By NICHOLAS NAKOS
AS a lifelong Melburnian, rugby league was never my first love. It was never going to be my first love. Being of Greek and Italian heritage, my upbringing was dominated by the round ball game.
My Italian grandfather would subscribe to Rai Italia, purely for the twice weekly Serie A match broadcasts.
My Greek grandfather would read the daily circulated Neos Kosmos newspaper, which was often littered with extensive coverage of the local National Premier League or the previous incarnation of the Hyundai A-League, the National Soccer League. His adored club was, of course, the mighty South Melbourne FC.
As my teenage rebellion was in full swing, and I was lucky enough to stay up past midnight on the weekend and I managed to start watching Channel Nine’s rugby league broadcasts.
Rugby league was never broadcast in Melbourne during prime time by Channel Nine. For many years, it was a late night broadcast, often starting well past midnight.
My first introduction to rugby league wasn’t watching Mal Meninga or Terry Lamb. I can’t even remember who was playing. The whole concept was foreign to me. Why is the ball being passed backward? Why are they kicking? What is this forth and fifth counter on the TV? How good are the Bulldogs? Why am I watching this?
Slowly but surely, every Friday night I was tuning in. I don’t know if it was curiosity, boredom or rebellion. Slowly but surely, I worked out what fourth and fifth meant. Steadily, I began to distinguish why Darren Lockyer was making the play and Petero Civoniceva was running hard and straight with the ball in hand, every single time.
Attending a rugby league game never crossed my mind. None of my mates had ever watched the game. We knew the Melbourne Storm existed, but nobody was willing to sacrifice watching Collingwood, Carlton or Richmond play to come with me and watch a completely alien game.
In my university years, I met a die-hard rugby league fan from Nelson Bay in New South Wales. Kane wasn’t a Knights fan, which would make geographical sense. He wasn’t even a Blues supporter. A Broncos tragic, Queensland loving New South Welshman living in Melbourne who adored rugby league. I was sold.
Kane and I might not be the idealistic rugby league supporter but rugby league isn’t a game built on being idealistic.
His love of halfback Darren Lockyer drew him to the Broncos and thus a member of the cane toad army. This was despite his father and brother being staunch Parramatta fans since birth.
I chose to support Melbourne purely due to proximity to home. I once had a soft spot for South Sydney, purely because their emblem featured a bunny. It is nothing short of pure madness for a late-teen to favour a team based on the animal on their rugby league coat of arms.
Five years later, seldom a day goes by where Kane and I don’t talk rugby league. From watching NRL360 religiously to reading the Sydney Morning Herald online and trawling through endless Tweets of a morning, I’ve become the Storm tragic, impartial State of Origin following Melburnian who loves rugby league.
Today, my love affair with South Sydney has most certainly waned. I am a Melbourne Storm supporter through and through. Last year’s grand final loss, despite the result, remains one of the greatest experiences of my life.
Melbourne is exposed to more rugby league media coverage than it ever was. Through the Channel Nine offshoot GEM, three games are broadcast live every week into Melbourne. It’s a start. A record 20,000 Melbourne Storm fans are registered members, the third-most in the NRL.
This figure has grown annually for over five years, surely a sign of the growth of the game as a whole in Victoria.
When people ask, who I support in the footy, my first answer now is the Melbourne Storm. Whilst I might be in the minority, I hope it won’t be long until others figure out how great the game of rugby league truly is.