Hands up if you knew the NAB Cup had started?
Kyle Hardingham of Essendon evades Dane Swan of Collingwood during the AFL NAB Cup Grand Final match between the Essendon Bombers and the Collingwood Magpies at Etihad Stadium, Melbourne. Slattery Images
Did you know the NAB Cup has started? I know, it took me by surprise too. I guess it’s a testament to the precisely-honed skills of the AFL’s marketing department: every year they get better and better at hiding the fact the season has started from the public.
By 2015 they hope the pre-season competition will be widely believed to be an urban myth.
But, contrary to all obvious signs, the NAB Cup has indeed begun, and as usual it will be a thrilling few weeks of spectacular goals and high marks and weird rules like making ruckmen hop on one foot in odd-numbered quarters or something.
The NAB Cup needs weird rules, because the AFL is uncertain they can draw big crowds purely on the promise of ordinary football played by a mixture of raw teenagers and seasoned veterans with virtually no interest in the result of the game.
So we get rules like the “super-goal”, because goals are more interesting with a 33% increase in value; and the one where balls that bounce off the post remain in play, because everything is more interesting when it doesn’t make sense.
Yet despite all this, some people persist in asking what the point of the NAB Cup is.
There are those, incredibly enough, who think the NAB Cup serves no useful purpose.
Presumably they would prefer the NRL model, where pre-season games are just “trials” about which nobody gives a damn, over the current situation, where pre-season games are a competition about which nobody gives a damn. But these are people, it has to be said, without romance in their souls.
For one thing, rugby league has plummeted, toboggan-like, downhill since it discontinued its own pre-season competition. I remember the heyday of the Panasonic Cup, when in the middle of the week, a little magic was in the air, and it seemed like anything could happen.
And happen anything did – I remember Illawarra’s brave run to the Panasonic final, even as they stayed anchored to the foot of the premiership ladder, inspired by British imports Andy Gregory and Steve Hampson; and I remember just how close they came to knocking off the Broncos in that final. And sure, some might say the fact I remember it so well speaks volumes about what a sad little man I am, but I like to think it says something about the romance in my soul.
The thought that even while getting bashed up in the regular season, a team of no-hopers could stick it to the big boys in a smaller, more chaotic league, was enchanting, and it remains so.
That’s the charm of the NAB Cup – who knows what could happen, given the strange rules and the time of year and the experimental line-ups and the fact nobody is actually trying to win?
It’s a lottery, it’s a grand adventure, and it’s absolutely thrilling to watch unfold, as long as you don’t watch the actual games which are obviously a little bit boring.
But it’s exciting to read about it in the papers and pretend something important is going on. It’s even more charming seeing the coaches and players pretend something important is going on – it’s cute, like watching your kids play armies in the backyard.
They look so earnest out on the field, it’s adorable.
But the greatest thing about the NAB Cup, I think, is the hope. Fact is, every year the vast majority of football fans have their dreams crushed and their hearts stomped on by the ruthless realities of sport.
Being a football fan is a depressing business and it’s no wonder so many of us drink heavily and grow inappropriate facial hair. But during the pre-season, we can dream.
As our rag-tag bunch of misfits and future sex criminals battle away, scoring unlikely victories against the more highly-regarded sides, we can cheer and whoop and holler in joy that the side has finally “got it together”, and that we’re sure to be a real threat this year, given the dash and valour being shown in these games, and all the exciting young kids galloping around out there, and the coach’s innovative new game plan probably.
And if our rag-tag bunch gets bundled out in the first round, we can get even more excited. They’re pacing themselves! Not taking the NAB Cup seriously – that is a SURE SIGN that we’ll be primed for the season proper.
The NAB Cup, unlike the premiership, is a win-win situation for fans.
Not to mention the fact there’s a big shiny trophy you get at the end, and the fact that 22 games plus finals is way too long for a football season anyway, and four rounds is really the ideal format for any sporting contest.
Any longer and it’s a bit much, isn’t it?
Yes, the NAB Cup is a vital, vibrant, invaluable, riveting, vital, exciting, vital part of the AFL landscape. If anything, we should keep it and get rid of the main season. It’d keep the season short, sharp, and memorable.
Always leave ‘em wanting more, right? And then we could have four or five football seasons every year, which has to be good for the TV rights. Besides which, the cup is a crucial part of NAB’s PR strategy, and any moves to downgrade its importance could cripple the Australian financial sector.
Yes, the NAB Cup is everything we want in a footy comp and more. So this weekend, when you flick on the football, give a little respect to a fine and inspirational footballing phenomenon.
And when you turn it off five minutes later, say a little prayer of thanks that the NAB Cup is there, keeping the dream alive.
Ben Pobjie is a writer and comedian writing weekly on The Age, New Matilda and The Roar, whose promising rugby career was tragically cut short the day he stopped playing rugby and had a pizza instead. The most he has ever cried was the day Balmain lost the 1989 grand final. Today he enjoys the frolics of Wallabies, Swans, baggy greens, and Storms. Ben is also the author of the books Surveying the Wreckage, Superchef, and his latest, The Book of Bloke, available from Momentum Books.
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