Battle of the codes - soccer or rugby?

JANINE GRAHAM has had a casual relationship with all football codes, but her true love has always been the round ball game. Not only did she know the name of international marquee signings for this year before they were signed, she is more than willing to give the A-League advice on who they should sign next and who they overlooked. Here she mounts a defence for soccer’s ascendancy to the number three position in Australia’s most popular footy codes.

BREAKING NEWS: Two rugby league players see the light. 

Former league players Mark Geyer and Matty Johns told their listening public that football has overtaken rugby as the country’s third most popular sport.

Fantastic, brown medal for football!

Is there a ranking? Does it matter?

Well, of course it does – particularly when you’ve suffered false dawn after false dawn otherwise known as the Australian football season.

Those of us weaned on the English TV program Match of the Day understand the gritty realism of tribal groups taking chunks out of each other’s legs on snow-covered pitches. Now, decades on, the the Foxtel generation can appreciate the elegance of the beautiful game through the cavalcade of questionable championships and various foreign domestic leagues.

Let’s not fool ourselves, Geyer and Jones did not take themselves out to the A-League match they bubbled so breathlessly about on Monday. They watched it on the idiot box.

In its heyday, circa 1975, Match of the Day, screened on the ABC at lunchtime on Saturday. Yup, not so much primetime as “deadtime”.

Over the years that has changed. And so too, has our perception of football. Evidence the impact a single live A-League enjoyed over the weekend.

Of course it didn’t hurt one little bit that two of the most significant signings this season – Sydney’s Alessandro Del Piero and Newcastle’s Emile Heskey – faced off against each other.

That our league – small fry in a world where more than 200 countries play the game – can attract players of this quality is significant to say the least.

Del Piero is a megastar. He’s won a World Cup, a Champions League medal and was once the highest paid player on the planet. Only today it was revealed onetime Oasis loudmouth and Manchester City tragic, Noel Gallagher, wanted him to sign with the reigning English Premier League kings. He chose Sydney FC instead.

In reality is rugby, as witnessed in the most recent Super Rugby season, that far removed from football anyway?

What happens when the fullback can’t find his way out of his own 22? Kick.

When the defence is swamping the attack anywhere on the field? Kick.

When the ref is playing advantage after an infringement and the attacking team can’t be bothered to work out a way to score a try? Kick.

Mmmmm, sounds a lot like football – just with less skills.

That’s why we’re celebrating a brown medal. 

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Chris Gordon, a former sports journo, played around 100 games for the Goulburn Rugby Club (not one of them well, and mostly due to the kindness and pity of others). He wrote a book on the history of Goulburn rugby and contends that rugby is still the third most popular football code in Australia.

It’s an old chestnut in Aussie sport which gets dragged out from time to time with no real result –which football code is the best.

Of course it’s all about subjective tastes so there’s no real answer, but the debate usually centres around Aussie Rules and Rugby League, and goes something like this… 

•         Northern states v southern states 

•         Domestic only sport with massive crowds v international sport with smaller crowds

•         Greater athleticism v greater physical contact… 

Very rarely has anyone debated the relative merits or popularity of soccer (ok, football) v rugby union. That’s not surprising… it’s a bit like ABC and SBS scrapping over the right to be last and second last. It’s ironic, since soccer… football… is the most popular world-wide football code, and rugby is second… but in Australia, they rate third and fourth, with the widely held assumption that rugby was third.

But on Monday this week, Matthew Johns and his fellow presenters on the Triple M Grill Team in Sydney set the cat among the pigeons when they suggested that soccer has now overtaken rugby.

And what’s more, they’ve made that declaration after exactly two rounds of the 2012/2013 A-league season.

Clearly, two rounds do not a season make, but do they have a point?

Firstly, let’s consider the source. Matty Johns and Mark Geyer, both excellent rugby league players used to take great joy bagging rugby union on the Sunday Roast each week on Channel 9. Maybe they’ve come to love the sport since but in terms of anti-rugby sentiment, they DO have form, your honour.

But ignore that for the moment and assume they are fans of both sports and have come to genuinely believe soccer is strongly in the ascendency. After two rounds.

They seem to have joined the many soccer-loving people of Australia who’ve gone nuts about the involvement this season of Allessandro Del Piero. THIS, followers have been saying, THIS is soccer’s… I mean football’s ….big new start. THIS will change everything.

And that’s one of the problems with the A-league. We’ve heard it all before: 

•         Anthony LaPaglia buys into Sydney FC: Take a look at us now

•         Dwight Yorke (I had to look his name up) joins Sydney FC: Now we mean business.

•         Del Piero joins Sydney FC: Now we REALLY mean business.

The upcoming season for soccer… sorry, football… always looks, good, always sounds good, and then disappoints like the last 3 Rocky films.  It promises the world, then fails to deliver. Been there, done that.

And this isn’t limited to the current A-league. Back when the A-League was called the National SOCCER League (their own word at the time), when George Negus joined the board of SOCCER AUSTRALIA (again, their own title, not mine), it was going to be a brave new world. Ditto when David Hill was in charge.

To be fair, soccer HAS grown and CONTINUES to grow and receives (and deserves) a lot of media attention. And I couldn’t be happier. I want every sport in Australia to do well. But the question here is whether it has overtaken rugby.

Let’s take a different tack.

Australian rugby has the great rivalry against the All Blacks for the Bledisloe Cup, the second most prestigious international trophy Australia plays for behind the Ashes. It is a historical piece of the Australian sporting landscape.

There’s no equally prestigious trophy in international soccer, so what does the A-league play for? The Dunny Seat of Victory (possibly not it’s actual title, I’ll look that up later, but it looks like one).

How about some stats? In terms of bums on seats:  Average A-league attendance for 2011/2012 was 10,490; Average for Super 15s Rugby in Australia was 19,348 - a clear victory to rugby.

And here’s another measure of popularity… which code sells the most supporter gear. I don’t have those stats at hand (and wouldn’t use them if they didn’t support rugby anyway) but on a purely anecdotal basis, around regional NSW I see a LOT of Super Rugby and Wallabies gear and a lot less Socceroos or A-league.

As to their intrinsic merits, there’s not much point having that debate because that is ALL subjective. Where I might like the set pieces, backline moves and second phase play of rugby, someone else may like the intricate patterns of play that create an opening for a goal in soccer (sorry, football). It’s like chocolate versus strawberry… just a matter of personal taste and fans are entitled to pick their own favourite.

And, just between you and me, football followers, at least we (football and rugby) both have strong international competitions that culminate in an exciting World Cup. That’s much better than the situation in Aussie Rules where they play Ireland in some hybrid that makes as much sense as the world’s best chess team playing the world’s best checkers team at tic tac toe.

But I digress.

There is one argument that can’t be overlooked. Three football codes (AFL, league and rugby) play during the winter months. One sport had to move to summer to find and grow an audience. 

Now, that’s been a great move and has been very successful.  But by the same token, you can’t argue that the ONLY football code that isn’t competing in the same conditions, in the same environment, that isn’t fighting for the same crowds and same dollars in the same market place at the same time, has surpassed ANY of the other codes. 

They’re making massive inroads, and that’s great, but if the A-league is so confident it has overtaken rugby, let’s see them play in winter. 

Until then, good luck this season. 

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