For the Ninjas.
Wati Holmwood has a lot to answer for.
It was his initial streak, in match three of the 2013 Origin series, that began the most fundamental shift in rugby league since it first started in 1908.
Many people focussed on Wati’s interference in a possible Queensland try at the time. Indeed, Holmwood’s intentions were to help his beloved New South Wales side. However, that was not the issue that eventually lead to rugby league’s great upheaval.
The repeat set to Queensland in a crucial juncture of the match was evidently what stuck in many spectator’s minds. Queensland were nearing the end of their set, and clinging to a two point lead. Holmwood came onto the field and interfered with the play. The play was called up, and the referee correctly ruled that as the attacking side, Queensland would receive the scrumfeed, and a fresh set of six.
At the time, this was written off as a oncer, a freak occurrence that could be easily fixed by more competent security guards.
However, there was a greater cause for concern after that season’s grand final.
As South Sydney headed downfield, the scores tied with Melbourne in that year’s decider, there was under two minutes remaining. They were only just inside Melbourne’s half, too far out for a field goal attempt.
As they reached the final play of their set, suddenly four streakers encroached onto the field, one from each side of the park. Security managed to stop three before they interfered with the play, but the fourth managed to bat down the ball before being swamped by security.
The play interfered with, South Sydney were awarded a scrumfeed 45 metres out from Melbourne’s line. From the resultant set, they worked downfield and slotted a field goal – the rest is history.
The fans were, of course, later outed as Rabbitohs fans, but the trend really took off right from the beginning of next season. Rich fans from each club, or in Nathan Tinkler’s case, club owners, would pay for a group of well-trained streakers for each game, in case the game situation called for a repeat set.
These early groups were usually not sports fans, meaning they did not mind about being banned from NRL matches. As long as their legal fees were paid, they were happy to get their five minutes of fame.
By season’s end 2014, the match streakers were a common and refreshing part of each match. Fans began to appreciate their evasive skills, and enjoyed the tactical juncture that they would choose to enter each match.
2015 lead to further evolution, as many actual fans of each side decided to make unplanned entries onto the field of play. No longer was a hefty fine and banning from the ground enough of a disincentive to prevent spectators from making their contribution to their side’s victory.
The NRL stepped up security, but it wasn’t enough. Wire fences were considered to prevent the pitch invasions, but they were not an option at stadiums that were all shared with other codes and events.
By the conclusion of 2015, NRL crowds were down by 50%, as many of the hardcore fans had been banned for life. The sad sight of that season’s grand final being played in front of a half empty ANZ Stadium was a clear indication that the game had to act.
After a brain storming session of the game’s greatest minds, 2016 saw new initiatives to formalise the game’s streakers and make them a recognised part of the sport. All previous bans for pitch invasions were thrown out. Clubs began training their own rosters of streakers, with each side allowed to send on up to four per match, at the coaches discretion.
All match security fell under the umbrella of the NRL, becoming a full-time squad of tackling machines, to prevent the club streakers interfering with the game.
Fans became happy to leave the streaking to the professionals, realising their chance to make a difference was now possible through each club’s annual pre-season streaking trials.
The streakers quickly became big favourites with the fans. Mark “White Ghost” Nicholson became the first “Wati H” Streaker of the Year, completing a remarkable 17 turnovers and four try saves in season 2016.
In the decade that followed, streakers became the true face of the game, their salaries rising far above that of the actual players.
They should never forget though, that they owe it all to one man. Wati Holmwood, the original streaker.