Watching rugby league with my grandmother wasn’t a tradition, it was ritual. Every Friday night my single mother would get a night to herself — to recharge. I’d eat dinner, put on my pajamas, brush my teeth, and climb into the lovingly-made fold out bed in the living room of my granny’s tiny one-bedroom apartment, watching the TV through a slender gap in the recliners in front of it.
When the clock hit 8:30 granny would slam the volume to ear-splitting levels and “Simply the Best” filled the room, blasting off stucco walls and enveloping us in noise. Tina Turner is a great many things to people: Legend, icon, The Queen of Rock and Roll, and perseverance made manifest, just to name a few. To Australians she was the face and voice of Friday Night Football, the biggest weekly rugby league broadcast, and part of the fabric which made the sport in the early 90s.
I’m impossible to overstate how monumental Turner was to rugby league in Australia. Beginning her involvement in 1989, Australia was only just scratching a presence on the global stage. For the most part it was still an overlooked island, known predominantly for its involvement in World War I and World War II, as well as Crocodile Dundee, AC/DC, and Mel Gibson.
Still, as people began to learn about Australia globally, it remained a nation that exported entertainers, rather than brought them in. There was this humble lack of belief that no serious, global mega-star would associate themselves with something as intensely local as rugby league — and Tina Turner’s involvement in the sport was a stunning stroke of luck. Roger Davies, Turner’s manager from 1981-2010, happened to be from Australia, and he was approached by the Australian Rugby League to see if Turner, hot off the heels of making Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome would be interested in filming a series of commercials for the league.
Nobody internally thought this would come to pass. Not really. It was a dream move that captured the imaginations of those involved so much that a small contingent of rugby league executives and players flew to London to meet Turner, hoping to sell her on the idea of Rugby. She was immediately hooked, and a few months later we got this — unquestionably one of the funniest promos for a sporting league ever.
For a great many people the “What You Get Is What You See” promo is the definitive rugby league commercial. It was the first of its kind, and while it’s hilariously dated now — it tapped into the spirit of the game. Blokes being mates, having a laugh during the week, and taking each other’s heads off on the weekend.
Deeper than that, Turner’s involvement in the promos was validation. A culturally significant moment for a nation that sparked the imagination. If a mega-star like Tina Turner could love rugby league and embrace Australia, then anyone can.
A year later the promo changed as we moved into the 90s. “What You Get Is What You See” was a success of unimaginable proportions for the league, but it was about to hit the stratosphere when Turner returned to change the song of rugby to become “Simply the Best.”
Opening with a throng of reporters and paparazzi swarming Turner as she landed in Australia, the video opened with the icon blowing a kiss through every TV screen in the nation.
Aussies have a sixth sense for bullshit. Always have, always will. We know when someone is faking interest for money, or simply part of the corporate cogs turning — but Tina Turner transcended all that in this one video. She was in the stands with fans, laughing with players in the locker room, wrapping the game’s biggest stars in warm hugs, and playing with them on the beach.
This wasn’t perfunctory duty, it was a performer who understood us. She was one of us. Someone who really, truly grasped the beating heart of a nation and in doing so became its biggest champion. To Australia, Turner transcended her entire career and gave a piece of herself to us every Friday night in a way that made each of us feel special, loved, and graced by the presence of one of the greatest musicians the world has ever known.
Every year there was a new version of the “Simply the Best” promo, and every year Turner was back, having fun with a new group of players, meeting the newest rising stars, and continuing to be the goddess of rugby league. In 1993 she sang the halftime show at the grand final, in one of the most unforgettable performances the sport had seen.
The opening was all a prelude to a crescendo, when 45,000 fans stunned even Turner, by singing the chorus of “Simply the Best” at the top of their lungs. The opportunity to sing at the grand final arrived, and Turner decided to launch an entire Australian tour around it. When the game ended she was invited into the locker room of the victorious Brisbane Broncos, and when she walked through the door they were prepared, still unshowered, dirt-covered, and sweat-drenched to belt out “Simply the Best” to their queen.
Time marched on, and after years of beloved renditions of the promo, eventually rugby league decided to pivot and move on to a different song for the league. Year after year they tried, and failed, to catch even a small drop of magic that Tina Turner created.
Then, in 2020, “Simply the Best” was back — to honor the legacy, impact, and influence Turner had on the sport of rugby on the 30th anniversary of the first iconic promo.
This was a love song for rugby league to give back to Tina Turner. To show her how much influence she had on the lives of Australians. It tracked the history of her involvement, sure, but also how far the game had come since that first promo aired in 1990. Indigenous Australians made an impact on the league, women began playing rugby professionally, teams under constant threat of relocation to larger markets were wrestled back by fans and the people, refusing to allow something they loved leave. None of this would have happened with Tina Turner popularizing rugby league and transforming it from regional sporting curiosity, to national powerhouse.
Everyone has a different way of how they remember Tina Turner’s impact on rugby league, but hearing “Simply the Best” immediately transports me back to my granny’s flat. That uncomfortable fold-down bed, and sporting memories I forged with my grandmother that will last a lifetime. Truth be told, I hadn’t thought a lot about those moments until Turner’s death was announced on Wednesday, and watching all these promos brought back every memory like I was five years old again, witnessing my beloved Eastern Suburbs Roosters use the medium of sports as a canvas to teach me about love, hate, triumph, struggle, and perseverance — all through the lens of competition.
I wouldn’t be writing about sports without those moments, and those moments wouldn’t have had the same impact without Tina Turner. So, to the legend, the icon, the Queen of Rock and Roll, the woman who validated a country, made a sport, and influenced me in ways I didn’t even know: Thank you. We love you Tina Turner. You were simply the best.