The Many Faces of "Football" - Down Under



NSW - New South Wales

A- ADELAIDE (Capital of South Australia)

N.T. - Northern Territory

AS- ALICE SPRINGS (Middle of the Outback)

QL- Queensland

B- BRISBANE (nearest to the Great Barrier Reef)

S.A. - South Australia

C- CANBERRA (The Capital - It's in Australian Capital Territory)

"TASSIE" - Tasmania

D- DARWIN (Most Aussies have never been there)

VIC - Victoria

H- HOBART (Capital of Tassie)

W.A. - Western Australia

M- MELBOURNE (2nd largest city)

NOT SHOWN- Australian Capital Territory

P- PERTH (and neighboring city, Fremantle)

S- SYDNEY (largest city)


By Ed Wyatt - After several years writing and appearing on "Almost Live," a popular Seattle comedy show, and hosting a Portland newsmagazine show, my son, Ed worked in Los Angeles for Fox Sports World, concentrating on international soccer - I know, I know - and Australian Rules Football. For the last year and a half, he has been in Australia - he married an Aussie, in case you wondered - working in TV covering soccer, rugby, Australian Rules and the Olympics on Australian TV. He has hosted the Australian broadcast on the SBS network of the Super Bowl, along with Aussie Darren Bennett of the San Diego Chargers. Don't ask me how he gets by with the "Septic" accent (meaning "Yank" - from "Septic Tank" = rhymes with "Yank" - Aussies are big on rhyming slang). Ed has coached high school basketball at Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma, Washington and has helped me with football on numerous occasions, and if I do say so he really knows his sports. He is a graduate of Stanford - an English major - and if he writes well, remember - I helped pay for it.

When I left the United States behind, I knew I was giving up certain inalienable rights as promised me by the Constitution. I also knew that I was giving up a whole bunch of other things not as important legally, but certainly more pleasurable. Things like Mexican food, microbrews and those little fluffy sheets that keep your laundry soft and make it smell good. And football. Good, old-fashioned American football.
They call it "gridiron" over here, because there are so many different forms of football it gets confusing otherwise. There's Australian Rules Football, a frantic hybrid of soccer, football, and basketball. Aussie Rules is called "Footy" in Melbourne, but not in Sydney. Then there's Rugby League, a 13-a-side game that has some similarities to American football. It's called "Footy" in Sydney (but not in Melbourne). It's also referred to simply as "League." And then there's Rugby Union - called simply "rugby" - a 15-a-side game that is played all over the world, even in the U.S. There's also soccer which here, same as in the US but not most of the rest of the world, is called soccer. (Only the hardcore Greek, Italian and Croatian immigrants call it "football.")
Gridiron has a toehold here, but that's about all. It is played on what amounts to a recreational basis by a handful of teams, but the hard fact is that Australia's population is relatively small - about the same as that of Texas - and spread over an area about as large as Texas plus all the other 47 contiguous US states, too. And after the more popular forms of football - Australian Rules, Rugby Union and Rugby League, not to mention soccer - have taken their share of the athletes, the fans and the sponsors, there really isn't a whole lot left over for American football. Er, gridiron.
The NFL is covered surprisingly well in the newspapers here, and although I could get my "gridiron" fix once a week on Fox cable at 4 in the morning, it was usually the NFC and I can only take so many Green Bay versus Detroit or Tampa Bay versus Green Bay games. I needed something more, so I decided to take a chance on these other brands of football.
Australian Rules Football
You might know a little bit about this sport because it was carried on ESPN in the early days, back before Dan Patrick and Championship Week and those clever Wieden & Kennedy ads. ESPN was in desperate need of programming, so why not guys in short shorts and sleeveless shirts running around beating the hell out of each other? Even today in the states I run into people who grew up with ESPN and can do Aussie Rules Football umpire imitations.
Aussie Rules is unique in that it's a game that was developed in one Australian state - Victoria - long before being pushed by its advocates into neighboring states. Imagine a sport that developed in Los Angeles long before it ever made it to San Francisco. In fact, 10 of the Australian Football League's 16 teams still call Melbourne home.
In its simplest form, the purpose of the game is to kick the ball through the other team's goal. The game itself is played on a cricket "pitch" (field), which is oval-shaped and huge - about 225 yards long and 175 yards wide.
There are four upright goal posts - no crossbars - at each end of the field, and points are scored by kicking the ball between the two middle posts (6 points) or between a middle post and the post to its outside (1 point).
The ball is advanced by kicking it, running with it (provided the ball is dribbled or touched to the ground every so often) or punching it with the hand (a handpass).  
The fastest way to advance the ball a great distance is by means of a long, spiraling punt called a "torpedo" (does the name Darren Bennett of the San Diego Chargers mean anything to you?). The ability to field a punt - in a manner combining skills comparable to a cross between basketball rebounding and intercepting a pass at its highest point - is highly prized, since a player catching a kick in the air is awarded a free kick on goal for his efforts. What makes the game especially rough is that players from both teams normally compete to catch the punt.
Aussie Rules cuts across a wide fabric of society, more so than most American sports. There are luxury boxes where the captains of industry eat lamb and sip Chardonnay, and there are $14 (about $7 American) general admission seats that fill up two hours before game time and see more beer consumption there than during Spring Break at Padre Island. There are also more women than you'll see at an American sporting event. And these women are into it, screaming things like "Get rid of the ball, you bloody fool" or "aww, stop your whinging (whining)."
Weekly Aussie Rules matches draw the biggest sports crowds in Australia. The average attendance is somewhere near 40,000, which is pretty impressive considering that Melbourne sometimes finds itself home to four matches in one weekend. A "traditional" clash between old rivals like Essendon and Collingwood can draw up to 90,000 people at the venerable Melbourne Cricket Ground (the "MCG" or just "The G"). A new stadium, Colonial, has opened in Melbourne this season. A 55,000 seat retractable roof facility, Colonial is bringing an American sense of sports to Australia, with PSL's, prebooked tickets and scoreboard pyrotechnics. Australian Football League
Rugby (Or Rugby Union)
If you have ever played or watched any rugby in the United States, that's what this is: a 15-per-side game of confusing masses called scrums, rucks, and mauls, punctuated by the occasional wide-open run.
The purpose of the game, just like American football, is to advance the ball across the other team's goal line, scoring what is called a "try." A "try" is the equivalent of a touchdown, although the ball literally has to be "touched down" to the ground after the player crosses the goalline. A try is worth 5 points.
After a try, the team is also given a chance at a 2-point kicked conversion, over a crossbar and between two uprights, similar to an American football point-after. (The spot of the kick, though, must be at some point along a line extending directly back upfield from where the ball was touched down, so if it was touched down a yard in from the sideline, the kick must be attempted from a spot back upfield a yard in from the sideline.) A "penalty goal" - just like a field goal, but awarded after infractions - is worth 3 points, as is a drop-kick field goal, which can be kicked at any time from any place on the field.
The sport began in England at upper-crust schools, including the school where it was invented and for which it was named, Rugby. It was seen as a more exciting and more gentlemanly alternative to soccer. You may have heard the old saying "Soccer is a gentleman's game played by hooligans, rugby is a hooligan's game played by gentlemen." England itself remains a rugby hotbed along with France, but the best rugby in the world is played in the Southern Hemisphere among fierce rivals Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Rugby in Australia has maintained its position as a blueblood sport. It is played mainly in the private schools, and unlike Aussie Rules, most of the professional rugby union players have college degrees. Sponsorship of rugby tends to be more upscale than Aussie Rules.
There is no professional league per se in Australia. There is, instead, a competition called the Super Twelve, which is made up of five teams from New Zealand, four from South Africa and three from Australia - the Queensland Reds, the New South Wales Waratahs and the ACT (Australian Capital Territory) Brumbies. Many Aussie players choose to play in England or France rather than the Super Twelve, since the European teams pay more.
The biggest rugby union competition involves the national team, the Wallabies. They compete against New Zealand (the All Blacks) and South Africa (the Springboks) in what's known as the Tri-Nations series. The winner of this holds bragging rights as the best national rugby side in the world. There is also a trophy called the Bledisloe Cup, which is contested between Australia and New Zealand as a sub-tournament of the Tri-Nations. The Rugby World Cup is played every four years, and Australia is the current champion. "Rugby Heaven" or Super Twelve
Rugby League
Rugby League, or just plain "League," started as a working man's sport played mainly in the north of England. It was created as an alternative to the more exclusive Rugby Union, whose upper class players were mainly amateurs. English factory workers could not afford to miss their jobs to play rugby, so a breakaway competition was formed. When League moved to Australia it maintained its working class position.
Compared with Rugby Union, League is much easier for a novice to understand. It's a fairly simple game of straightforward bashing and inside slashing, with few of the really exciting outside runs seen in Rugby Union.
Rugby League has 13 players to a side and more closely resembles American football than Rugby Union in the sense that a team has the ball for the equivalent of 6 downs (called "tackles"). After the "fifth tackle" - or on "6th down" if you will - the team with the ball is able to kick the ball to the opponent to improve field position, much like a punt.
Just as with Rugby Union, the purpose is to score a try. Unlike in Rugby, though, the try is worth only four points. The point-after is worth two, and so is a penalty kick, but the drop-kick goal is worth only 1 point.
Sydney is the spiritual home of League, accounting for all but five of the 14 teams in the National Rugby League (NRL). League is also big in Brisbane, but has made little or no inroads into other capital cities like Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide, where Aussie Rules remains king.
The NRL does not draw as well as the AFL, with average attendance around 12,000. Part of this is because of a huge rift created a few years ago by News Limited (Rupert Murdoch's company) which started an alternative competition called the Super League. It drove salaries up, but caused havoc among the teams and nearly wiped out the sport. As a consequence, the NRL still struggles for credibility.
One fascinating aspect of Rugby League is the annual "State of Origin" series. Players who grew up in the state of Queensland play those who grew up in New South Wales in a mid-season "All Star" series. The games attract crowds of 70,000 and are billed as "State against State, Mate against Mate." National Rugby League
Rugby League HQ