08 January 2011

A Perspective on Australian Rugby

I have lived in Australia for more than 2 years compared with decades in the US. I like sports but am more versed in the subtleties of baseball and American football than I am in the nuances of cricket and rugby. Last year I wrote an essay on the unique and unfamiliar game of cricket. I thought it was about time to tackle impressions of Rugby, from an American and less knowledgeable perspective.

There are two schools of rugby played in Australia: “Union” and “League.” I am unsure of why there are two different leagues with different rules and styles; but I do sense that Union followers think League players are a few rungs below criminals on the prestige ladder of life. I understand Union rugby is played in schools, and League rugby is supposedly played in prisons, but this was told to me by a Union supporter.

I did attend a couple of games between the national team of Australia (the Wallabies) and the national team of New Zealand (the All Blacks). The All Blacks usually win, even though the Wallabies coach is from New Zealand. I am not sure why the All Blacks usually win, but I have some possible reasons after attending a few games.

The All Blacks evidently get their name from the fierce Maori warriors from New Zealand who fought off the British. A Wallaby is a midget kangaroo. So the game is staged as warriors vs. short, two legged marsupials.

The All Blacks dress in black and look like they were schooled in the dark side arts. The Aussies dress in green and yellow uniforms, which connote the image more of environmental conservation than combat. So, we also begin the contest as the Ninjas vs. the Greenies.

The All Blacks begin the game with a fierce looking war dance called the Haka, where they hiss, and scream, and stick their tongues out at the Greenies. It represents a fierce Maori islander war dance, and is menacing if you’re not accustomed to the experience.

The Aussies counter with a rendition of the song, Waltzing Matilda, which seems to be a tale about a guy who was dies after doing something with a sheep – I have not asked my Aussie mates for a clearer explanation of the lyrics. This is a little hard to understand the rationale, but I am just a new visitor. I do think the New Zealand team has the advantage in setting the stage for combat.

Both games I attended, the Wallabies played well but lost, which unfortunately seems typical. As I understand it, the All Blacks tend to become too confident after winning so many times, that they lose the world championship every four years when it is held. So maybe the midget kangaroos are just lulling the warrior ninjas into over confidence and are planning the big upset.

I have a couple general observations about rugby (both League and Union). The players are in really good shape. They are constantly running like soccer players but they are also tackling and bashing into people like American football players. Unlike American players, they do not typically use protective equipment; which makes me even more appreciative of their conditioning and toughness.

The other observation is that all the rugby players seem really ugly. I do not know if they were ugly before they played rugby – maybe that condition led them to their aggressiveness – or if playing rugby made them ugly. This is kind of an Australian version of the “what came first, the chicken or the egg” riddle.

The only 2 rugby guys I ever saw that did not look ugly was a retired Wallaby captain named John Eales and the captain of the All Blacks named Dan Carter. Maybe the teams have an agreement not to disfigure the other team’s captain.

I always thought Rugby was a fast game with non-stop running and passing. It appears that the game’s coaches have become more conservative, and the game is evolving into defensive battles with field positioning of paramount importance. It reminds me of good NFL defensive teams that win games by capitalizing on the other team’s mistakes instead of offensively scoring points. It makes for a more boring game, with the victory decided on penalty kicks rather than successful tries (i.e. touchdowns).

There are frequent game stoppages in rugby. They are not planned (like a 2 minute warning in American football); they are the result of many different kinds of penalties and many injury time outs. There are more and varied penalties in rugby. My favorite is “failure to roll away.” Evidently, after a guy gets smashed into the ground dragging down an opponent and gets stepped on with cleats and kicked, he only has seconds to roll out of the way of the offensive player. That is adding insult to injury.

When a player is injured, he is carried off the field and into a room not visible to the fans. Usually, the injured player emerges later and resumes playing. I wondered if they had some kind of bionic laboratory like they do on Startrek; but someone supposedly more knowledgeable than me said they just sew up the guys and send them back. I wonder.

Rugby fans seem more passionate than cricket fans. I suspect it is because both groups of fans consume considerable beer, but the Rugby fans have less time to consume so they drink faster. Cricket fans seem to eat stuff with their beer also, while rugby fans seem less willing (or too cheap) to pollute their beers with condiments.

Rugby is a fun sport to watch if the teams are offensive minded. Like all Aussie sports, it is a good time to have a beer and bond with colleagues and mates. Just don’t try to play rugby (unless you’re already ugly and don’t mind stitches and an occasional bionic repair).

01 January 2011

Australian Sport: the Tie that Binds

After living in Australia for more than 2 years, I have come to appreciate the seminal role sports play in the Australian psychic. When I lived in the United States, I always thought Philadelphia represented the epitome of sports culture. I was in Philadelphia recently after the NFL Eagles won a come from behind football victory over the archrival NY Giants. I asked someone if local fans were still talking about the recent game; he replied all the radio stations were still replaying the last 5 minutes of the game so the fans could savor the victory over and over. But I think Australia even surpasses Philadelphia in its focus on sports.

Every international culture seems to embrace sporting contests, and this appears to have been the case throughout history. When I visited Mayan ruins in Latin America a few years ago, I was surprised to see courts for a ball game (similar to a team handball evidently) prominently located in these ancient cities. The contest was the highlight of major festivals, according to my guide. Oddly, the winning team was sacrificed to the gods. I assume this was considered a privilege of some kind; otherwise I doubt if the competitors would be playing with sufficient enthusiasm.

The Romans filled the Coliseum with thousands of spectators cheering the gladiator’s fight to death or the carnivorous animals chasing the ultimately disadvantaged peoples, or other competitions. One exit gate was just used to remove dead bodies.

Unlike the Mayans or Romans, the Aussies do not kill winners or losers; it is the 21st century after all. But the Aussies do worship their teams and follow individual players with intense focus. Once I was stranded in the Whitsunday Islands off the coast of Queensland, directly in the path of a Category 5 cyclone (aka hurricane). My colleagues and I huddled around the television watching for news of the approaching monster storm. When the news did come on, the news reader spent most of the time describing the off field escapades of a rugby league player in detail and then mentioned briefly the cyclone was due to hit the islands over night. There are clear news priorities here, and sports behavior trumps cyclones.

I previously thought that the prevalence of sports in US culture was considerable. For example, there is a major NFL football team in most major US cities. In the New York and San Francisco metropolitan areas, there are actually two teams; but Los Angeles still lacks a team. By contrast, the Melbourne, Australia (population 4 million) metro encompasses 10 AFL teams. In Sydney, where league rugby is more popular, there are also 10 professional rugby teams. Where the US major cities have an NFL team, the major neighborhoods within Melbourne and Sydney have their own “footy” teams.

Similar to the US, Australian sports coverage on television is almost non-stop. In Australia, there are at least 12 24-hour exclusive sports stations on cable TV excluding European based channels. In the US, excluding paid per view and subscription channels, I can think of 6 such stations. And the US has 300 million people while Australia has about 22 million. There are more people living in Texas or California or New York than live in Australia. There are global cities with more people than live in Australia, but I feel certain Australia has more sports teams and more TV sports.

There are several seemingly peculiar aspects to Australian sports if you are not a native here. Americans, in particular, will have difficulty understanding or relating.

Firstly, ties are acceptable and often even applauded in Australia. Americans like winners, and games do not end until there is a winner and a loser. By contrast, a test cricket match extends for 5 days and can end in a draw. Imagine watching the same baseball game for 5 days and then being told no one won. Cricket is a bid odd, but the acceptance of ties extends to other sports as well.

In is not unusual for soccer matches to end in a tie. But last year the AFL Grand Final footy game, which is the equivalent to the US Super Bowl, ended in a tie. 100,000 fans descended on Melbourne for the game to decide the 2010 champion. When the regulation time was up and the scores were the same, did they play overtime? No. The game was officially over and the league scheduled a new game to be played the following week. Imagine the NFL telling the fans in Miami or wherever the Super Bowl was played that the game would be replayed and everyone needed to return the following week.

Another factor that surprises me is the names of many of the local teams. In the US, teams are generally named after fierce animals (lions, tigers, panthers, etc.) or peoples known for their combat skills, bravery, or toughness (Indians, Patriots, Steelers). Australian team names include fierce animals too but they also include more benign characters. The only AFL team in Sydney is the “Swans.” The national Rugby League final last year was between the Dragons (okay) and the Roosters. Guess who won? The famous Aussie movie star, Russell Crowe, owns a rugby team called the Rabbitohs (i.e. The rabbits). In the AFL Grand Final, the Magpies (a domestic bird) beat the Saints.

In addition to the AFL (Aus. Rules Football), cricket, rugby (Union and League – two leagues with different rules) and soccer, Australia follows and supports many other sports including tennis (the Australian Open is one of the big 4 Grand Slam tournaments), golf (several PGA leaders are from Australia), sailing (remember America’s Cup 1987), car racing, motor bike racing, kayaking, volleyball, basketball, and some unique sports such as net ball.

Australia is also very focused on horse racing. The biggest race, the Melbourne Cup, is held in November each year on a Tuesday. It is a holiday in the state of Victoria; elsewhere business stops at noon so the employees can bet and watch the race. It is the only day each year; certain kinds of bets are legally permitted in pubs. The Melbourne Cup is somewhat like the Kentucky Derby in the US, although the Derby is held on a Saturday and the viewing audience does not include virtually every person in the country.

When I first arrived in Australia in 2008, I sought to meet the major Australian based investors as soon as possible. During my second week in country, I had meetings with representatives of several major investment funds based in Melbourne. One fund manager looked at me and said, “Welcome to Australia. My only advice is do not support Collingswood.” After I left the meeting. I turned to my colleague, Ian, and asked, “What the hell is Collingswood?” “No worries,” he relied. “It’s an AFL team near Melbourne.”

The preoccupation with sports is not limited to investment managers, however. When I visited the remote Tiwi Islands off the coast of Darwin, I asked a local villager what religion was most prevalent among these seemingly isolated natives. He replied, “two religions – Catholic and AFL football.”

So I have learned to live in Australia is to live in a sports focused society. If you’re a new arrival here, please consider my advice for adapting to your new environs:
1. Do not become upset if your game goes for days without a winner or loser.
2. Don’t even try to understand all the laws of cricket – no one does.
3. Drink lots of beer – it makes the time pass more quickly and eliminates inhibitions to meeting new people.
4. Don’t make fun of the team’s names, and
5. Don’t support Collingwood.

If you follow these simple rules, you should be ‘right.‘