Which is the greatest code?
Anyone who thinks multiculturalism is a flawed concept should take a close look at the Australian winter sporting landscape.
When the days shorten - the summer code has just wrapped up with Sydney FC winning the A-League - sports fans speak different languages, congregate in different churches and worship different gods. Even the ball has a different name. Some call it Sherrin. Others, Steeden. To others still, it is Gilbert.
Such sectarianism would mean all out war in most countries. But here, fans co-exist peacefully. We are separate, yet united, by a common religion called football.
The closest we come to conflict is a smattering of militaristic language to depict one code’s incursion into the other’s territory (witness “battleground” western Sydney).
In winter it used to be that people followed only one code. But times have changed. For many of us, an occasional sampling of something different is like the Thai noodles or Indian curry that spice up our weekly menu.
Read the arguments, barrack for your code or bash the others:
- AFL: One code to rule them all - David Penberthy
- League: Do-or-die sporting spirit - Luke Mcilveen
- Rugby: Real contest with magic moments - Paul Colgan
Fox Sports execs will tell you that many customers subscribe initially to watch one major football code, then end up watching two or three. We are learning about, and in some cases learning to love, each other’s codes.
For all that, most of us remain one-coders at heart. To be a true convert to all three is as nonsensical as answering “all of the above” to a survey question about your chosen religion.
So. Having said all that, I’ve thrown together my best shot at a neutral appraisal of each code’s strengths, weaknesses and quirks.
My fence-sitting qualifications? Firstly, I write for Australia’s largest national sports magazine Alpha, where we give equal weight to the various codes (while tailoring our covers for each state).
And secondly, I grew up in Canberra, the nearest thing to a city where all codes receive equal billing. If nothing else, my Canberra upbringing makes me an expert in navigating roundabouts, devices as confusing to outsiders as our uniquely fragmented winter sporting landscape.
But for Gary Ablett’s sake, don’t take any of this as gospel (not that you would). Go in hard and put a plug in for your favourite code in this thread, or in the rants by the mad, one-eyed zealots that follow.
A unique home-grown sport which suits all body types, Australian Rules football is unpredictable, chaotic, fast, sometimes brutal and often breathtaking. Fans attend in droves in any conditions, and there are teams in each mainland capital. Grand Final day is the only truly unifying day of football on the national calendar, while the code’s administration is rolling in cash.
It’s anathema to say this to AFL diehards, but the game can be scrappy. Admirers see high art but in reality, it’s more Jackson Pollock. Also, despite numerous small-scale expat leagues, the game exports about as successfully as roo meat. The cashed-up administration has a combative, us-or-them arrogance which potentially alienates would-be converts, and the AFL has only one regional team (Geelong).
Most AFL fans are surprised to learn that the word “barrack” is little-used in the rugby league strongholds of QLD and NSW, not to mention the rest of the English-speaking world. And what about the team songs blared across the ground after each match, which a British colleague of mine has always amusingly called “gay show tunes”.
First and foremost, durability. This is the sport that can take a million hits and still rate its socks off. Why? Because rugby league is more entertaining each year, as big men become more agile and little guys more resilient. Rugby league has the only State of Origin contest that matters, plus two strong international rivals, which is better than none. It also has six teams outside Australia’s five largest cities.
The game can still be too structured and predictable, with five barging runs followed by a kick. Failure to successfully colonise two of the five mainland capitals is another weakness, as is a relatively low participation rate among school-aged kids. NRL crowds average around half that of the AFL, despite roughly equal TV ratings.
The universal practise of banging wheelie-bin lids in post-match dressing room celebrations. And the naming of past greats as official “immortals”, despite strong empirical evidence to the contrary.
RUGBY UNION STRENGTHS
Rugby’s great strength is its international flavour. Our provincial teams play in three countries, while the Wallabies are second only to our cricket team as a big ticket international rep team. The sport itself can be fluid and exhilarating, when played in true southern hemisphere style. Emphasis on “can be”.
RUGBY UNION WEAKNESSES
If rugby is to win hearts, it must simplify its rules so that mug punters can understand why the ref just blew his whistle. Again. Also, too many games here now mirror the drab, stop-start northern hemisphere style. Rugby also suffers from a perception that it is a game of the elite, not the masses.
RUGBY UNION QUIRKS
The laws of rugby contain more words than the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. True story. Also, the NSW Waratahs are the only male sporting team I can think of in any sport that is named after a flower. Hang on, I just thought of the South Africa’s cricket team, the Proteas… anyway, it’s still weird.
Footnote: Let’s be clear - this is about the rows that erupt every year when Australia’s three winter codes get into full swing and not - repeat, not - to ignore the ascent of soccer, the sporting beast that has awakened from slumber and will make its presence felt like never before during this year’s World Cup.
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