Australians are well known for participating in sports that aren’t played by many nations. On many occasions they are quite good at those sports. Constant good performers at cricket, surfing, field hockey, rugby union, netball are the usual good contenders. But 2 sports in particular capture the heart of the country, the 2 most popular winter sports. Rugby League where Australia are the most consistent world champions is the heartland of the sport internationally. The main competition mainly participated by an expanded version of the Sydney competition also internationally includes a league in the north of England. The other sport; Australian Rules Football where “we are undisputed all time world champions because we are the only country that play the sport.”
Unlike cricket, which unites the Australian people in summer time, Rugby League and Australian Football, divide the country. But to my surprise a proud rugby league fan, in my state of New South Walesa rugby state, it isn’t clear cut that every New South Welshman plays or supports rugby league. A bit more obvious in the rugby crazy state of Queensland, the rest of Australia is crazy about Australian football (AFL).
To show the obvious a former famous AFL player proposed a line to show where the people are most likely to play AFL or League. This line became the Barassi Line and cut off one quarter off the state of New South Wales to AFL support, these areas being usually adjacent to an AFL area.
Like the border zones of many countries where two different languages are spoken the inhabitants will be familiar and speak both languages. The same in the Barassi Line border areas. Wagga Wagga in the Riverina region of NSW has produced many greats in both codes. Famous AFL players include a player called Wayne Carey, who is said to be one of the top 10 AFL players of all time, and the famous league family the Mortimers who produced three brothers Steve, Peter and Chris.
Given that Australia is the main place that both these sports are played, it is the only place to expand the sport. That means launching marketing raids on the opposite side of the line. AFL expanded its Melbourne based competition firstly to other fervent AFL cities notably, Perth and Adelaide which supply many players to the competition. Expansion then went to the larger east coast rugby cities. First to Sydney, where expansion was slow and then to Brisbane. Both of the these teams have had successes since joining but Sydney, drawing from it’s large and every expanding NSW player base is continually within the top 4 year after year. The AFL then pushed harder into Sydney including a Western Sydney team into a rugby crazy zone of Sydney, and in Queensland, on the Gold Coast which has become Australia’s 6th largest city, where many AFL staters have moved in search of better weather. They don’t change their sporting allegiance, and attend the local matches with greater numbers than attend the local Rugby league teams home games.
The Rugby League’s expansion, from a Sydney based competition first spread out into the larger cities of their own state NSW, given the state’s higher concentration of population and 4 of Australia’s 10 largest cities. These though were still within their side of the Barassi line. Next step was to Brisbane the capital of the rugby crazy state of Queensland. Teams were tried in Perth, and Adelaide but in the end Melbourne-the heartland of AFL, a successful rugby team was started as well as union crazy Auckland in New Zealand.
Rugby union the 15 player form of the rugby game is another important link between these sports one either side of the Barassi Line. Rugby union is a minor sport in Australia about the 4th highest participation for winter sport in the country behind that of the original game of football (3rd). There are more registered rugby players in the small Pacific island nation of Fiji than in Australia. Thanks to the similarities between the league and union Australia has become quite competitive at the sport, usually within the top 4 in the world. Rugby union support is usually tied to the Rugby side of the line, however country wide it is a sport played in schools attended by rich people, and states like Victoria and Western Australia have produced Wallabies, most notably former Waratahs player, and Australian coach Ewen McKenzie from Victoria.
The rivalry is strong between the sports and divides NSW and Victoria substantially. The rugby supporters call the AFL “game kick and giggle” and “aerial pingpong” and can’t see the purpose of kicking and ball between 4 large sticks that are hard to miss. The AFL supporters call the rugby supporters “bum sniffers” because of the proximity the players are to other players butt holes during the scrum.
As to who is stealing who’s players to increase their sports numbers. Inside the rugby part of the Barassi line many AFL players are children of AFL supporters or had lived part of their life on the AFL side of the line. Sydney although is a strong recruitment area for AFL players from a non AFL background. Gold Coast in Queensland is a 50/50 support area where you can see as many kids kicking around a Sherrin ball on the streets as you are likely to see a Steeden ball. Other coastal parts of Queensland have attracted southern AFL suppporter or sunseekers who keep their allegiance and support of the sport in their new state.
On the AFL side there has been less flex from the AFL supporters accepting a new sport. AFL supporters are more absorbed in their sport than rugby fans and rugby supporters more likely to convert to AFL than vice versa. New Australians tend to keep their allegiance with their own sport (Rugby or football) and tend to be less likely to change sports if they arrived in Australia after the age of 8 years old. The city of Perth is one exception as it has a large amount of people from Rugby states. Western Australia has the largest amount of rugby supporters but many of them are rugby union supporters who have come from England, South Africa, New Zealand and the Pacific Islanders. These guys retain 100% of their interest in the sport they were born into. Melbourne because of its large population are also attracting the same group of migrants through their rugby league and rugby union player/supporter base. There is now both a union and league team in Melbounre (both Rugbies) and Perth (Rugby Union) where fervent fans can go to to get their fix of rugby. The local league team in Melbourne has benefited greatly from the union expats in its city.
In the end it seems that AFL are the likely winners of the competition for supporters. The crowd attendances for AFL games is said to be the highest of any sport in the world. They out do the national rugby matches every week, even considering the temperatures that people have to go out in in Sydney and Brisbane are much more pleasant than any AFL city. Also, NSW can field a very competitive state team in AFL, but Victoria can’t field a competitive rugby league team. Despite the fact that the Melbourne rugby league team finishes in the top 4 (this year no.1) home game crowds are substantially less than AFL games in the city and less than most rugby league games in Sydney. The draw-card that the rugby league and rugby union have over the AFL is that international games don’t exist in AFL and are occasionally played in Melbourne which attract large support from many AFL fans wanting to support their country.