The two finals for the oval ball codes do not just share a weekend this year. Two of the finalists – Collingwood in the AFL and Manly in the NRL – have the undisputed status of being “the team everyone likes to hate” in their respective leagues. Yet they are far from similar clubs and the root of this hate is a striking contrast.
The source of hatred for Manly is easy to understand. Manly are “silvertails”, a moniker popularised by Roy Masters whilst coaching Western Suburbs in the late 1970s. Wests were then based in Lidcombe and Masters developed a mythology of class resentment for his under resourced team of “fibros”. It managed to inspire a brutal theatre for audiences, but ultimately failed on two counts – they didn’t win a premiership and rather than inspiring a siege mentality against all of Wests’ opponents, it instead inspired a league wide hatred of the prosperous, well resourced, player stealing team ensconced on the insular peninsular. The ultimate beneficiary was Newcastle in 1997. This folklore still inspires documentaries today.
The hatred of Collingwood is less easily encapsulated. Occasionally someone will suggest it is due to resentment of the team’s early 20th century success, which seems unlikely. Was dislike transmitted by geriatric fans that could actually remember Collingwood success? And why did the same resentment fall on teams like St George or South Sydney whom had similar periods of dominance in league? Over the years I’ve asked people, and searched internet forums and when one got past vague generalisations that could apply to any team, certain imagery made a habit of reappearing . Of “rats”, of “tatts”, of “flanno” and “missing teeth” [fn1] and of “Winnie Reds up sleeves”. Or I could just browse the facebook page devoted to asking “Why are Collingwood supporters roaming the streets? Shouldn’t they be in jail?”, or this one, or this one…. Hmm….
When the Western Suburbs Magpies consciously adopted proletarian semiotics, their Emmanuel Goldstein drew everyone else’s hate. When these semiotics are applied to the Collingwood Magpies, they became Goldstein.
Why this difference? It’s unlikely to be a root difference in the culture of the cities that form the core of each competition given Sydney and Melbourne are as alike as any two large cities in the world (the narcissism of small differences notwithstanding). Topography does make class differences more apparent in Sydney, but how would this explain this observed difference?
An Age article last year suggested that sectarian hate against the Catholic Collingwood had residual effects today. This is tempting on one level since an anti-papist strain in Aussie Rules would fit well with the code’s resolute Englishness. Yet the sectarian divide has been knocked down so well that we can blithely refer to an “Anglo-Celtic” Australia in discussions of multiculturalism and not even consider how peculiar it is to have a string of Catholics lead the tories, let alone one possessed by the ghost of B.A Santamaria. Why would this residual remain so strong. Additionally, what to make of the Canterbury Bulldogs. They are associated with Catholicism’s successors as chosen reviled religious minority (Islam) just to add to the way their fans were unfairly characterised as violent, the team proved to be cheats and accused to be rapists. But they are not reviled as Manly is.
There is something in the religion question though. The lore about pre-war NSW was that professional and public life required a trifecta. One chose either a UAP branch, a masonic lodge and a Rugby Union club, or chose a Labor branch, a Catholic church and a Rugby League club. Sport, religion and class were always closely intertwined. But where in Sydney and Rugby the divides were between codes, in Melbourne and Australian Rules divides were within the code.
The entire code of Rugby League was working class by virtue of its split from Rugby Union. Subsequently for decades it could be used to evoke a proletarianism either bleak and present, or romanticised and past. Manly were a sore thumb in this equation and thus reviled. Victorian, and later Australian rules was more reflective of society as a whole, and thus could reflect a basic human tendency. As Adam Smith would recognise, the hate for Collingwood is merely “the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, [that] has been the complaint of moralists in all ages.”
Which brings us to a last point. The AFL is expending millions to gain a beachhead in Western Sydney – the region seems to carry the same mythical power in sport as it does in political discourse. A great deal of fanfare has been made about a base for the Giants in socioeconomically disadvantaged Blacktown – journalists writing safari tales about their journey into the suburbs[fn2] and inane (and inaccurate) quips about struggling to find coffee. Ultimately the decision was made to play games at the Sydney Showground at Homebush on the basis that it would be more accessible, or at least more appealing, to the main potential fan base in the Hills District. Prior to this the main stadium events associated with the Hills District was Hillsong’s prosperity preaching spectaculars. I guess the imagined sore support is a demographic that despises league in the same way Collingwood is despised, but didn’t go to the right schools to pretend that Union is interesting.
But if Smith (and Paul Frijters) is right about human nature, then the AFL is set for victory over the NRL in the long run. League has chosen to despise the privileged. Australian Rules chooses to despise those of poor and mean condition. The latter inclination is that of the broader swathe of humanity.
[fn1] I started googling for an image with “Collingwood supporter” and google suggested “Collingwood supporter no teeth”. Google’s suggestions are an interesting way of mapping human prejudice.
[fn2] A journalistic conceit that already had a long history when Dianne Powell documented it in 1993.