'You can keep your Hollywood parties. I'd rather watch the Valley Axemen'

In a settlement 400 miles north of Sydney Russell Crowe is in his element. But this is not a film set, this is the world of village rugby league. <i>Dave Hadfield </i>hears about his passion
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The Independent Online

There is something appropriate about it being a man who won his Oscar for Gladiator sitting on a scaffolding platform, overlooking the action at the Orara Valley Axemen, like an emperor ready to give the thumbs up or thumbs down to the combatants.

There is something appropriate about it being a man who won his Oscar for Gladiator sitting on a scaffolding platform, overlooking the action at the Orara Valley Axemen, like an emperor ready to give the thumbs up or thumbs down to the combatants.

Russell Crowe is one of the world's most recognisable film stars, acclaimed for very different films like A Beautiful Mind as well as for his role as Maximus and perhaps the most famous - and sometimes notorious - man in Australia.

What the Hollywood publicity machine does not tell you is that, away from the cameras, his hobby - his obsession, even - is rugby league. That is why he was at his local club, near his farm 400 miles north of Sydney, last weekend, supervising the Sevens tournament that he has been largely responsible for creating.

"We bought a property here in 1995 and I used to come down here even before they approached me to help out," he says. That help has been considerable. For a remote country club, they have plenty of newly built facilities and Crowe himself puts up the $15,000 (£6,200) prize-money for the Sevens.

"For me, it's all about supporting things where you live. It's important to have events like this, where everyone in the valley gets together and meets each other. It's also the day when our junior players sign on for next season and it draws them in."

Crowe's fascination with the game of rugby league goes back to his family's move from New Zealand to Sydney when he was four. "Obviously it's a tough game, but it's tribal - that's what sets it apart - and you should always support the side from the area you live in."

For the young Crowe, that was South Sydney. "For us as a family, supporting the local football club was just the thing you would do. I could have been passionate about rugby union, but Souths were the local team."

He also had ambitions as a player, before his growing interest in music took him in a different direction. "Rugby league was the prime motivation for me as a young kid, but then I crossed over to high school and band practice was on the same night. I had to decide between the two and that was a decision I made a long time ago."

When he found fame and fortune in the movie business, however, Crowe was able to put something back into the game he loves. He was strongly associated with Souths' fight for survival in the late Nineties, bringing a touch of Hollywood glamour to their battle against those who wanted them out of the competition.

With film schedules, his new commitments as a husband and father and his part-time farmer's life in the New South Wales bush, he does not see the team play as often as he would like, but when he meets up with them something newsworthy generally happens.

Sydney is full of stories about his nights out with the players, which sometimes degenerate into impromptu games of rugby league in expensive restaurants.

Crowe confirms one of those stories, with one slight correction. "It all resulted from a dinner party I threw for them. It wasn't a restaurant. It was a conference room in a hotel, but there was a kick-through that went a bit wrong and took out a couple of ceiling panels and a light-fitting. That did create a bit of damage and a bit of expense."

Crowe considers it worth every cent, though. "The next match, they went out and beat Melbourne, so something worked. There's a lot of misunderstanding about bonding and the importance of shared experience."

There's no doubt that Crowe gets a kick out of being involved with professional players. "When they need a hand, I give them a hand and, if someone wants me to have a conversation with players for motivational purposes, I'm honoured to be asked.

"To me, it's a privilege to be invited into the dressing-room of a first-grade team." The players Crowe tends to see most of these days, however, are the Orara Valley Axemen, who play on a village ground up a back-road out of Coffs Harbour.

Their annual Sevens tournament has been gaining stature for several years, but this time the organisers turned it into a 28-team, open-invitation event, headlined by the Barbarians - who largely consisted of recently retired Australian internationals like Gorden Tallis.

The former South Sydney and London Broncos prop, Mark Carroll, who now works for Crowe and his entourage as a trainer and motivator, assembled the team and it was tempting to cast them in the role of Crowe's own private squad of gladiators.

There were mutterings about the way that they were whisked off to Crowe's farm four miles away to relax between games, while others had to find what shade they could under the gum trees.

They did not have everything their own way, however, as little clubs like the Coogee Dolphins - who lost six players in the Bali bombings - raised their games against them.

The star names did not win the competition - that honour went to a team of Lebanese from Sydney. And two Barbarians' players - Mark Geyer and Darren Brown - finished with a broken leg and hand respectively, to remind them that even a sociable Sevens can be a dangerous affair.

Perhaps surprisingly, though, it is not the confrontational aspect of the game that appeals most to the man who played the ultra-tough Maximus. "I'm more of a fan of the skills than the thuggery," he insists, in between taking his turn as the PA announcer.

"I think people noticed the change of attitude when I took the microphone and started describing the Barbarians as the most overrated side in the competition." He is paying for the privilege of having that sort of fun.

Crowe is such a close neighbour of the Axemen that he would normally be able to see some of his livestock from the ground. "I'd normally have my cattle in that field, but not today, because they need it for a car park." It still causes a stir when he and 15 family and friends drive into the ground in a fleet of black Mercedes. That, he believes, is mainly due to the influx of supporters from out of the area.

"People around here are used to us now. When we first moved in, it was a bit crazy, but now we're part of the wallpaper."

It is having the Orara Valley, his cattle and his love of rugby league to retreat to between films that has kept him moderately sane and kept topping up his creative batteries, Crowe believes.

"Real life is how you learn about things you portray later. I've been trying to explain that to people who live in Hollywood all the time and never leave. And rugby league isn't just real life - it's tribal."

Towards the end of the first day of the competition, with most of the crowd on their way home and lightning flashing around the hillsides in the Orara Valley, Russell Crowe claims his honorary membership of that tribe.

"The Barbarians have acquired a new player," says the other ground announcer. And there, sure enough, is Crowe, a No 7 on his back, looking tiny alongside the likes of Tallis and Carroll, kicking off in the final group game against Armidale.

In his two minutes on the pitch, he makes a couple of decent tackles on players who are polite enough guests not to try too hard to run over the top of him and even produces a little dummy and pass to help set up a try for last season's Newcastle Knights full-back Robbie O'Davis.

It is doubtful whether any film role has given him more pleasure. But if you cannot be the star of your own script for a couple of minutes, what is the point in being famous?

Mud and thunder Rugby League on film

This Sporting Life (1963)

Cloth-capped Richard Harris (right) plays violent, inarticulate miner and rugby league player Frank Machin among the pubs and bleak tenements of the north in Lindsay Anderson's "sport-as-analogy" slice of 1960s British, gritty, kitchen-sink realism.

Worth a try? The definitive and the best. A league of its own.

Up 'n' Under (1997)

Short-on-laughs, feel-good comedy starring the "best of British" TV comedy ... and Tony Slattery. Kind-hearted but perennial loser seven-a-side pub team strike a blow for life's underdogs by defeating invincible, cocksure big-potatoes in painfully predictable triumph-against-the-odds fairy tale.

Worth a try? For Tony Slattery's mum only.

Self (1999)

True-life story of South Sydney, Manly and Australian international Ian Roberts, tracing 30-year rags-to-riches success of the openly gay league star. The Australian acting "legend" Aaron Jeffrey played the lead. Roberts himself later auditioned for 'The Matrix'. He didn't get the part.

Worth a try? A great player. Not a great film.

The Last Shot (2004)

Lame Hollywood production starring Alec Baldwin, Calista Flockhart and Matthew Broderick that bizarrely makes reference to Aussie league legend John Hopoate's infamous on-field finger-probing scandal. Hopoate received a 12-week suspension for "interfering" with three North Queensland players during a game in 2001. Not unlike Hopoate's finger, the film disappeared.

Worth a try? Straight to the sin bin.

Alive (1993)

15 not 13 players, but oval-balled none the less. Frostbitten, Ethan Hawke's

Uruguayan rugby team resort to eating each other's buttocks amidst plane wreckage and Andean snow. Cannibalism complete with a John Malkovich narration. Stomach-churning.

Worth a try? Not on an empty stomach....