Great sporting rivalries can’t be contrived. The annual phenomenon of State of Origin rugby league is, for me anyway, based around the prevailing Queensland mentality that nothing is quite as good as beating New South Wales.
The AFL gave up on State of Origin games a long time ago. But this most clever and astute of organisations has come up with something maybe as good. A team that all Victorians (the home of the largest AFL fan base) love to hate.
When the GWS Giants run out on the MCG this Saturday to play Collingwood in a preliminary final, it’ll be into a wall of noise and a stadium decked out ninety-five per cent in black and white. It’ll be a game to fan the flames of perhaps the deepest rivalry of all – that between Sydney and Melbourne.
Fans of old footy teams like Geelong and Carlton whom I’ve spoken to this week have, perhaps for the first time in their lives, declared their allegiance to Collingwood. To them anything is better than an established Melbourne team losing to an upstart club clad in orange from the other side of the Barassi line.
The rise of another footy code
Football in Melbourne was very different. In my book Around the Grounds I recount the curiosity this way: ‘There were the goal umpires with their white coats, broad-brimmed hats and ritual flag waving. Cheer squads with paper pom-poms hung over the boundary fences behind the goals. There were dark-coated police on horseback shepherding the umpires off the ground at full time. We never saw anything like that in rugby league.’
I also wrote: ‘The suburban grounds – Arden Street, Windy Hill, Victoria Park, the Western Oval and others, had surrounding streetscapes right off an episode of Division 4.’ I should have added ‘and the villains would more often than not be Collingwood supporters.’
The game of VFL had no knock-on or off-side rules, no playing surface was the same size and the game’s commentary had a unique rhythm and cadence. It lead to misunderstandings and perhaps a bit of jealously either side of the Barassi line. ‘’They’re great athletes but it’s a crap game,’ said the king of Rugby League TV commentary in the 1970s, Rex Mossop. And he meant it.
The Swans fly into Sydney
From the moment the South Melbourne Swans started flying into Sydney for Sunday afternoon games in 1982, the governors of the southern game have had their eye on expansion. The Swans are now, in terms of crowd numbers, memberships and even on field success, the most successful professional sporting club in NSW.
When I joined the ABC sports department in 1997, the Swans (who’d played in the grand final the previous year) had the momentum of a rolling ball. I was hired by the ABC in part to become the voice of the footy north for a NSW audience. During my audition I managed to sidestep the reality of my lack of understanding of the southern game quite neatly. When it came time to do the real thing, the Melbourne office was not impressed by my lack of Australian Rules bona fides. Anyone who doesn’t think the Sydney vs Melbourne rivalry is a real thing needs to have experienced the competition and suspicion between those two offices.
As history shows I was despatched to Tasmania to hone my commentary skills and for some real-life immersion into the footy culture and way of thinking. And after twenty years I’ve worked it out. For a multi-generational old school footy fan history matters and a hankering for times past isn’t too far from the surface. And a team that wears orange and charcoal and is built from nothing amidst the vast population of western Sydney, a land where there aren’t traditionally enough goal posts in the ground, has actually become a threat to the natural order of footy. The AFL has pulled a trick here. It’s tapped into the oldest and deepest cross border rivalry in the country. Historical and tension underpinned by carefully orchestrated expansion.
On Saturday it’ll be twenty-three years since the Brisbane Bears played North Melbourne in a preliminary final at the MCG. It was the final game before the Bears evolved into the Brisbane Lions, the club that played the Giants in that State of Origin like atmosphere at the Gabba last Saturday night.
19 Years since Homebush was the home of the Olympics
This Saturday it’ll also be nineteen years to the day since the Sydney Olympics were in full swing at Homebush – now the home of the Giants.
Until now maybe nothing has represented the meeting of the old and new, the possibility for great sporting theatre and its travelling companion emotion as much as this Saturday’s preliminary final between Collingwood and the Giants.
It’ll be worth being there to hear the silence inside the MCG if the Giants win or the explosion of joy if Collingwood get to another grand final. Oh, and the look on Eddie Maguire’s face if the Magpies lose to a goal after the final siren.
The AFL have done it. They’re waging the expansion war step by step and fuelling the Sydney Melbourne rivalry as they go. And what is sport exists without genuine rivalry?