NRL and AFL can co-exist in Western Sydney
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Phil Davis of the GWS Giants (Slattery Images)
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According to all the major news organisations, a battle is about to begin in the Western Suburbs of Sydney.
A Lord of the Rings type battle, where one group of people peacefully ply their trade in the one location for hundreds of years, and another group of people from a faraway land desiring world domination attempt to take over.
Words such as “turf war” have been bandied around, and already many shots have been fired. No one’s been killed yet, but it’s anticipated that soon somebody will be.
It is that serious that grown men are warning their peaceful counterparts that a monster is arriving, it claims to be nice and friendly, but in actual fact it’s not. It’s a monster that wants to brainwash our children with smiley faces and destroy their futures.
This pretty much sums up the sensationalism created with the arrival of the GWS Giants. The AFL is here to take over and unless the NRL does something then one hundred years of tradition will be thrown out the window.
In some circles, the view is that the NRL mightn’t even bother to fight the AFL because it won’t win, the AFL is superior in every way.
Western Sydney is a very big area. It stretches out from Parramatta, to Penrith, down to Bankstown and even Campbelltown is regarded as a part of Western Sydney. I’ve lived in Parramatta my entire life and I’ve never even been to Campbelltown.
Approximately two million people live in this area, with many different cultures, religions and languages making up Western Sydney. It’s such a large area that the NRL boasts four fairly successful clubs: The Eels, Bulldogs, Tigers and Panthers.
Apart from St. George, the Eels, Bulldogs and Tigers probably generate the most interest in terms of crowds and viewership in Sydney across all codes, and the Panthers now have Phil Gould working away at his ‘mini revolution’ at the foot of the mountains.
The rivalry between the Eels and Bulldogs for example is huge; their clashes have for the last few years attracted crowds in excess of 30,000 and television audiences of 5-600,000. They even attracted 75,000 to a preliminary final a few years ago. 30,000 maybe nothing in comparison to AFL crowds but by Sydney standards are pretty decent.
The rivalry and tribalism between the four Western Sydney clubs is something the AFL will never have in Sydney, it just doesn’t have the numbers. Over time the GWS Giants will build a pretty decent rivalry with the Swans but it won’t match that of the four Western Sydney Rugby teams.
It’s also important to remember that Rugby League is not the same competition it was five to ten years ago. It’s grown significantly in crowds, membership and television ratings. It is aware of the fact that it needs to start doing more to continue its growth.
Will I be supporting the Giants? No. My club is the Sydney Swans and has been since mid-2005, when I saw the Swans beat the Bombers on a Saturday night and fell in love with Australian Rules football. Let’s not kid ourselves and think that people can’t follow both, I follow both almost equally.
But let’s not talk about the drawing up of battle lines and boundaries because if the AFL knew what was good for it, it doesn’t want to appear as a threat to Rugby League. We Western Sydneysiders are very parochial and tribal about our football clubs and anything that threatens them, we’ll turn against.
The Giants can carve out their own niche, because as I said, people can follow both codes. GWS has two very good coaches in Kevin Sheedy and his trusty sidekick Mark Williams who have five premierships and nine grand finals between them.
Their team includes Graeme Allen, Stephen Silvagni and good facilities. The AFL has given them every opportunity to connect with the community and grow its brand.
The clubs choice of using Blacktown as its training venue is an interesting one. If any GWS player reads this article please don’t ever walk around Blacktown after eight o’clock. I think after a few weeks of training there you’ll understand why.
GWS has a boutique sized stadium at Homebush, Skoda Stadium (The Sydney Showground) which is a fantastic ground. However Homebush is an hour away for those living in Penrith, and it’s not going to be easy enticing people from out there. Sydney is notoriously difficult to get around, no matter what part of the city you live in.
The poaching of Israel Folau is an interesting one. I understood the Suns going after Karmichael Hunt, everybody in Queensland loved him. Hunt played for the Broncos and Queensland, and was very good at it.
Israel Folau on the other hand isn’t the most popular figure in Western Sydney; he’s caused us too much heartache to love him. Folau played for the Melbourne Storm, Brisbane and Queensland…No one likes them out in the suburbs!
It isn’t like I’m hoping that the Giants fail, in fact I hope they do well!
But let’s be realistic and understand that the paranoia from Rugby League circles is unnecessary and the chest beating from certain sections of the AFL is also unnecessary.
For example, when Phil Gould described the AFL as a monster that was working towards generational change attempting to wipe out Rugby League, I wondered if Phil had any confidence in the Rugby League game itself? It is an amazing game that creates many highlights across many platforms.
Consider players such as Ben Barba, Jarryd Hayne and Benji Marshall. Haven’t they excited many a Western Sydney crowd?
On the other side of debate, I remember when Dermott Brereton said that the NRL can’t take on the AFL and win because the AFL was too well-resourced. I thought Dermott clearly has no idea what the Western Sydney sporting culture is based on and is ignorant of what Rugby League has already built in Western Sydney.
The Giants will struggle at times and succeed at others. There’ll be a full house when they play the Bombers at Skoda for the first time, but when they play Port Adelaide or North Melbourne the crowds will drop. No need to death-ride the club when its down and say that its failed, and no need to talk it up and say that the AFL is taking over in Western Sydney when it attracts a decent crowd.
I thought Tim Sheens summed it up beautifully when he talked about the fact that the Tigers and Swans won premierships in the same year. The attention and focus both clubs received was huge and because one was successful, it didn’t detract from the success of the other.
So go the Swans and go The Eels!
Let’s get the footy back, no matter where it’s played and no matter who plays.
As long as we’ve got the footy.