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Defusing the Australian code war

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Roar Rookie
26th August, 2021
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The NRL chairman going on about the loss of NRL heartland in Queensland to the AFL has brought out the worst in some people.

The contention they bring is the Highlander argument: there can only be one. Rubbish. There can be more than one. If you think not, then you are the problem, not the solution.

Really, the only war I consider real is between league and union for junior players. The vitriol between the two codes’ supporters is childish. The NRL is so worried about junior talent that they sign a 16-year-old to a contract. If the game of rugby league is so great, what are the fans of the game worried about? If it is as great as they believe, the game will survive and grow despite any incursion by another code.

Let’s look at the four codes of football that are played at a professional level in Australia: Australian rules football, rugby league, rugby union and soccer. Calling it soccer will get some people riled up, but if you look at the history of the game, it was the English who called it soccer so it would not be confused with union (and any other form of football), so we’ll stick with soccer for clarity in this article.

According to the data collected by Ausplay on behalf of the government in 2019, two million people play the round-ball game at all ages, at many different levels and in different formats. This figure dwarfs the other codes in Australia. Australian rules had around 920,000 participants in 2019, rugby league had 300.000 and union around 210,000.

So why doesn’t soccer rule Australia overall? That is a question for another time, but maybe it could be the physical nature of the other codes that the public most enjoy. It could also be that Soccer is easier to access as you get older, which I will cover in another article later on.

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Most popular code by participation.
The world game.
Crowd passion.
Many forms of play.

Costly to play.
Many people at the top can’t or won’t work together.
The A-League is not the top; players need to move overseas.
Ill-directed passion.

Yes, the first is the most popular game in the world, even the most popular in terms of participation in Australia. It’s a code that I play – well, I would be if it wasn’t for the pesky pandemic – with some other gentlemen. It is enjoyable to play, though the way some people carry on leads to a good laugh. You know the ones – they love to dish it out but complain the minute they are touched. Yes, this can happen in all codes, but in my experience it happens the most in soccer because it is not supposed to be a contact sport.

I also have a vested interest in soccer with my daughter. She has played in the New South Wales girls skill acquisition program at representative level. She loves the game, watches the Matildas (not much of the Socceroos) whenever they are on and can’t wait until 2023. Watching her develop has been something that has brought a smile to our faces on many occasions. She has a cracking left foot and is quicker than she looks, doing things with the ball that I and many others can only dream of. As a family we get up and watch the Euros and the World Cup and we’ve spent plenty of time watching the Olympics. We rode the Matildas’ fortunes, especially against the UK in the quarter-finals.

I still struggle with the carry-on of players when they get touched. One such incident cost the Olyroos, with three players receiving yellow cards.


Those who put down the other codes are myopic. There is a lot to appreciate about the other codes. They also never really consider the code in Australia when they argue about which is the best (or only) code. We have all heard that it’s the most popular game in the world and that there’s supposedly no skill in the other codes and that they aren’t really football anyway, among others.

Sam Kerr backflip new Matildas kit

(Image: Supplied, Nike)

But so what if it’s the most popular in the world? It isn’t in Australia despite the number of participants. The AFL and NRL rule the roost in terms of money and TV deals. The A-League is only ahead of union in these terms. The Australian TV stations pay for the rights to televise the codes in Australia, not other countries. This is what needs to be considered when arguing about popularity.

Soccer is down in third place when it comes to the TV figures, which drive revenue. The skill of the no-look pass to set up a try is not an easy skill to master, and neither is the running and bouncing the ball of Australian rules.

One other thing: why does the ‘true’ game of football allow you to use every part of your body except the arms to play the ball? You can score a goal in any manner as long as it goes into the net and you are onside. In both rugby codes the main score can be done only one way: grounding the ball on/or over the line with your hand in contact with the ball. In Australian rules it must come off your foot and touch no-one else or the posts to score a goal.

Other arguments try to demean or put down other codes. Why does this need to be done if soccer is so popular? As I said about league, if the game is so great, what are you worried about other codes for? It will grow if it is meant to grow. Putting the other codes down can indicate the person is worried about soccer in Australia. These people show more about themselves than anyone else. I would almost go as far to say that they are not a true follower of sport if they must put down another code. Appreciate the skills involved in the other codes, don’t deride them.


(Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)

Rugby league


Popularity in the northern states.
Large revenue.
TV ratings.

Lack of crowds.
Lack of atmosphere at the games.
Player behaviour.

This is the third code in Australia if you look at the participation figures mentioned above. It vies with AFL for the title of No. 1 in terms of TV figures. An interesting thought is that there are no free-to-air games on a Saturday. If the code is as powerful as league fans want to believe, how did the NRL let this happen? When it comes to finals, the NRL rates less well than the AFL. That goes for the grand final as well, even though it is on prime time on a Sunday evening with a public holiday the next day in some states. The AFL grand final, on the other hand, is usually on a Saturday afternoon. The night grand final in Brisbane was a ratings hit for the AFL and Channel Seven.

Rugby league followers who struggle with other codes come up with the usual statements: that you get a point for missing, that it’s a boring game, that there’s no biff, that union is for the weak and league for the tough. – again, a myopic view. If your game is great, why do you need to try and belittle the other codes?

‘You get a point for trying’ is an obvious dig at Australian rules. Learn the history of the game. The game of Australian rules started on rectangular grounds. The corner posts marked out the area of play and the goalposts in the middle – like soccer and both rugby codes. The ball was kicked back in to play by the defending team, like it is today when the ball crossed the goal line. Behinds scored were kept but didn’t count towards the score until they wanted to get rid of the draw.

When the cricket grounds and the clubs realised there was a possibility of money to be made, Australiam rules moved to the oval. The corner posts became the point posts. Just a side note: the posts are 6.4 metres apart post to post – 19.2 metres spanning the full face – whereas the rugby codes have the whole width of the field to score a try.

‘Boring game’ is often used to deride soccer. In fact I once thought the same, but as I have grown older and learnt more about the game I have grown to appreciate the nuances of the sport. Yes, there are still boring nil-all draws and even 6-0 wins, but there are boring games in all codes of football.

I also still struggle that in this time and age of concussion people want to ‘bring back the biff’. The biff has only one objective: to hurt the opponent. Isn’t the objective to score more points than the opposition to win the game? Last time I checked there was no ladder position based on the number of players hurt.


These arguments say more about the ‘only league’ follower than anything else.

Daine Laurie

(Photo by Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Australian rules football

Attendance ranked in the top five most attended sporting competitions in the world.
Large revenue.
High TV ratings.

Seen as a bully by other codes.
Only played in Australia at a professional level.
Club memberships.

Australian rules may have had a hold on Australia a long time ago if people from New South Wales didn’t turn up their noses at the Victorian code in the middle to late 1800s. They’d rather have had a code from another country than the local brand. Maybe it says something about the New South Wales complex. Queensland followed suit in making rugby their No.1 code as they are closer to Sydney than Melbourne.

As mentioned earlier, the number of participants in Australian rules is second behind soccer. The numbers are growing each year. For whatever reason it holds onto its juniors better than the other codes – soccer picks up a lot of oldies, one of whom is me. It is our Indigenous game that developed from rugby and soccer. Its rules were codified in the 1850s before any other code. The rules for soccer were codified under one law in the 1860s. Yes, rules within the game have evolved, but the same has happened in other codes.

The hardcore followers can put down the other codes. I have heard both rugby codes derided as ‘bum sniffers’, referring to the scrum. This just shows two things: their failure to learn about the scrum (though it is basically irrelevant in league) and the failure of both rugby codes to promote their game outside New South Wales and Queensland. The 2003 Rugby World Cup was a raging success and Rugby Australia failed to capitalise on it around the country. They sat on their hands and thought everyone would convert to ‘the game played in heaven’. Growth is not gained without hard work.


The other one I have heard more recently is that it’s a glorified game of British bulldogs. I can see the resemblance, though I don’t remember the tackling in British bulldogs. Of course it is not; there is more skill than just running at someone looking for a gap to run through. The key is having a quick-thinking, quick-footed player feeding the ball to the right player in the right spot at the right time by hand and sometimes by foot. Watching the line breaks or intercept tries can be something to behold. I still remember the David Campese goose step, the pass to Timmy Horan, with some clarity.

The same argument that league and union supporters about soccer are given by one-eyed Australian rules supporters, so I won’t go over them again.

Gary Rohan of the Cats.

(Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images).

Rugby union

A larger global reach than rugby league.

Poorly run.
Left to rest on its laurels.

Union is like the lost child of the codes. It has failed to build on the fervour that the 2003 Rugby World Cup brought to our shores. It has been looked on like the rich kid, probably because it used to be played by amateurs up until the 1990s. It looked like there was no long-term plan for the game in Australia, and pathways were generally non-existent outside the private school system.

The rugger followers really don’t have a dig at the other codes. In my experience they are expats from other countries or those select few who have discovered the wonders of union. Maybe that is a reason they don’t get too involved in these debates. It has spawned rugby sevens to the point it is now an Olympic sport. It has had a lot of growth internationally through the sevens, and who knows how far or how long it will go.

Most people who deride the union code are league fanatics – if there is a code war it is between union and league – and don’t appreciate the continued build-up of play through phases, the impact of a big forward pack, the timing of a lineout. Seeing John Eales rise up to grab the ball was a beautiful sight, so was watching him slot through the kick to win the Bledisloe Cup back in the early 2000s. He also earnt the great nickname of Perfect due to his feats on the pitch.

I suspect that there are many Australian rules followers who enjoy watching union the most after Australian rules. I may be wrong.

I enjoy watching all of the codes in Australia and struggle to understand those who can’t appreciate all of them.

I hope this assists people in understanding there is no need for a code war. Each game has its strengths and weaknesses and each can grow in Australia. To think otherwise is small thinking and demonstrated no faith in your No. 1 code existing in the long term. Each brings its own beauty to the world of sport; you just need to appreciate what you are witnessing as part of a crowd, watching on TV or listening on the radio.