Australia on the whole is a fairly agnostic country; if anything, on a national scale sport inspires more fervour than actual religion. We worship at the altar of football, though there the faith fractures into three codes: rugby league, rugby union and Aussie rules. No, soccer doesn’t count.
Most are born into their code, according to geography and class. In my home state of Queensland, league is the dominant code, unless you or your parents went to private school in which case you will prefer union to league. The old maxim goes: “rugby league is a thug’s game played by gentlemen; rugby union is a gentleman’s game played by thugs”. That may have been true once; before union was professionalised most elite players were doctors and lawyers by day. Their league counterparts were more likely labourers, tradies and cops off the field. Today, however, professional footballers are paid considerable amounts of money just to play and train; and as the ongoing off-field sex- drug- and poo-in-the-hotel-corridor scandals suggest, these blokes might have a little too much time and money on their hands.
This is all a very longwinded digression. All I really meant to do was set the scene by saying that I’ve always been a league fan; union I find messy and unstructured, and AFL I find incomprensible. I mean, the field is round. There are four sets of goal posts. There’s no tackling, and knocking the ball forward is actively encouraged rather than cause for a turnover of posession. So when I went to see the Sydney Swans vs the Fremantle Dockers on Saturday at the SCG, I was all at sea.
But I learned a couple of things. Not only are AFL players far more lithe and graceful athletes than league players, AFL fans are considerably more attractive than their league audience counterparts, too. There is a bloke who plays for the Dockers who’s over seven foot tall. The guy marking him didn’t even reach his shoulder! And the refs – sorry, umpires – are referred to by the crowd as “maggots” (for their white uniforms), and make the most unnecessarily, fantastically camp contribution to a sport I’ve ever seen. Drama trumps brute masculinity every time in this arena.
Weather-wise it was a weird afternoon; one quarter blinded by sun, the next running for shelter from the rain. But best of all was being on that historic ground, and seeing the silhouetted Sydney skyline beyond the member’s stand, all glowing golden as the sun set. I still have some work to do in understanding the rules of the game, but I’ll definitely be back to an AFL match for the atmosphere, the athleticism… and the eye candy.