(This got a lot longer than I expected, but I do hope it's worth the journey.)
For those of you familiar with me it's no secret I'm a massive fan of the mighty South Sydney Rabbitohs (member number 20364). One of The Faithful, we never truly enjoy watching our team play. It's more a mixture of nervous tension and frustration followed by the euphoria of a win or the blaming-it-on-the-awful-winger-they-always-put-in of a loss.
(Seriously it's like it's written into the club's charter that there must always be a terrible winger in the side. The 2014 grand final was an exception where we had two genuinely brilliant wingers and it hasn't happened since. I'll do a write-up on awful wingers at a later time.)
However the team is currently doing well, so it was surprising to see that on the weekend Souths - the best attacking team in the competition - Took The Tandy against the Gold Coast Titans - the worst defensive team in the competition. What was more surprising though was the number of people who didn't know what I mean when I said "Taking The Tandy". There are a truly staggering number of people who have not been educated on this wonderful, tragic and fascinating hunk of rugby league lore.
A "Tandy" in this sense refers to opting for a penalty goal as the first score of the game. To save this becoming an instruction on the technicalities and history of rugby league and how points are scored I'll just focus on why taking a penalty goal as the first scoring play is unusual and frowned upon.
The penalty goal is one of the outcomes of a penalty - when a side does something naughty and needs to be punished. The aggrieved team has the option of kicking for a goal. Your decision to go for this option depends on a number of factors, such as the skill of your goal-kicker, but also more the state of the game.
A penalty goal is worth two points. A try in league is worth four points and allows a shot at goal for an additional two. So the score, ideally, goes up by sixes. A penalty goal is like insurance - instead of opting for another attacking set and potentially getting six points, you take the guaranteed two points for a 66% reduction in payout.
If you're ahead by six or more points, then a penalty goal is a great option - you get that little bit further in front and make it so that your opponent has to score at least once more than you do to win. It's a great edge. A penalty goal can draw you level if you trail by two. It can win you the game if you're trailing by a field goal. You'd almost never take a penalty goal if you were behind by more than two points.
And you don't take a penalty goal as the first scoring play. Usually. The reasoning behind it is psychological and physical. If you're in a position to take a penalty first then you're applying pressure to the opponent and you would want to keep your foot on the throat, not give everyone a rest while the kicker does his thing. This isn't Union. It's also a sort of tacit admission that you respect the oppositions defence - you're saying that you don't think you can crack through for a try, so you're taking the guaranteed two instead of the potential six. Obviously circumstances vary, but this is the common theme. (Statistically speaking it's not a good option - correlation does not equal causation but teams taking the penalty goal first have a below 50% win rate.)
There's also the stigma associated with The Tandy and the reason that it's called The Tandy.
I said all that to get to this. The tragic and cautionary tale of Ryan Tandy and how he, of all people, somehow managed to leave a permanent signature on the game of rugby league.
Ryan Tandy was what we call "a journeyman". In our game a journeyman is someone who plays for multiple clubs, usually for only a season at a time. In this mercenary day and age it isn't uncommon for a player to play for two or more clubs in their career, they wouldn't be titled a journeyman. To get that tag you have to spend one or two years at three or more clubs. There's no hard math on it, but that's the ballpark. Someone like Newcastle Knights utility back Hymal Hunt fits the bill at the moment, following stints at the Titans, Storm, Rabbitohs and now Knights.
Another important aspect of the journeyman is that they're usually not that good. Not that they're bad - they're one of the lucky 1% playing professional footy at the highest level, but they're not good enough to displace someone that a club wants to keep. They fill in for a while until a team finds someone better in the long term. Like I said, it's a mercenary game at times.
Ryan Tandy was possibly the best example of the journeyman. A "no-nonsense" (this is a euphemism for not particularly skillful but big and strong enough to run forward in a straight line and hurt people) prop forward, he started out in 2003 at the St George Illawarra Dragons, playing three games off the bench. He then went through a mid-season switch to the (at the time) struggling South Sydney Rabbitohs but failed to find a place in even the bottom ranked team. He spent a few years in the wilderness of the lower grades with Newtown and Cronulla, not cracking first grade. In 2007 he went to rugby league's elephant's graveyard, the UK Super League, and spent a year with Hull KR. 2008 saw him return to the NRL with the Wests Tigers, who are perpetually trying to find decent-sized forwards, but failed to make the team, with only three appearances.
In 2009 he was signed by the Melbourne Storm. Craig Bellamy, truly the greatest coach of all time, worked the magic that only he can do. Bellamy did the impossible. He made Ryan Tandy into a good footballer. Ryan Tandy played two seasons with the Storm and, unbelievably, came off the bench in their grand final win over Parramatta. This guy who couldn't make the grade at several cellar-dwelling clubs over the better part of decade was a premiership winner. UN-freaking-believable.
And now the real story begins.
In 2010 he signed with the Canterbury Bulldogs. He went alright, with a 50% win rate. Then, on August 21 2010, he was one of the starting front rowers in their game against the North Queensland Cowboys. The Cowboys kicked off and Ryan Tandy, as a prop usually does, took the first hitup. Standard stuff. In this regulation hitup, the first of the game, he dropped the ball. Not to worry, these things happen. It's unfortunate but that's footy. The Cowboys were awarded a scrum and in the ensuing set Ryan Tandy, right in front of his own posts - and the best position on the field for a penalty goal, an absolute gift - gave away a penalty. Again, unfortunate but it happens. Often when a player makes a mistake he'll try and rectify it with some ambitious play to get the ball back and sometimes he gets over-enthusiastic and gives away a penalty. That's footy. The Cowboys were presented with a gift two points.
They didn't take them.
The Cowboys had one of the best attacking teams in the game led by one of the greatest players of all time in Jonathan Thurston. They went for the six points and they got them. This would later be revealed to be very ironic.
About a week after the game the TAB revealed that a staggering number of bets, in the vicinity of 95%, were placed on the Cowboys to score first through a penalty goal. This was paying quite well - not only is a penalty goal as first scoring play a rare deal, as I outlined above, but the Cowboys were not a team to take penalty goals. They backed their attack.
The TAB and the NRL treated this as suspicious. Because it was very suspicious. And as such that suspicion turned to the cause of the situation that would have brought about a penalty goal. The same player that dropped the ball on the first hitup was the same player who caused the penalty. An investigation ensued and it came to light that not only did Ryan Tandy have a terrible gambling problem, he was also substantially in debt because of it. He had rigged the game to make money. To rub salt in the wound his bets didn't even pay out, he picked the wrong club to try it against.
Tandy was arrested and later convicted. He received community service, commuted from two years prison, but the real punishment was handed down by the NRL - he was banned from ever playing the game of rugby league again. The journeyman who truly experienced the highs and lows of the game - from being axed by teams running last to winning a premiership. In a further slap in the face to Tandy even his premiership was revoked - the Storm being found guilty of cheating the salary cap and thus not legitimate champions.
Ryan Tandy never managed to rebuild his life. His gambling addiction parlayed into a drug addiction after his exile from the game and in 2014, four months after his appeal of his conviction was thrown out, Tandy was found dead of a drug overdose in his parents home. He was 32.
And that's the tragic tale of Ryan Tandy. But it is also an interesting one, with Tandy being one of the more enigmatic players to have ever laced on a boot. One of the most unlikely to have ever left a mark on the game is now an indelible part of it, never to be forgotten. Mostly for the wrong reasons, a little bit for the right ones, but now certainly forever a part of rugby league folklore.
And, finally, that is why whenever a team opts to take the penalty goal as the first scoring option, wags such as myself will shout "TAKING THE TANDY"