The life and times of a code-hopper
I have at one time or the other followed each of the four football codes whose battle for supremacy in our sports-mad country seems to occupy the minds of many Roar contributors.
Growing up in Wollongong (or the Illawarra region) there is one sport everyone follows: rugby league. The town and the region follow it passionately, and several greats of the game have come from there, leaving a strong cultural bond with the history of the region. (For our southern readers it’s bit like Geelong and Australian Rules).
You know if you see a talented kid in Wollongong play league, chances are he will end up in the NRL (a guy in the year above me at high school played for the Bulldogs for 10 years). It’s just that sort of place.
So growing up that’s what I did. Those where the days when butchers would make blue and red sausages for Origin so the local paper could have some folksy story to ramp up the series, where you would crack up to Roy and HG’s commentary on Triple J, and when you would always wonder how Rod Wishart used to play out of his skin in Origin (at least I did).
I never played the game however. Being the offspring of English migrants, I played the round ball game.
Wollongong also has a rich football history. Three recent Socceroos come from the area. Johnny Warren lived for a time in Jamberoo (a small village near the city) and the local pub has paraphernalia from his career.
I seem to remember reading even Les Murray stayed in the migrant hostel when he emigrated to Australia. The town has strong participation numbers and a good club system.
My dad, brother and I used to cheer for the Wollongong Wolves in the NSL. They were a plucky team who left everything on the pitch and represented the city with pride. We screamed with delight from our lounge room the day the Wolves beat the Glory in the greatest (all due respect to Central Coast and the Brisbane Roar) domestic football game in Australia’s history.
We also read with despair at their current plight of homelessness after being dudded on a new home ground by local council and powerful local RL clubs.
I followed the A-League in its first few years and liked what I saw, but the rip-off that is Pay TV in this country and the lack of a local team to build an emotional connection with (like I did with the Wolves) led to me to lose connection with the league.
I had a brief flirtation with basketball as most teens did in the halcyon days of the 1990s. I memorised the stats of now retired basketball stars, but still followed my local NRL team, because that’s what you did.
I had an even smaller flirtation with rugby union following a trip to New Zealand. Latching on to their passion I came back from holidaying their with a keen interest, that as for most lay followers, probably peaked at the 2003 World Cup (bloody Wilkinson!), but quickly dissipated.
I came to AFL (sorry ARF followers, that’s what we call the game up here) by mere happenstance. Every Saturday stacking shelves at Woolies left me too tired to do anything but veg out in front of the TV. The only sport that was on when I came home was the AFL.
I watched a series of dramatic comebacks by a rising Swans outfit that built my interest. I also discovered a casual connection to the team, as my cousins in Ireland were friends of Tadhg Kennelly, and lived in the town he grew up in. The emotional connection between fan and team was sealed for me a mere three seasons later, when the Swans captured their first Premiership in 72 years. I hope to witness another one very soon.
In this country we have a unique melting pot of sporting teams and codes to follow. I’m sure my story is not too dissimilar to anyone else’s. I want all competitions to succeed, and believe the greatest threat to a sport is not any other sport, but things that discourage participation – things like video games, obesity, bullying, racism and homophobia.
Sport is a unifying force in all of our lives, and the more of it we see, the better off we will be.
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