IN THE DAYS AFTER Steve Mascord’s new book Touchstones was first released, I approached Tony Webeck, the highly respected chief Queensland correspondent for nrl.com, to see what he thought of the book.
At the time, a large part of Tony's working life was focused on the ongoing State of Origin series. So I wasn’t surprised that the first chapter he would turn to was Steve’s critique of Origin football. By the time he had finished the book, Tony was comparing it to one of the most popular books of its genre to be published in the last 30 years.
This is Tony’s report …
IF YOU HAVE READ the musings or heard him speak on the subject in various media outlets over the past decade, you will know that Steve Mascord has endured a tormented relationship with the most viewed and talked about aspect of rugby league: State of Origin.
As a purist, it has been hard for Mascord to come to terms with the commercialism that the Origin concept has come to embody. Origin’s sheer populist nature is actually a turn-off for an aficionado who has chased those chasing a football from Russia to Jamaica and everywhere in between.
But if you think you know what Steve Mascord really thinks of State of Origin you must read his astonishing new book, Touchstones.
This is unlike any rugby league book you have ever read. In fact, calling it a rugby league book — despite Mascord’s standing in a game to which he has essentially committed his life — is selling it far too short.
This is the exploration of a complex individual and how his uncertain beginnings in this big bad world shaped a life that by age 47 saw him accumulate nothing but memories, hundreds of records and CDs, almost every edition of Rugby League Week and $50,000 in credit-card debt.
What followed was a discovery of his true self and how Andrew John Langley — the name that was bestowed upon him at birth — viewed his adopted other self’s twin obsessions of rugby league and rock’n’roll.
Which brings us back to State of Origin, a game that each year stretches beyond the Telstra Premiership’s boundaries to captivate passive supporters en masse and which on Wednesday will likely draw more than 52,000 fans to Suncorp Stadium and be the highest-rating television program of the year.
Most rugby league lovers cannot imbibe enough of the adrenaline that Origin offers, but as its popularity grew from its humble beginnings 37 years ago Mascord struggled more and more with the concept.
‘Perhaps there are always clues that one will eventually encounter a crisis of identity,’ Mascord begins in his chapter devoted to State of Origin in Touchstones.
‘One such clue can be found in people who, even as they associate themselves with something mainstream, with ‘the crowd’, disavow themselves of the most mainstream aspect of that thing. They’re the most “out” part of the ‘in-crowd’.
‘That’s what it’s like for me and State of Origin.’
Although he has been reporting on rugby league for close to 30 years, Mascord had never sat sideline at an Origin game until 2013 when, in one of his myriad guises — this one with Triple M — he allowed himself to at least taste the intoxication of Origin that the rest of us consume heartily.
‘I’ve got to admit, being so close to something that others hold in such reverence was energising and almost intoxicating,’ Mascord writes.
‘I had always believed that Origin players knew, intellectually, that they had a licence to be more physical, more brutal, more violent, than in club matches.
‘But, sitting on the sideline, I realised that committing mayhem was not just an intellectual decision. It was primal. It emanated from the 82,000 souped-up spectators who came not just expecting stiff-arms and fisticuffs but demanding them.
‘I came away thinking that it was a miracle of restraint on the part of the 34 players that an Origin series is not just one big 240-minute rolling brawl.’
But, and this is the genius of Touchstones, what does Andrew John Langley think of Mascord’s ambivalence to the game’s showpiece that drives so much interest and income?
‘I heard you went on a high-rating rugby league TV show and said you didn’t like the highest-rating rugby league games of the year. Are you insane,’ he asks of the author.
‘No wonder your segment on that show was canned and you’re broke.’
Like Nick Hornby’s seminal Fever Pitch, this book is not about rugby league but one man’s obsession with it and how the discovery of his true self forced him to question everything that he had held true for more than 40 years.
It’s going to make for a helluva film.
Tony Webeck can be found @TonyWebeck