The truly national footie code?

I grew up playing rugby union and rugby league in northern beaches Sydney.  But you couldn’t call rugby (union) Australia’s national game, especially after tonight’s depressing tryless loss by the Wallabies to Ireland.  A top class rugby game exhibits all the skills, as we saw in the last Bledisloe Cup fixture where Australia actually beat the ABs.  But the current rules of rugby mean that the majority of games are boring, grinding affairs fascinating only to boofhead afficionadoes (any suggestion that I’m thinking of Chris Sheil is emphatically if unconvincingly denied).  Moreover, in Australia at least, rugby is an elitist game for private school self-appointed toffs, whose administrators made little or no effort to broaden the game’s appeal in the wake of previous lucrative World Cup successes.

Soccer doesn’t cut the mustard either, despite having far more players at junior level than any other code.  At senior level it still doesn’t seem to have severed the noxious ethnic allegiances that have always blighted the code.  And a sport that thinks it’s a great idea to pin its fortunes to the signing of a geriatric  self-obsessed superstar like Harry Kewell has truly lost its way, even leaving aside the sleaze and dodginess of the Frank Lowy-inspired dual World Cup bid dissected in last week’s Four Corners program.  Moreover, at international level most soccer games exhibit all the excitement, tension and blood and guts of a chess game (no offence Nicholas).  The most exciting thing about most soccer games is judging which player pulled off the most convincing if spurious Dying Swan Act in or near the penalty box.

For Australians at least, the award for most truly national footie code comes down to a contest between rugby league and Australian Rules, and this weekend’s sudden death finals highlight just how close that contest really is.  In rugby league,  last night’s match where the NZ Warriors overhauled Benji Marshall’s Wests Tigers with a fluky try with only a couple of minutes to go, and then tonight’s game where retiring superstar Darren Lockyer won the game for Brisbane against last year’s premiers St George Illawarra with a wobbly field goal in extra time, both showed NRL at its best.

On the other hand, in AFL Sydney Swans left their run too late against Hawthorn last night and then, when it seemed a crippled Adam Goodes might nevertheless conjure a miracle, an equally crippled Buddy Franklin saved the Hawks’ feathers at least for another week.  In a sense, tonight’s sudden death final was almost a carbon copy, with the Weagles looking like relatively comfortable winners for most of the night until a late surge from Carlton got them within three points at the death.

You can make a plausible case that the makeup of the final four makes NRL more truly national (deeming New Zealand to be part of greater Oz – which may be the least depressing way to look at the rugby World Cup after tonight’s game).   The Weagles is the only non-Melbourne club left in the Aussie Rules finals race.  By contrast,  Brisbane, NZ Warriors and Melbourne Storm are all still in the NRL contest with Manly Sea Eagles the sole contender holding up Sydney’s honour as the home of rugby league.  Will the rest of Sydney swing in behind the team once known as the “Silvertails” until they spent all their cash reserves loyally fighting to save rugby league from the Murdoch Anti-Christ?  Don’t count on it.

Despite growing up with the rugby codes, I can’t help concluding after an intensive weekend of footie watching that Aussie Rules is a better game to watch than rugby league, with a wider range of skills regularly on display. Even so, I’ll be watching the remaining finals in both codes with equal fascination, and hoping against hope that the Wallabies stop reading their own publicity and start playing consistently to their potential.  Go Manly! Go Geelong!  Go Wallabies!

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic at Charles Darwin University, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law) and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 12 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in he early 1990s.
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28 Responses to The truly national footie code?

  1. Paul Montgomery says:

    There’s no e in Hawthorn. Or in “footy”.

    This article shows how difficult it is to find a truly centrist position in Australia. The various factions are just too far apart. I commend the Club for trying, but it’s a herculean task.

  2. Leinad says:

    32 is ‘geriatric’ now?

    Also, de gustibus, fine but this needs some serious explication:

    At senior level it still doesn’t seem to have severed the noxious ethnic allegiances that have always blighted the code.

  3. Ken Parish says:


    The ethnic allegiances aren’t so evident in the national A League but they’re still alive and well in lower level senior competitions.

  4. . says:

    Where I’m from we play everything and follow virtually everything.

    I was league player but I follow union (played for school only) and league. I played soccer and AFL socially.

    Rugby League could be a national game but I entirely blame mismanagement of the NRL for this.

    Union is a great game with some shockingly stupid rules. No shoulder charges. The rules on grounding the ball vs slapping it away in the in goal area. Three point field goals. The endless crap with scrums.

  5. Alexander says:

    Geelong is in Victoria, but it’s not in Melbourne, so only half the teams left in at this stage are Melburnian.

  6. conrad says:

    I think the main reason AFL has become so big is simply better marketing — with a much harder game given that it will never have any international appeal. I think in this respect, about two decades ago, the AFL decided they would clean up their act and try and make themselves a family friendly game (obviously a difficult task given the testosterone pumped 20 year olds who are the players), and so they cracked down on bad behavior, and so now you see comparatively few fights and other such things. Alternatively, when I lived in Sydney, it seemed that rugby hadn’t even started on this process (perhaps you can’t with rugby), so the game will always be limited in terms of its appeal.

  7. . says:

    Fair and balanced eh Conrad ;)

    League had a fantastic image in it’s prime of the early 1990s.

  8. KB Keynes says:

    The truly national football code is the one that has the truly national football team.

    That leavers out the xenophobic Aussie rules, Thugby League as it international thugby is a joke. the Thugby Union have a world cup but it just a parody of the only true world cup which is the biggest sporting even in the world.

    That leaves …. Football

  9. Leinad says:

    The ethnic allegiances aren’t so evident in the national A League but they’re still alive and well in lower level senior competitions.

    I’m struggling to see what the existence of ethnically aligned state league sides has to do with soccer’s nationally representative claims (much less ‘senior level’). Absent that, the case comes down to 1) FFA wasn’t dodgy enough to buy the World Cup, 2) European-based players return to the A-League (non-sequitur much?) 3) Ken doesn’t like soccer.

  10. Leinad says:

    ps: ‘aren’t so evident’ – where’s the evidence of _any_ A-League ethnic allegiance?

  11. Doug says:

    You could argue that the balance of football codes represents the dialectics of globalisation, engagement with football versus continued assertion of local identity, in AFL and the NRL.

  12. rog says:

    There is only one game of football; the others are variations of handball hence the weird shape of the “ball”.

  13. ennui says:

    This article shows how difficult it is to find a truly centrist position in Australia.

    With that I would strongly agree. Given the varied regional support there can be no truly national footy code for Oz.

    However if one was determining the ‘best’ footy code, rugby would win in a canter. None of the other codes demands the range of physiques, the level of skills, the tactical ingenuity, the strategic acumen required by rugby.
    It is the ‘chess’ of the footy codes.

    The following is an interesting letter quoted by Peter Fitzsimmons in the SMH which does capture many aspects of the game that’s played in heaven.

    If passion is not part of the game then basically they can expect my interest to wane.I don’t watch it to appreciate the pure aesthetics or ballet of it all, with sweeping backline moves and raking kicks and clever passing. Sure I appreciate it, and indeed applaud it, but what really makes me want to stay up until three in the morning with all the other rugby tragics is the suicide runs through traffic, the monster hits, the tears during the anthems, the no-regard-for- personal safety leap to take a garryowen, rucking the shit out of prone players, the “trample the dead and the dying” style of play. I want theatre, passion, I want to feel…that this is the most important thing I need to be watching at this time.

  14. . says:

    What about the stupid rules?

    Even rugby players think the rules are stupid!

  15. Paul Montgomery says:

    If passion means stomping on defenceless men lying on the ground, then I agree with Gallop, it’s terrorism. Honestly, ennui, you sound like a brainless fanatic. Pull your head in (but watch those cauliflower ears).

  16. conrad says:

    “Fair and balanced eh Conrad”

    I can’t say I’m a fan of either, so I’m probably not too imbalanced — it was merely an observation based on the meteroic rise in popularity AFL has had despite it’s obvious handicap. Excluding at the extremes, I don’t think that the actual rules of the games make much difference to the popularity, incidentally, since there are exceptionally boring sports people like to watch (e.g., swimming). It’s whether people feel involved or some sense of solidarity or perhaps nationalism with the players and teams that is important.

  17. Ross says:

    Well Ken I grew up in Brookvale.My family arrived there in 1956 from Bourke.I still live in the Northern Beaches and have seen enormous change.I have played soccer,Union and league.Rugby league is too predictable.They need to dispense with the scrums and perhaps have the Union lineouts in the middle of the field.League also has to do something about the predictable kick on the 6th tackle.

    Just watching the Samoa/Welch game, they both did not use their backlines to much advantage.It was boring rucks and sheer power that dominated.Union played well is more unpredictable and exciting than league.Both codes need to keep evolving to make these sports more interesting to the player and spectator.

  18. Mr Denmore says:

    It’s what you grow up with that decides your code affiliation. All the football codes are great in their own way. Having been reared in New Zealand in the ’60s and ’70s, my favourite should be easy to you guess.

    I understand those who say there are too many rules in rugby – and the penalties around scrum infringements can be incomprehensible even for those of us with rugby union un the blood. But some of the matches at this current RWC have been sublime – France vs Japan was a classic of fast, running rugby, as was South Africa vs Fiji. The first half of the All Blacks-Tonga match and the second half of the Wallabies-Italy clash featured some of the most scintillating ball movement you could wish to see.

    When played well by the likes of NZ, France, Australia, Wales or Samoa, rugby union is a superb code and beats league by featuring a constant contest for possession. But the English approach to the code (and South Africa and Argentina much of the time) – of kick, chase, scrum and penalty –
    is not pretty to watch. It tends to win World Cups though.

  19. . says:

    I understand those who say there are too many rules in rugby

    No. Too many STUPID rules.

    Why isn’t that a drop kick from the goal line or a 5 m scrum?

  20. Mr Denmore says:

    Because it was a professional foul – By punching it over the dead ball line, Hunt prevented a certain try. He needed to force it for a dropout.

  21. . says:

    Hunt prevented a certain try

    He needed to force it for a dropout.

    You and I differ on what the word “certain” means.

  22. Steve X says:

    The fact that Australia doesn’t have a national football code is odd.

    What other countries would even have this sort of discussion?

  23. Yobbo says:

    It’s not that odd. We have a national sport, it’s called cricket. We don’t need another one.

  24. Patrick says:

    Yobbo is right and ennui and Mr Denmore is right.

    But as to what the AFL did right, it was strategy, investment and implementation.

    The ‘Auskick’ AFL kids’ training sessions ran every Saturday morning at about 100,000 ovals in Victoria and I believe now in Sydney and Brisbane are an absolute model of a sports code growth strategy.

    The organisation and logistics of those sessions is first-rate, the other codes couldn’t even begin to dream of matching that.

    There is no coincidence that Melbourne-based teams exceed expectations in League and Union as well, since they recruit and are exposed to AFL management.

  25. derida derider says:

    Some good points above. Yep, AFL has consistently better games because of what happens OFF the field – it is far better run.

    And yep, rugby at its best is better than the others at their best, but some really stupid rules (maintained by administrators whose national teams are geared to exploiting the stupidity) mean that a lot of games never get anywhere near those heights. In particular, making two goals worth more than an unconverted try is an invitation to negative tactics.

  26. Econjohn says:

    It is difficult to imagine someone being so far off the mark concerning football (not soccer). Anyone who watched Brisbane Roar last season will know that this is true football, not rugby league boredom, rugby union beer clubbing or that truly odd and unique Australian score-a-minute competitor to basketball. The ethnic charge is no more than an admission of pathetic Anglo Saxon bias. Sometimes this is a very sad country to live in although I have to say that the kangaroos and the koalas are nice to have around.

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