Football’s undeclared war is on. The combatants aren’t describing it that way, but that’s what it is.
The opening shots have been fired in the battle between Australia’s top two winter codes, Australian Rules and rugby league, for the hearts, minds and pockets of the two million-plus people who make greater western Sydney the nation’s third biggest marketplace behind Sydney and Melbourne.
Two publicity cannonades in Sydney this week set the stage.
Rugby league launched ticket sales on Wednesday for its lone Sydney State of Origin match in June, just as the AFL was preparing for Thursday’s first-ever season launch outside Melbourne.
The NRL not only staged its event on the eve of the AFL’s extravaganza but at ANZ Stadium, the very arena where the Sydney Swans and newcomers Greater Western Sydney Giants get the AFL season underway on Saturday.
It reminded some of a dog marking its territory.
AFL’s multi-million dollar push into rugby league’s western Sydney heartland seems to have provoked a welter of activity behind the league barricades.
League suddenly has an ambassador for western Sydney in the form of Parramatta captain Nathan Hindmarsh.
Hindmarsh’s team hosts Penrith in a western Sydney derby on Friday, the night before the AFL’s opening match.
Penrith will host another innovation on April 21, an under-20s version of the hugely successful State of Origin brand.
The NRL also has a blockbuster lined up in direct opposition to Saturday night’s AFL match, with St George Illawarra hosting premiers Manly.
Asked if he viewed the rivalry between the codes as war, NRL boss David Gallop told AAP: “There’s no doubt it’s a competitive landscape. But we are concentrating on what we do. And what we do is pretty unique in Australian sport.”
Asked if the under-20 origin match was a response to AFL’s push, he said: “We are conscious we need to keep reminding people of our dominance in western Sydney.”
Asked if he had anything to fear from AFL, he said: “We’re pretty comfortable with how we’re travelling.”
Gallop did not directly mention league’s great rival during his official remarks, but said: “With three rounds under our belt we can unabashedly brag that this is the most exciting and unpredictable sporting competition in Australia.”
The accepted order of things is definitely under challenge, what with the first Origin match in Melbourne and the AFL season launch in Sydney, to be attended by league chief Andrew Demetriou and all 18 captains.
It’s as topsy-turvy as the situation Tiger Woods and Eminem once created – a black guy being the world’s top golfer while a white man was its biggest-selling rapper.
But western Sydney league stars say they’re not worried by AFL’s incursion into “their” territory.
“I think our product does the talking on the field each weekend,” Hindmarsh said this week.
“The AFL is obviously tipping a lot of money in,” said Parramatta prop Tim Mannah, “but we have a product that is so great to watch and be a part of.”
Their terminology may betray another big change in football. What was once a sport is now a product.