A long read but an interesting one in terms of where the game is going. Maybe someone can put this up on the news page. I'm not sure how to do the new feeds!! June 22, 2007 Some close matches and a few upsets have added interest to the NRL this year. Yet fans feel the game has lost its flair. Matches are dominated by one-out running and defence. There are only a couple of champion players left. Bad decisions break fans' hearts and loyalty is a distant memory. Roy Masters kicks off a Herald series on these issues. The NRL is a rambling 16-room house painted beige. Judging by the NRL's bizarre bomb-shaped logo, the code's official colours are black, white, green and yellow but they may as well be changed to a dull shade of brown, such is the lack of colour among the clubs. Parramatta fans wave blue and gold banners and Manly supporters wear maroon and white, but on the field these two great enemies of the early 1980s are as different as Trinidad and Tobago. Parity has produced uniformity. The salary cap and mid-season transfers have created a landscape like Garrison Keillor's 1997 novel, Wobegon Boy, where all the kids in the fictional lakeside US town are above average. OK, maybe not all the NRL's 16 teams are above average, but the salary ceiling and players swapping clubs before June 30 has created a competition where all clubs are clustering to a mean. Of the nine mid-season transfers, second-rower Clint Newton's switch to Melbourne from Newcastle offers the best example of this levelling process. Newton's move gave an opportunity to Mitchell Sargent to progress from the bench to a starting position with the Knights. Sargent previously played for the Cowboys, who he joined after being a benchman at Melbourne. In other words, Melbourne acquired a player whose position is now filled - two clubs later - by a player Melbourne released. The same merry-go-round has occurred with coaches, with half of them having been at another club the previous year. Fans are loyal and so are players and coaches but only in the way a cow is loyal to lucerne. The NRL might as well issue everyone with black blazers with its bomb-shaped logo on the pocket and allow an executive search team to place players according to a computer that produces eight golden-point results each weekend. The NRL's new commercial partners - Betfair and Tabcorp - would certainly be happy with the unpredictability of each round. With all the colour bleached from the game it's no wonder Paul Oliver's documentary, The Fibros and the Silvertails, has become the hit of the Sydney Film Festival. It was the first to sell out and required a second session. The 55-minute film features vision and interviews with Western Suburbs and Manly players from 1978, the first year of the bitter Fibro-Silvertail war. Players from the Sea Eagles and Magpies speak passionately about their clubs, 30 years after they had literally bled for their teams. It will be shown on ABC TV either during this year's semi-finals or in the code's centenary season in 2008. Wests Tigers coach Tim Sheens attended the premiere and witnessed the passion on the screen and in the audience. Sheens is one of the few NRL coaches conscious of history and has even taken his team to the now almost-abandoned Lidcombe Oval, showing them the dressing room with its battered lockers where all the pre-match motivation took place. He could not have missed that some of the audience on Tuesday night were wearing hand-knitted jumpers adorned with three-decades-old club logos. No wonder retro jerseys are big sellers. Revitalising now obscure brands, such as Dux Heaters and Paramount shirts, mightn't please modern marketers but they reflect a time when fans identified with the kid down the road who played with the local juniors and then progressed through the grades to complete his career with the one club. Of course, there was great disparity in this era - with the rich clubs plundering the poor - yet everyone still spoke about it being a short distance from the penthouse to the basement. Now, the NRL is a sprawling one-level house with 16 rooms of equal size and it's the same distance from the bathroom to the bedroom as it is from the kitchen to the laundry. We still get seasons where a club goes from worst to first within seven months, such as Wests Tigers and the Panthers. But what happens the following season? They jump on the descending escalator, which seems to be travelling faster than the one going up. It's almost as if all the passion in winning a premiership has drained out by the following January. Nothing demonstrates the bleaching of joy, expression and individual differences more than the case of St George Illawarra five-eighth Richie Williams. Ahead of the Dragons-Roosters round-seven clash, Williams made a comment about his opposite number, Braith Anasta, that most believed was true: Anasta was not as good as when he first represented the Bulldogs. For his crime, Williams was bashed on the field, bagged by his coach and banished to premier league for five weeks until injury forced his recall. But the NRL Thought Police weren't finished - he has now been released to Penrith. Interestingly, the best chance the NRL has to change its sterile landscape lies not with an outspoken player. There are signs Roosters chairman Nick Politis and Rabbitohs co-owner Russell Crowe are locked in a private war, luring players off each other and spoiling planned announcements by posting defections on club websites. It's unlikely this battle between millionaires for dominance of the inner-city will have all the emotion of the Fibro-Silvertail war but it might produce some good colour if they actually say something on the record. In the meantime, we must live with black and white results in a world dappled with greys.