Tina Turner to star at NRL grand final, 30 years after the last time

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Thirty years after Tina Turner performed her power ballad The Best at the New South Wales Rugby League grand final, and a little more than five months after her death, she will again be centre stage as the cast of Tina: The Musical performs some of her biggest hits in a pre-game mini-concert for the NRL grand final on October 1.

“Thirty years on, Tina Turner’s 1993 performance remains one of the great Grand Final moments,” said NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo on Wednesday. “This collaboration is a perfect way for rugby league to pay tribute to Tina and everything she did for our game.”

Melbourne performer Ruva Ngwenya as Tina Turner in the Sydney production, a scaled-down version of which will feature as pre-game entertainment at the NRL grand final.

The musical, which is currently playing at the Theatre Royal in Sydney ahead of a national tour that kicks off in Perth next February, tells Turner’s life story, from rural poverty to an abusive relationship with her husband and fellow musician Ike Turner, to obscurity and her final re-emergence as a superstar in the 1980s.

In the Australian production of the show, which debuted in the UK in 2018, Turner is played by Ruva Ngwenya, who will lead the cast in a scaled-down, tailor-made selection of songs – including Proud Mary, Nutbush City Limits and, inevitably, The Best – as the NRL’s pre-game entertainment offering.

The connection between Turner and Australian rugby league goes back to 1989, when Turner’s manager, Australian Roger Davies, was contacted by a friend at the game’s governing body to enquire about the possibility of using her song What You Get Is What You See in an advertising campaign for the forthcoming season.

Within days, she had agreed to participate and to film some scenes with UK-based Australian players – mugging with them in the changing rooms, laughing and joking, even showing clean hands when taking a pass – for the video.

NRL commissioner and former player Wayne Pearce with actor-singer Ruva Ngwenya, who plays Tina Turner in Tina: The Musical.Credit: NRL Photos/Gregg Porteous

Despite some initial scepticism – former league boss John Quayle recalls the critics asked “how could they possibly use an American black woman to promote the game of league?” – the campaign was deemed a roaring success.

The following year, Davies told Brian Walsh – who ran the sports marketing agency behind the campaign (and would later go on to be head of content at Foxtel) – that his star act was heading back into the studio, and would be recording her version of The Best, a song originally recorded by Bonnie Tyler, for a new album. It was, he told Quayle, a track “written for sport”.

Before it was even released, the league had bought the rights to the song, and ever since, it has been synonymous with the game in this country.

Jimmy Barnes recorded a version of it with Turner in 1992 for that year’s campaign, and in 1993, Turner performed it live at the Sydney Football Stadium as the Brisbane Broncos took on the St George Dragons in the season ender (the second year running the teams had met in the grand final).

Though she entered into the relationship with rugby league as a novice, Turner was quickly impressed by the toughness of the players, who wore none of the padding of their counterparts in American football.

“This is real men out here, with just shoes on their feet, and they could probably do it without the shoes as well,” she said. “I thought, respect.”

For Paul Dainty, the producer of the Australian production of Tina: The Musical, there’s a special symmetry to the invitation to perform at this year’s grand final.

“I toured Tina back in the day, and then fast-forward all these years to producing the show about her life,” he said on Wednesday morning, just hours before he was to be presented with the Order of Australia Medal at Government House in Melbourne. “She was great, a lovely, beautiful person.”

Turner and Paul Dainty at her Private Dancer tour, backstage at the Melbourne Sports and Entertainment Centre in 1985.

Dainty’s involvement with the musical dates back about eight years. “I was having dinner with Neil Diamond and I got a whisper from someone overseas that a colleague was working on an idea to bring the Tina Turner life story to the stage,” he recalls. “And so I got onto that person within an hour or so.”

There’s a further personal connection, too. Brian Walsh, who died suddenly in March this year, was a close friend. He and Dainty worked together over the years and were partners in a company together.

In a way, says Dainty, that will make the performance not just a tribute to Turner, but to the man who did so much to forge her relationship with the game of rugby league as well.

Contact the author at [email protected], follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin, and read more of his work here.

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