team. Maybe it should be different: perhaps we should be discussing those grandchildren, the communities of our respective regions as they adapt to the pandemic, her (Zoom) choir, or whatever else is 'important'. But all these things are infused with a sharp sadness. The NRL, meanwhile, with its distance from our personal lives, its drama and silliness, and let's face it, sweet irrelevance, refreshes itself every week. It is an impartial third party between us; it might be described as the neutral focus point for our relationship.
And her interest has revitalised mine. Rugby league can be a difficult sport to like sometimes (off-field behaviour of players, confusion about rules, the pervasive commercialism), to the point that following the game became a guilty pleasure, kept secret. But my mother, far removed from the churn of the midweek NRL news thresher, sees only what happens on the field and no more, and by the standards of that alone it remains an alluring phenomenon full of theatre, personality and intrigue (especially when Penrith are involved). Viewed through her detached eyes, it's easy to see how entertaining a product it truly is - it may be glib to say so, but perhaps the NRL is best enjoyed from overseas.
"It was upsetting to see the cut on Cleary's face," she wrote after State of Origin I, the halfback having suffered a gory laceration to his right cheek. "I hope he's okay."
He'll have one fan cheering him on from Northamptonshire this weekend.