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There are now daily reminders we are fortunate there is footy of any variety being played anywhere in Australia.
A suspected positive test here, a surge of reported cases there and the fixtures that were once as reliable and reassuring as a Nanna’s hug are thrown into chaos.
The AFL is the victim of both its (almost) truly national nature and also that 10 of its 18 teams still reside inside Victoria which is rapidly having its identity transformed from “Garden State” to “COVID State”.
The NRL has benefitted from its northern state-centricity and its rapid retreat to hubs. But the competition is only a front-rower’s sneeze or a former great’s unauthorised training ground embrace from major upheaval.
So as we wait for the (Less) Super Rugby and the Delay-League to bring rugby and football into this tentative and tenuous sporting environment, forget the abrupt scheduling changes and crowd lockouts and remember we are lucky to have any sport at all.
You should be grateful we can even resume the Code Wars and ponder which set of baked-on fans should be more grateful given the very different experiences they are enjoying in their socially distanced lounge rooms.
The current disparity between the NRL and AFL can be contained in an age-old sporting question: would you prefer to watch a vastly entertaining but one-sided game or a turgid contest with a dramatic ending?
V’landysball, the rapid and free-flowing pandemic-era game seemingly created at the stroke of Australian Rugby League chairman Peter V’landys’s pen, has been declared a winner by public acclaim.
“Six again … and again and again” is the mantra of those fans who believe the rapid attacks facilitated by repeat sets have made a game previously marred by wrestling tactics more like its best self.
But as the ball flies from the ruck, defenders tire and the scoreboard ticks over, there has been another notable consequence.
In the past 15 years, approximately half of all NRL games finished with a margin of 10 points or less. Since the implementation of the “six again” rule, only 17 of 48 games have finished inside this “potential cliff-hanger” range.
Last weekend, the average margin was 17.8 points, with only two games decided by single figures.
This was inflated by the Storm’s 50-6 victory over the rudderless Warriors, who became the first team to make a Big Brother-style eviction when they removed coach Stephen Kearney from their Gosford hub and left the players seemingly deflated.
You might also consider Gold Coast’s 30-12 victory over the Brisbane Broncos an outlier given the hapless Broncos and their bulky pack have become easy pickings for more nimble outfits — yes, even the once-hapless Titans.
Brisbane’s sudden decline coupled with the trend toward one-sided games raises another problem for the NRL.
As perennial ratings magnets, the Broncos are scheduled to play nine more prime-time Friday or Thursday night games, which, unless there is a dramatic form reversal, will appeal only to the blood lust of sadistic Sydney viewers.
Otherwise, with scores blowing out as teams tire, it seems only the marquee match-ups such as Saturday night’s dramatic Parramatta-Canberra game are likely to cause nails to be bitten.
Conversely, five of the nine AFL games at the weekend were decided by 13 points or less (you might roughly equate an 18-point lead in Australian rules to 10 points in rugby league).
After Hawthorn clung on to beat North Melbourne by four points, Hawks coach Alastair Clarkson went public with the kind of stinging attack on the game that is unusual from inside a league and that is usually (sometimes wrongly) vastly self-assured.
Clarkson blamed the eyesore of a game on the failure of umpires to pay free kicks for incorrect disposal. This he claimed created the kind of ugly scrimmages that now commonly leave games as clogged as the drain in Rapunzel’s shower.
“At the minute, the seagulls are all going after the chip, but if there’s an incorrect disposal [free kick paid], you watch the seagulls spread,” said Clarkson in advocating more free kicks.
The Hawks coach went on to say: “If that’s the spectacle we’re trying to search for in our game, then our game’s in a dreadful space.”
If so, there are plenty who will suggest the fault lies not with the umpires but with the coaches who have adopted defensive zones and high-possession tactics from other sports that are anathema to a once-free-flowing, one-on-one game.
Some suggest the answer is to scramble the egg even more by reducing the number of players on the field; others continue to insist reducing interchange rotations and bench numbers will increase fatigue and open the game up (perhaps like V’landysball).
A consoling factor is that the Greater Western Sydney Giants’ two-point victory over fellow premiership contender Collingwood on Friday night was an intense, high-class contest that proved — much like the NRL’s Eels-Raiders clash — that you are quite obviously more likely to have a good game when you have two talented teams on the park.
Of course, in the AFL particularly, it is difficult to know which teams will be on the park on any given weekend.
Let alone whether it will be two titans or two also-rans.
So, perhaps rather than lament blow-outs in the NRL or run yet more debates about the quality of the contemporary AFL, we should remain grateful there are games at all.