It’s fair to say that the aussies like the odd bit of sport. Although cricket might nominally be the national game (at least when the aussies are winning), and although there’s a growing national interest in “soccer” since the last world cup (at least when the aussies are winning) and while folks in Sydney and Queensland might like a bit of Rugby, down here in Melbourne there’s only one game in town. Aussie Rules. Rules.
With the new AFL season kicking off a couple of weeks ago, vast swathes of newsprint and television time is now being devoted to coverage of this funny game played by guys in short shorts throwing around an oval ball on an oval pitch.
I can’t pretend to understand the rules. Sometimes I can’t even understand the newspaper stories. Many of the articles in the aussie press (at least the ones that aren’t just copied out of UK or US papers) seem to be written with the assumption that the paper’s readers will understand fully the context and history behind the story, which makes reading the papers a confusing business for a recent migrant.
The stories about AFL are no exception–for someone who didn’t grow up with the game they can be utterly baffling. A few weeks before the season started, for example, the papers were full of stories about “the bump” after an incident in a pre season game in which a Collingwood player broke the jaw of an opposing player. The offending player was initially banned by the AFL for four matches, but then this was somehow overturned on appeal, prompting the Herald Sun to ask: “Is The Bump Back In Footy?”
But no one ever explained what “the bump” was. To make matters even more confusing, some people even wrote to the papers to say that it was all the other guy’s fault–the guy with the broken jaw–for getting his face in the way of the first guy’s elbow. Apparently these people were not joking either (something to do with teh kids no longer being taught how to respond to “the bump” these days).
I still don’t understand what this bump is or how it can be the fault of the guy with the broken jaw (who of course was out of action for the first half of the season…) but this weekend I went to my first live AFL game. I did see one on the telly a few years ago when we inexplicably got up in the middle of the night in London to go to a pub, eat meat pies, and watch the “Grand Final”, but this was the first time I’d been to one live, joining Ad and Andrew in a half empty Etihad Stadium to watch Essendon play Freemantle. As an introduction to the game, it wasn’t exactly the finest example of Aussie Rules–I’m not sure what I’d think of football if my first game had been something equivalent to a goalless draw between Hull and Stoke on a wet Wednesday evening, but I could see flashes of entertainment in there in the midst of a lot of dull play. The AFL seem to like changing the rules of the game every five minutes, so perhaps I should write to them and suggest they shave off about 30 minutes from the playing time, at least for the games between the rubbish teams…
Whatever they are, it will be some time before I really get to grips with the rules (I couldn’t tell you, for example, if the home crowd’s annoyance with the ref every time he gave the opposition a free kick was justified or just the usual supporter’s tunnel vision) but perhaps the funniest thing for me coming to the game at this late stage in my life is the way the scoring system is set up. There are four posts at each end of the ground: you get six points for kicking the ball through the central rugby style posts, but if you miss those you still get a point for either hitting the post or getting it through the outside posts. Surely this is the only sport in the world that rewards failure by giving you a point even if you miss.
Perhaps it’s a consolation for the fact that you can expect to have your jaw or neck broken at any time (and it will probably be “your fault”…)