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So far as I ca ntell Melbourne winning the NRL championship is like Phoenix or Anaheim winning the Stanley Cup. It just ain't right! (Photo: Melbournestorm.com.au)
So far as I can, tell Melbourne winning the NRL championship is like Phoenix or Anaheim winning the Stanley Cup. It just ain’t right!                              (Photo: Melbournestorm.com.au)
*NOTE: Sigh, it’s just my luck that WordPress would decide to post my blog on its front page on the day when I make jokes about a sport that some Australians hold near and dear to their hearts. While I appreciate the increased traffic, I’m suddenly inundated with comments from strangers who are reading this way out of context and taking it WAY too personally (or, more accurately, taking it upon themselves to attack me personally). Here’s the deal: This is a blog about my experience as an expat in Australia. It’s how I see things here. It is not a serious evaluation of Australian sports vs. American sports, and by no means do I pretend to be an expert on any of the topics in question (other than television, of course). My typical audience is my friends, my family, other expats, and America’s Next Top Model fans (seriously, “Nigel Barker” continues to be the #1 search term that brings people here). Very few of them are familiar with Aussie Rules Football, or cricket, or Vegemite iSnack 2.0, or any other insitution that Australians may or may not treasure.
I’m very sarcastic and I like to make people laugh with my writing. I may not have a full grasp on the rules of AFL, but as I’ve hardly ever seen it since it’s not regularly televised in the U.S., I can’t help but observe that the rules feel very foreign and counterintuitive to someone used to American football. Furthermore, I’ve had plenty of conversations with Australians who are more than eager to bash the NFL because they wear pads, and there’s a forward pass, and downtime between plays, and 400-pound linemen whom they deem to be “unathletic,” and I totally get it. In actuality I really enjoy these lighthearted arguments, just as I appreciate the helpful links from some of the commenters below about the history and tradition of the AFL. I certainly don’t mean to disrespect any of that, instead I’m just letting my friends back home know what things are like for me here. Those who know me know that I’ll give any sport a try, and in fact I sincerely hope to attend an AFL match down in Melbourne because I think sporting events are a fantastic way to experience local culture (see my post about the State of Origin, which was a true highlight of our time here so far). So yeah, I mean no disrespect and I apologize to anyone whom I may have offended. Can’t we all just get along? Ok, now on to the original post…

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So I know I’ve written a bit before about the NRL and the AFL (like, how one or both is on TV here 24/7 on at least two different channels at any given time), but now that both seasons have ended I figure I have more perspective. Also, for any American sports fans out there it seems instructive to describe the schedule and availability of American sports (I’ve been pleasantly surprised…for the most part).

The AFL “Grand Final” (that’s what they call championships here) was two weekends ago, and pitted two teams from the Melbourne area against each other. There are 16 total teams in the AFL, and all but six are in the Melbourne area. I haven’t been down there so I can’t really say for sure, but that’s like if we had some national league and had one team in LA, one team in Miami, one team in Boston, and like the rest in New York City, New Jersey, Westchester County, and Connecticut. But I guess it also illustrates how popular Aussie Rules Football is in Melbourne, and not really anywhere else. I crack up every time my husband does a mock play-by-play of an AFL game:

He’s running around in a circle with the ball…he gets tackled! Another guy picks it up…he punches the ball to someone else…he gets tackled! The other team picks it up and kicks it down the field…someone falls on it then gets up and starts bouncing it like a basketball…and he kicks it again! They seem to have scored, and the referee signals like a sharpshooter!”

Seriously, this is the sigal refs make when they score a try, or a touchdown, or whatever it’s called:

How they signal a score in Aussie Rules Football. And usually they wear pink shirts, too! (Courtesy of smh.com.au)

Usually they wear pink shirts, too! (Courtesy of smh.com.au)

Essentially, there’s no forward pass, and you can only toss the ball to teammates by punching it out of your hand like a volleyball. Otherwise, you have to kick it, and you get style points, or a free position or something, if you happen to make a diving catch (you know, like more-talented wide receivers in the NFL do on a regular basis). The ball has to touch the ground every 15 meters, hence the dumb bouncing thing (imagine dribbling an oblong basketball on grass, ick!).

AFL fans argue that the players are incredible athletes who run around a ginormous field for 80 straight minutes without benefit of pads, and that’s fine, but I just find the rules to be totally silly and trivial. There can be 18 people from each team on the field at a time; every time I’ve seen a match from above it reminds me of Quidditch in Harry Potter because there seem to be so many people running every which way on an enormous pitch.

So Geelong won the AFL Grand Finall (wheee! hilarious when in the semis they played a team, Collingwood, that had almost the exact same uniform so we couldn’t tell them apart). Last weekend was the NRL Grand Final; rugby league is the opposite of Aussie Rules Football in that it’s most popular in New South Wales and Queensland, and therefore seemingly every random suburb has a team. The Paramatta Eels (for readers from Boston, that’s like the equivalent to Waltham having a team) faced off against the Melbourne Storm. There were like 12 hours of pregame coverage – as bad as the Super Bowl – and everyone was talking about it (even my Pilates teacher, who concluded class by saying, “Go the Storm!” to my great confusion. I can never imagine being like, “Go the Red Sox!” Anyway…)

We figured it was part of the full Aussie experience to tune into the game, so naturally we got beers and made guacamole (as we always do for big football games). Unfortunately, Melbourne jumped out ahead and never relinquished the lead, though Paramatta came quite close in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter. Given 1) how shady rugby league is in general (i.e. our local team was just accused of throwing games) and 2) Australia’s general obsession with gambling, it almost seemed like they made it close on purpose or something. Anyway, final score Storm 23, Eels 16.

Things I like about rugby league:

  • Hard hits
  • They never stop running so the games are fast-paced
  • They have six chances (via tackles) to move the ball downfield & score (like four downs in football)
  • The team that scores is rewarded by getting the ball back (a clever way to enhance momentum and encourage come-from-behind wins)
  • No one’s ever heard of Brett Favre

Things I don’t like about rugby league:

  • They seem to average about 1 yard/carry, which is pretty boring to watch. For instance, the top tackler in the NFL currently has 59 tackles through five games. Some dude on Paramatta had 64 in the grand final. That’s a lot of tackling.
  • Because plays are so slow to develop, way fewer breakaways than in football (or AFL, for that matter)
  • No forward pass
  • Tackles can be really slow (like 10 guys in a pile) and it’s not clear when the play is over
  • When one team is way up, as Melbourne was, the get-the-ball-back rule can be a real drag
  • The NRL has a bit of a reputation for bad behavior. Between the alleged sexual assault of a minor, apparent gang-rape as a form of team bonding, “glassing” a girlfriend, defecating in hotel hallways, and a coach and a player getting into fisticuffs at the end-of-season banquet,  I’m awfully turned off by the culture surrounding rugby league.

But hey, I couldn’t find a single story about rugby league players shooting guns in a nightclub (knives and glass bottles are a different story), nor a mention of killing a pedestrian in a drunk driving accident. That is to say, I know American athletes are far from perfect, I just get the sense that here bad behavior is more tolerated with a sort of “boys will be boys” attitude.

On that happy note, I’d planned to finish this post with a discussion of following the MLB playoffs (every game is shown, much to my [initial] delight) and NFL, but I think I’ll save that for tomorrow. I just don’t have it in me to rehash the Red Sox’ failure to show up for the ALDS and Tom Brady’s throwing woes right now, so I’ll cover that stuff tomorrow. Suffice it to say, it looks like I’ll still be able to find a rugby game on 24/7 or therabouts, as Fox Sports is taking viewer votes to re-show their favorite games from 1999. Really? There’s no better LIVE sporting event to show in that window? WTF Mate?!

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