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Soup of This Day #218: They Don’t Get Your Soul Or Your Fire

July 20, 2012

Cazaly's Stadium, Cairns
Cazaly’s Stadium in Cairns, Far North Queensland, Australia. The stadium is a home for rugby league, cricket and some Australian rules football. Somewhat fittingly for the latter, the ground is named for Aussie rules legend Roy Cazaly – Photo: Foznez, 2007. Foznez is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

In Australia we love our footy – We are pretty unambiguous about that.

What we’re a little unclear on is what we define as football.

The problem is that we have 2 major codes of footy, with a great many fans and huge TV deals backing each. Which reads like it should be great for a sports fan like me – 2 flagship leagues, the Australian Football League (AFL) and the National Rugby League (NRL), plying their wares each week across winter. It’s wall-to-wall football – What could be better than this?

Something else, it turns out.

The AFL and the NRL (The league names are interchangeable with the game they play) are 2 seemingly incompatible codes of football. The AFL involves a fair bit of kicking of the ball. The ball can be carried in the hands but like basketball, must be bounced periodically – The game also features a handpass, a kind of controlled punch of the ball.

Oh, and we’ve opted to do all of that with an oval-shaped ball.

That last bit is the thing that makes AFL footy unique. Try bouncing an oval-shaped ball. It’s difficult isn’t it? Now try doing that while running flat out. That’s where it becomes the devil’s work.

The NRL by contrast is your classic rugby football – Players predominantly carry the ball – There is no bouncing. There is kicking but it is of secondary importance, something you try once in a while in an attempt to get behind your opponent’s defensive lines, along with some limited place kicking.

That is a brief summary of the mechanical differences – It’s when you look at the whole ethos of each code though that you really get to the heart of why the 2 struggle to co-exist…

In the NRL you grab the ball and then try to bust through your opponent’s defensive line, attempting to batter them into submission by the sheer force of dumb physicality.

In the AFL tactical nous is the dominant spirit – The game is not played along linear lines. Strength and speed are important, but it’s more about how you dispose of the ball than how you possess it.

It’s like the difference between your regular 2-dimensional chess and Star Trek Tri-Dimensional Chess.

It’s difficult to like 1 and then go and change your whole outlook for the other.

And so the organisations eye each other across their own philosophical curtain of iron, while the fans deride those who inhabit the other, foreign, land. And this is no mere cultural divide – Australia is a nation of just 22m – The sporting dollars that can be extracted from fans, sponsors and broadcasters make up a finite pool. Each code is always looking to subdue it’s opponent with 1 hand while swiping a much cash as possible with the other.

Every business knows that they must expand to survive, that continuous improvement must be the driver. To stand still is to stand by while rivals take control of your market space. You’ve got to find new markets, add fertile new ground, that you can harvest for more lucre.

The AFL has done well at this. In 1980 the primary league representing their code was the Victorian Football League (VFL) – It had 12 teams, almost all of them in Melbourne, the capital of that State. There were strong leagues in Western Australia (WA) and South Australia (SA) but they were not connected at a national level.

By 1990 that had changed – Queensland (QLD), WA and New South Wales (NSW) had all added a team to the VFL mix and with SA set to add 1 the following year the competition gained a new, more fitting name – The Australian Football League.

In 2012 there are 18 clubs within this truly national competition. Of those 10 are Victorian, while WA, SA, New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland (QLD) each have 2. Tasmania, the only remaining state without a team, hosts a handful of games each season, while the Northern Territory (NT) and Australian Capital Territory (ACT) each host a couple of games as well.

They’re not able to stand still though. The NRL are looking at expanding out to SA and WA in the near future. To counter, the AFL has added 2 new franchises, this year and last – The Gold Coast Suns in QLD, and the Greater Western Sydney Giants in NSW. Both are in NRL heartlands. Both will take some winning over of the locals, to get them to adopt a different kind of sporting hero.

Or the AFL could just nick a rugby hero and re-badge him as 1 of theirs.

Yeah, they did that.

Twice.

The 1st of the defectors was a former Brisbane Bronco, Karmichael Hunt. He was lured to play for the shiny new AFL franchise, the Gold Coast Suns, with much fanfare and a fair bit of mockery from the doubters.

Hunt though was undeterred. He’d played some AFL at the junior level and he had the basics – Strong athleticism and good ball control. He just needed to practice the kicking and the bouncing and the handball thing. Which he duly did and in the Sun’s debut year he did alright, showing enough to shut up some of his detractors and to convince the NRL that he wasn’t about to come haring back with his tail between his legs.

It helped a little that the Greater Western Sydney Giants had signed Israel Forlau – The big winger had also been a star Bronco but he had traded in that for a shot at the AFL under the watchful eye of 1 of the AFL’s most experienced and successful coaches, Kevn Sheedy, coincidentally the man who had pioneered the modern handpass – The rocket handball.

This, in spite of Sheedy’s master tutelage, was a greater gamble by the AFL than with the Hunt deal – It cost a lot and Forlau did not have even the rudimentary background in AFL that Hunt had under his belt. At times watching him play has been almost painful – The lad has height, strength and speed but he is in an environment where he doesn’t know how to make best use of those attributes.

If you look up ‘fish-out-of-water’ in a book of idioms it just has a picture of Izzy in a GWS jumper and with a forlornly puzzled expression on his face by way of explanation.

It will get better mate – Just ask Karmichael.

For Hunt has got better, to the point where he is a decent squad member now. That to be honest isn’t as good as it could be – The squad at Gold Coast is a developing 1 and so making the grade there means you’re still a bit below the average AFL player.

That can be seen in the Gold Coast record. They won just the 3 games last year – Notching a 1st ever win over Port Adelaide in Adelaide, before recording victory over QLD rivals the Brisbane Lions in Brisbane. Their final win for 2011 was also away from home, although still in their home state – They beat Richmond in the Far North QLD city of Cairns. It was a nominal Richmond home game – The Melbourne-ian Tigers having staged it in Cairns in return for cash.

Which strangely brings us to last Saturday. Gold Coast headed into Round 16 of the 2012 competition with no wins at all for 2012 – They had even lost to the Giants, giving the Western Sydney outfit it’s 1st and to-date only win. So for Round 16 they were not expected to win.

Even if it was against Richmond.

In Cairns.

Richmond are on the fringe of a spot in the finals. Their fans probably saw this as a percentage booster.

Not so much.

The Suns sprinted out of the gate and led by 7 goals to 4 at half-time. Richmond though powered back and with 4 minutes remaining in the game led by 3 goals. The Suns came at them but with 30 seconds to play the Tigers still led by 2 goals and it looked gone.

Then with 25 seconds on the clock the Suns pulled back a goal. From the ensuing bounce-down the ball found it’s way to a Gold Coast forward who marked, 30m out on a slight angle, scant seconds before the final siren. He seemed hesitant about what to do – Which is fair enough because it’s Karmichael Hunt and the lad suddenly had a lot of reality riding on his shoulders.

What happened next is best left to the following video to demonstrate:

They’re a bit happy about it, then.

Yep, Karmichael Hunt settled, eyed up the big sticks and then slotted the oval ball through for a goal and a narrow 2-point win. That makes it 4 away wins for the Gold Coasters and if I was a Richmond official I’d probably be trying very hard to can the deal that sees the Tigers playing the Suns at Cazaly Stadium in Cairns in 2013.

I’d also be cursing the day the AFL chose to poach from the NFL.

They Don’t Get Your Soul Or Your Fire

3 Comments
  1. That was exciting footage…now if I only understood the game itself. I have a long way to go with my Rugby “training.” We had the U.S. College Sevens Championship here in our area recently and I did watch a bit of it on the tube. It was entertaining even if I was playing catch-up with the rules, strategy, etc.

    • If you ever do catch up to the rules – Feel free to explain them to the rest of us. Rugby Union, on which 7s is based, is 1 of those rare sports in which the rules are so ambiguous that decisions are open to the interpretation of the referee on the spot.

      And what phase of the moon we’re in.

      AFL is much easier to pick up. Think soccer meets rugby, with an element of basketball thrown in. The latter sport is actually where AFL recruiters have started to make forays into the US.

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