Spend any time in Australia and you quickly realize that sports here are not simple. In Canada it's easy to pick up on the sporting culture: watch hockey for nine months of the year, and something lesser for the other three months. In Australia, though, there are many more options, each with their own dedicated fans. I remember looking at the sports page of a news web site last year, and puzzling over the icons that ran beside each story, identifying what sport it was referring to. The cricket, soccer, surfing and swimming icons were easy enough to figure out, but why were there several icons featuring an oval ball, each slightly different from each other?
Turns out they could have been referring to Australian rules football, rugby league, rugby ynion, or even gridiron (which is what they call NFL football here. They've never heard of CFL.)
Aussie Rules, or AFL, is often shown on highlights shows in Canada, where it's depicted as the roughest game on the planet, just a free-for-all of high-flying men leaping up each other's backs in search of the ball. In fact, it's a much more elegant game, very fast and open, requiring more athleticism than brute strength. Even without watching the game you can tell AFL players from rugby players, because the AFL players have necks and look as though they can bend their arms.
The biggest rival to AFL is rugby league. Traditionally, I've been told rugby league was more popular in Queensland and NSW, while AFL was played in Victoria, South Australia and southern NSW. That's changed a bit, and both games (or "codes" as they're called) can be found around the country. I'm not sure how rugby union fits into it all -- there's a professional league and amateur teams, but it seems to get much less t.v. coverage.
By the way, if someone refers to "rugby" they usually mean rugby union. Rugby league always gets both words. If they refer to "footy," I think it could mean just about any game, although probably not soccer. Even though soccer clubs here often call themselves football clubs (Isaiah plays for Coolum F.C.) the game is usually called soccer. Confused yet? And I haven't even begun to distinguish between the different levels of pro, semi-pro and amateur play.
I've been watching both AFL and NRL (National Rugby League) games on t.v., and have usually enjoyed AFL more. It's faster, more exciting, more intense than rugby league. League also has a lot of arcane rules and seems to rely an awful lot on referee interpretation -- as Isaiah noted, in hockey you watch the replay to see what happened, in rugby league the referees watch the replay to see whether they should allow a goal or not.
Seeing Australia clobber World Cup champions New Zealand a few weeks ago made for a more interesting league match, but it still seemed to lack something. But someone said I should wait until I saw State of Origin. "That," he said, "is the best rugby league playing in the world."
State of Origin is a three match series played every year. One team is made up of players from New South Wales, the other is made up of Queenslanders. It doesn't matter who they play for during the regular season, because Origin is all about where they come from. And it's a HUGE deal. The sports pages have been full of Origin stories for weeks leading up to Wednesday's game, and on Wednesday the Brisbane papers were all about the Maroons. (The teams are called the NSW Blues, and the Queensland Maroons, a word which apparently rhymes with phones and clones, rather than with Junes and spoons. Don't ask me why.)
Queensland was heavily favoured. They've won for three years in a row, and a large number of their players are on the Australian national team. So on Wednesday night, Isaiah and I sat down to see what all the fuss was about. Eighty minutes later, I was well and truly impressed. I don't think I've ever seen such an intense, exciting game in any sport. It was a thrilling match.
Queensland won, but the Blues put up a good fight. The next match is in two weeks, and I rather hope the Blues win it. That way we get to see a third match.