The pledge, the turn and the prestige
5 May 2023 - Manly play Brisbane in round 10 of the NRLM season in Friday prime time at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane during Magic Round
The structure of the Magic Round trick is simple enough.1
The pledge: you go to the footy on Friday
The turn: you disappear for a few days in the vicinity of Caxton Street
The prestige: you reappear at home on Sunday, changed in a way that is as fundamental as it is inexpressible
But there’s a second, more esoteric, thaumaturgy at play.
The pledge: state governments have money and want to win elections
The turn: state government money disappears into the coffers of private sports interests
The prestige: football appears, and state governments collect money from tourists and votes from the residents they made happy for a few days
Without the second, that few seem to know and fewer still will ever see, the first part is impossible. The balance between the footprints of Australia’s national sports leagues and the number of big cities and state governments is what makes this whole conjuration work. Games are bought from small, disinterested crowds in Sydney and sold to Brisbane to be played on the sport’s biggest stage outside of Origin and the finals. Perth or Melbourne or Auckland might be interested future bidders, which helps prop the incumbents’ wallets open. Tourists from interstate follow the games, the beer and cash flow, and so do the votes. The second trick works, so the first trick happens with almost none being the wiser.
That’s the magic of Magic Round. Like any good act, Magic Round is also a lot of fun.
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In a country that is so traditionally defined and dominated by binaries - Woolies or Coles, league or union, Lion Nathan or CUB, iron or coal, Qantas or Virgin, Queensland or New South Wales, electronica or rock, Anglo or “other” - there aren’t many comparable events that bring people from so many tribes within a greater cultural sphere to a single location as Magic Round2.
This is doubly true within the fraternity of Australian rugby league. A typical game day is mostly maroon, white and gold (or now, I suppose, red in lieu of maroon, every other week) with a tinting of the visitors. A walk down Caxton Street on Friday afternoon of Magic Round is a cacophony of colour. A flock of birds of paradise would struggle to stand out from the shades of blue, green, red, yellow, black, white, purple, orange, maroon and grey of this gaggle of mostly good-natured, some drunk, a bit too loud rugby league fans, roaming around The Barracks and spilling out of the Lord Alfred and Brewski and the Caxton and Gambaros and CSBC onto the footpath and clogging the road. Provided it’s past noon, a sharp eyed observer will see at least one member of each of the NRL’s seventeen tribes within an hour of crossing the straits of Petrie Terrace3. Ironically, it’s often the Titans to be the last square marked off in this game of jersey bingo.4
Even with last year’s near drowning of Brisbane, the sun emerged for Sunday’s games. This year seems to be as close to perfect as Brisbane’s weather gets. It’s warm during the day, but it’s not hot unless you’re sitting on the Hale Street side of Suncorp and then you get roasted alive until the sun dips below the western stand in the late afternoon. The sub-tropical humidity, seemingly immovable for nine months of the year, has mostly been banished until September. The sky is a brilliant blue, free of cloud cover, and the air feels clean. The night cools things off but doesn’t have the chilling edge that the breeze gets in July. It’s an atmosphere optimised for sitting on your ass to watch an ungodly amount of rugby league.
I went to every day of Magic Round in 2019, 2021 and 2022 and I even went to the double-header in 2018 as my buck’s party. Although I swore off going to every game thanks to the mess that was Vlandoball and a head high crackdown in 2021, Saturday is the first day I’ll miss in its entirety, rapidly joined 24 hours later by Sunday. Irrespective of whether you come to just see your team or to camp for three days at the Caxton Street Party House, with the right attitude, the weekend will come to you.
Inside Suncorp, we are well into the season. We have a good idea of who’s good and who’s not. We are eagerly anticipating the annual Ben Hunt Horrible Handling Error in front of 45,000 chuckleheads, ready to nudge each other and giggle about 2015, which is scheduled for early Sunday afternoon. We warm up our throats, eager to cheer or boo or start a chant of “Bulllllll-shiiiiitt! Bullll-shiiittt!” or “Bin! Bin! Bin!” as appropriate.
The Dogs have yet to win in front of the chanting chuckleheads, playing three equally anonymous games on each visit to Brisbane. Canterbury are at least offered a chance to pay penance for Canberra’s come from behind victory in 2021. Leading 12-8 coming into the final quarter of the game, the Raiders overpowered the Bulldogs then. So it was much the same in 2023. While the scorecard gives the illusion of a shoot-out, it was largely Canberra’s game to lose from the opening try, scored by Jordan Rapana 61 seconds into the contest.
To their credit, the Bulldogs don’t give up after that first kick in the teeth and over the next hour trade blows with the Raiders but Canberra have them cornered and merely need to see out the game. A pair of late tries evens up the scoreline - including the weekend’s first penalty try - and give hope to the blue and white brigade but it’s too little, too late.
At 8pm, with the warm-up fixture out of the way, the game that people actually came to see kicks off. The recent history between these two teams has tended to lopsidedness, either one way or another, and it’s immediately clear that the Broncos are going to win this game. After 13 minutes, no one is left in any doubt after Billy Walters manages to cross the line, which he’s been desperate to do all season, and finally notches up his first try of 2023.
With about ten minutes left in the first half, the crowd has switched off from the game, the result inevitable, and works on their Mexican wave. The wave does five or so consecutive laps around the stadium, which has to be a record for Suncorp, and is far more entertaining than Manly’s alternation between insipid fifth tackle options and straight up dropping the ball.
The fireworks at half time5 wows the crowd, yielding more applause than Manly managed to create, which makes me wonder whether pyrotechnics are not a regular feature of games outside of Brisbane or if the Broncos and Dolphins should move the fireworks to half time. My mind shifts to whether to get another frozen cocktail but the last one seemed to be mostly air and sugar and I'm taken by surprise by the re-emergence of the teams after the break. Oh yeah, the game. Let's finish this off then.
Manly works their way back into the contest, if not the scoreboard, by at least holding the ball and benefitting from a swing back in possession, but Cherry-Evans’ has nothing to offer on the last tackle, Trbojevic is carrying a handbrake of an injury and no one else seems interested in doing much of anything.
After half an hour of Reece Walsh running around like he’s taken one too many stimulants, Selwyn Cobbo takes an intercept the length of the field and puts the result beyond all doubt. Herbie Farnworth crosses a few minutes later to ensure the boot is firmly inserted in the Sea Eagles’ solar plexus.
It’s as comprehensive a win as you could hope for but not overly engrossing. Perhaps the most satisfying element was the knowledge that Anthony Seibold, who’s ineptitude almost ruined many of the careers of those still playing for the Broncos, is being shown for exactly who he is, as if we needed another reveal that the media’s capacity for sleight of hand and illusory puff pieces is sorely lacking.
But that kind of schadenfreude isn’t in the spirit of the day because it’s Magic, baby.
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The Prestige has been recently referenced on more podcasts that I regularly listen to than I care to admit (two).
There’s probably some multi-denominational religious thing that I’ve never heard of but inexplicably attracts 120,000 clean cut kids to one place. There’s also Gather Round and I suppose the Gympie Muster? Maybe Bathurst or the GP?
Based on the crowds, Super Rugby’s knock-off is of no interest to anyone and the A-League really should’ve sold one of these instead of the grand final hosting rights. The English, from whom we stole the idea originally, are naturally thinking of dispensing with theirs due to the excess of fun to be had.
There will even be sprinkled in the occassional hipster dipshit like me, who will wear a St-Esteve XIII Catalan or a 1994 London Broncos jersey, just to peacock, and then wonder why people want to talk to me about them.
Here’s the scoring system: 1pt per NRL and Origin team spotted; 2pts for Super League jerseys, tier 1 national jerseys or replicas from former first grade teams (e.g. Norths, Illawarra, Newtown); 4pts for NSWRL, CRL or QRL teams and tier 2 national jerseys; 8pts for 9s or Magic Round-specific jerseys or originals from defunct franchises (e.g. Crushers, Chargers or Wolfpack, although the Reds are in the 2pt category now that replicas of the 1995 jersey are available for purchase unless it has a player number or something); 16pts for anything of the calibre of Red Star Belgrade, Amsterdam Cobras, Boston XIII, Carcassonne, etc or 1997 Australian Super League; 32pts for a Warriors bush shirt.
There’s something to be said for the steady cheapning of the entertainment at Magic Round. Under Greenberg, we got The Preatures playing two and half songs and an inevitable apperance from Shepherd, presented as as important a component of the day as the actual sport. Under V’Landys, we’re now down to the quickest cliche half time activities that can have a KFC logo slapped on it, a pair of non-descript DJs and only a handful of plants for Dance Cam. I’m not complaining necessarily, because I don’t think that stuff added a whole lot of value in the first place, but merely making an observation.