Footy for Thought

5 minute read
Daniel Williams

For those of us who’ve spent a good part of our lives watching men play games, most sports films are viewed through parted fingers. While the ones about the hopeless kids’ team coming good under the unlikely coach can be all right, those based in the big-time tend to send the cornball meter into meltdown. With all that striving and emoting, it’s easy to see why sport lures film-makers. But sports fans get the real thing on television every week. There’s also the problem of actors trying to look like athletes. And move like them, as if a few weeks’ practice is all it takes. So we have movies like Wimbledon, in which Kirsten Dunst’s character is meant to be the world No. 1 yet her strokes wouldn’t stand out at your mother’s Wednesday hit-and-giggle.

There’s no fine tradition of rugby league films. This Sporting Life, the 1963 English production starring Richard Harris, is regarded as the only really good one. Now it has company. The Final Winter, made on a shoestring by a bunch of novices, including co-directors Jane Forrest and Brian Andrews, is a gem, a triumph for adherence to two axioms of football: keep it simple and get the little things right. Its backdrop is league in early-1980s Sydney, but after a burst of action in the first 10 minutes, it shines as a drama exploring the limits of loyalty and what it means to be a man.

As a boy in the ’80s, writer and lead actor Matt Nable loved his footy team, Manly, in a way that kids nowadays mightn’t understand. It was a time when your team’s effort on the weekend set your mood for the week. It was also the tail end of the game’s heyday. Not in terms of the fitness and skill of the players, or the size of the crowds. All those things are greater now. But because the teams then were so distinct, with instantly recognizable jerseys, and the players seemed more rounded than today’s. It was footy pre-corporate box, pre-media saturation, and in its honor Nable penned a script — his first — that is nostalgic yet so gritty you can almost feel the sting of a painkilling needle. He took the script to a friend, businessman Anthony Coffey, who with Nable and director Andrews formed The Three Scallywags, a production company that would turn Nable’s words into Winter, which opens Sept. 6 in Australia and later in the year in New Zealand.

In his acting debut, Nable plays “Grub” Henderson, captain of the Newtown Jets. Hard to like but essentially decent, Grub’s an abrasive civilian and a violent player, the type who shows a teammate how to grab a rival and deliver “20 straight rights” to his head. Grub isn’t coping with a changing game and looming retirement, and his crumbling sense of identity draws him into increasingly caustic clashes with deceitful club CEO “Colgate” Perry (John Jarratt) and Grub’s stoical wife Emma, played superbly by Raelee Hill.

It’s one of the delights of a film based around footy that the women characters are so beautifully drawn. “From what I observed as a kid, the women of that time were strong individuals — resilient, but also really warm,” says Nable from his northern Sydney home. “The actresses who came on board added another element to what we had on paper.” Toughness comes in many forms. It’s the type shown by Emma and the wise barmaid Kate (Kate Mulvany) that eventually gives Grub a glimpse of a meaningful life beyond warriordom.

Nable, who cracked first grade in the 1990s, brings an ex-footballer’s knowledge and instincts to the task. The players in the film look the part: solid and gnarled, though not chiseled like the pros of today. “It was the aesthetic of the players back then,” says Nable, “that even if they were very young, they looked like men.” The clubs are real, but the characters don’t invoke the names of champions of the era: there are no excruciating pleas to “Stop Reddy” or “Thump Sterling.” Sprawling Henson Park, frozen in time on the fringe of the CBD, is the perfect venue. Spring rolls are the fare of choice at board meetings. The swearing is relentless. Grub mopes about in what looks like an Exacto windcheater.

One of Nable’s best moves was to persuade Matthew Johns, the former Test five-eighth and now television personality, to play Newtown coach Jack Cooper. Johns is one of those people who can make you laugh just by standing there. Acting, he doesn’t always quell the twinkle in his eye but still convinces as the stressed-out, blood-and-guts mentor whose time, like Grub’s, is almost up. Johns also has the film’s funniest lines, in one scene telling his players in a half-time rant that two of their supposedly rugged team-mates had been off “giving each other a f___ing sponge bath.” By bringing a bygone era to life, The Final Winter will touch a generation of sports fans for whom today’s games just don’t stack up.

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