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!