Why no-one can win a code war
There is apparently a war going on in this peaceful land of ours. A war that has been smouldering in the background ever since Ian Turner coined the term ‘Barassi Line’ and the ugly ducklings (as they were then known) jettisoned from south Melbourne into Sydney in ’82 as the Sydney Swans.
The unofficial war between Aussie Rules (or rather, the AFL) and rugby league blazed into full declaration with the fulfilment of Barassi’s great prophecy that traditional non-league playing states NSW and Queensland would have two teams each in a national Australian Rules competition.
If you were to believe some of the more vitriolic trolling and media commentary you would think (depending on your persuasion) that Aussie Rules had already become the only winter code. Or that the AFL were a money hungry, corporate evil empire ready to steal the rugby league souls of western Sydney.
The reality of this war for winter domination is, if you bother to look a little into the facts and behind the hyperbolic rhetoric, far more nuanced and complex. Rather like modern Australian society as a whole.
To begin with, it is a long time past for rugby league to cry foul that Aussie rules is invading its heartlands of NSW and Queensland. In fact, if you’re one of many born and bred New South Welshman or Queenslanders who originate from a region where Australian Football is regularly played and loved you, are downright bemused.
The fact is Aussie Rules incursions into ‘rugby’ states has been going on since the 1940′s when the sport gained popularity in the Riverina region of southern NSW – my home region. Or what about the far south coast of NSW or the Gold Coast, following on from the wave of Victorian immigration there from the 1970′s onwards?
In fact where ever Aussie rules has gone, it has found (or imported) a ready and willing audience. And judging from its growing popularity in Sydney and even Cairns, it will continue to do so.
This is not to say that animosity, fear of the ‘other’ foreign code, and occasional downright hatred was never a present feature of regions like the Riverina where both codes are played and followed. There was always a jibe or two at your mate who decided he’d rather head a bit further north to play ‘bum-sniffer’ ball or constant references to ‘aerial ping-pong’ from league identities.
But essentially co-existence was harmonious, co-operative and mutually beneficial.
For example, I, though committed to Aussie rules at club level, I would always play league with my mates in the school comps against those from further north. And many a school from the central west of NSW played Aussie rules against us in the particular hard, league-like, way that would see them mostly lose but bash us so that we wouldn’t forget it in a hurry.
A lot of friends would play both, with both codes feeding off each other’s talent and goodwill for the local communities. Barbs and critics were mostly little more than harmless jests from people who had a preference for one over the other.
Now it strikes me that I might have it all wrong, that the rest of league playing Australia who have never before co-existed with AFL may be loathing and seething in it fear and contempt for the invader who steal its children in the middle of the night. But go outside the small narrow circle of inner league fraternity (exemplified by ex-players such as Mark Geyer and Phil Gould) and you find that, mostly, people don’t really care one way or the other.
Just why this was, I found myself asking one day, when it dawned on me that it wasn’t really Aussie rules and rugby league at war at all, but the AFL versus the NRL.
That’s right, many facets of this trumped up and largely non-existent war are nothing short of a corporate war masquerading as a cultural one.
Ask yourself why there was no great hoopla about the Swans coming into Sydney in ’82, or AFL into other areas before that? It can’t simply be brushed aside as a lack of awareness or interest, because, if there were one other element involved three decades ago that is present now, there most certainly would have been a ‘war’.
That element is money. Yep, it is as simple as that: the codes are at war because they are now corporate entities competing for market share and looking to maximise shareholders profit.
The only difference with the punters in the suburbs and country ovals is that the currency of football popularity is not, nor was it ever, solely about money. And this is where the misinterpretation of the code rivalries being a ‘war’ comes in – football is not just about the dollar, it is about tribal and ultimately, cultural allegiance.
It is about the very fabric of middle class and working class life in Australia, about which weekends revolved, and still do. Around underage footy on Saturday or Sunday morning, red fluro hotdogs, hot chips and celebratory drinks after the game.
But the great thing about the two major winter codes (and rugby union I’m sure to a smaller extant) is that they both share this common culture and integrated link between family, memory and social/community fabric. It is owned by both and exclusive to neither.
Any animosity that exists is largely among the diehards – a bit like the radical 10% or so on either side of politics, who eventually turn most people off because of the irrationality and extremity of their alternatives.
Very few of the league or Aussie rules supporters I know spend much time thinking which sport to watch, or what sport their kids will play, largely because there is a deeper, typically Australian, philosophical mood at play: the idea of free-choice and free-time.
Most Australians have seen footy-time and weekends as a deeply engrained ‘right’ to fun, cold meat pies and umpire abuse. These are not the type of rights you get serious over, or at least not the type of serious we saw on the nightly news where people had actual wars over ‘rights’ or where even their (foreigner’s) sport was a kind of real primitive tribalism a.k.a. European soccer.
Pub conversations recently among dual allegiance fans often revolve around the differences, or pros and cons of each code. But next time you get the chance, compare the commentary between a televised AFL versus NRL game, or the fan behaviour and atmosphere at the grounds. They are actually very alike, both extolling the same virtues in play like toughness, teamwork through mateship, club loyalty, hard work etc.
A tradition of player-baiting and somewhat comical and facetious umpire hating is bred through and through. People, as with the rest of life in modern Australia, will still retain many traditional community and class loyalties and attitudes- many Sydneysiders will still complain about that southern ballet before switching on to watch the Swans for a quick 15 min on Saturday night.
But above all, the modern Australian has been weaned off the worst of the older racial and class prejudices and embraced the new corporate freedoms of the 21st century.
They hate, above all, being told what is or isn’t good for them to do with their and families weekends. Again, like politics, the modern Australian will take little heed of what they see as spurious and ‘same-old’ arguments, but will swing in huge numbers and in very short time periods for whatever catches their eye and seems like it might lead to a good-time.
A facility for empathy in sports’ fans is also recognisable in our ability to cheer for any Aussie team at any old sport we haven’t got the faintest clue about or general interest in.
There is no doubt that Australian rules football is the biggest winter sport in Australia by a significant margin on all measures that corporate and marketing gurus love to talk about.
Its great advantages were to start earlier, be more professional, to complete this professionalism quicker and to be largely united without the devastating effects of a super-league fracturing. The AFL has also done a remarkable job of making its brand and image more attractive than the other football codes.
I may be biased but I can’t help noticing that the ‘image’ of the AFL as a family-friendly, sexier and safer game than the rugby codes has largely succeeded to significant extent. Professionalism, in both the corporate and athletic sense, seems to have dealt a kinder fate to AFL rather than league, making it appear sleeker, fitter, and more wholesome while keeping the passion and soul.
League, on the other hand, still has plenty of blood, guts and soul, but perhaps a little bit too much for a continued expansion that would see it enjoyed all over Australia. If there is any indication as to which way the winds have blown over the last 20 years or so, look no further than where the battleground is and who the counter-attacks are coming from.
The battle fronts are all in NSW and Queensland, and the most scathing and paranoid commentary from some die-hard in the Rex Mossop mould, saying that ‘Aussie Rules is a poofter’s game’. You know, dinosaur types.
Very little commentary has come from current league players or official NRL administrators themselves, who are quietly (consciously or unconsciously) trying to improve league’s image and broaden its appeal. And very little noise, except ‘good publicity’ noise has been coming from anyone important in the AFL for years now – it is as if they barely know rugby league even exits.
In the end, although the AFL has won a few key battles there can be no ‘winner’ in this so-called ‘war’, as a war implies that one side is fighting for something the other side has which it doesn’t. In this case both codes do have it – a firm place in the hearts and minds of mainstream Australia, whichever region they hail from.