Tuesday, September 29, 2009
The OTHER football. . .
Geelong--with horizontal stripes--battled it out with St. Kilda--vertical stripes--in the 2009 AFL Premiership match.
Sorry, I didn't catch Monday night's big Cowboys game on the nation-wide broadcast. Football? Oh, yeah, I watched football after work that night, but it wasn't NFL. It was AFL. And I'm not talking about the old American Football League
Rather, thanks to Lance Lassen's DVR, I watched the Toyota Premiership match between the Geelong Cats and St. Kilda Saints of the AFL--er, Australian Football League. That's Australian rules football. Footy. And the Premiership, played Saturday afternoon in Melbourne, is the equivalent of Australia's Super Bowl, played before 99,000 at Melbourne's Cricket Grounds.
There's a superb gallery of photographs of the match on line.
And it was a spectacular game. Even for one such as myself who'd only had minimal exposure to footy before, it was clear this game had it all. The drama: Geelong was looking to win their second Premiership in three years. St. Kilda was looking to win their first since 1966. The game had lead changes. Controversial calls (how could that goal umpire not see the ball bounce off the central post?). A rainstorm that made the leather ball impossible to keep ahold of. And it had a nail-biting finish when Geelong finally stormed by St. Kilda in the closing minutes after the Saints missed on so many opportunities to score six-point goals, settling for several one-point behinds instead.
After watching this game, I'm not convinced that, given the proper marketing, footy couldn't be a big hit in the United States. The game has non-stop action played on a huge (150 meters by 135 meters) oval field accomodating 18 players a side. The action is rough--there are no shoulder pads or helmets. There are no wholesale substitutions. You get banged up, you pretty much keep playing. The main drawbacks, as I see it at least, are the large field (fans don't get as up close and personal as they do attending NFL games, but the importance of that has been diminished by television driving popularity) and lack of outlandish personalities. Though I'm sure the AFL has its characters, footy seems very much a team sport as opposed to the "look at me" performances characterizing the modern-day NFL and NBA. (Though, to be fair, Geelong has a captain with the magnetism of a David Beckham; a red-headed muscleman who looked like the current incarnation of Carrot Top, and a bearded cave-man of a guy who'd fit right in on a Geico commercial).
Americans are probably most familar with footy from the early days of ESPN, when the nascent network was compelled to put anything it could find on the air. . and Australian Rules Football (back then the AFL was called the Victorian Football League) was a regular ESPN staple back before shit like Poker and World's Strongest Man was on the air. This weekend, the premiership was relegated to a slot (live though it was) on ESPN Classic. I could've watched it at home, but my satellite provider decided to remove Classic from my channel package and replace it with more college sports channels. Buggars!).
Essentially, each side tries to kick the ball between two sets of goalposts. Put a ball between the inner goal posts, and it's six points (that's a goal). Merely put a ball between the outer adjacent goal posts, and it's one point (a behind). The ball can squib across the goal line or sail high in the air--still the points are awarded. The defenders can get a hand on the ball before it crosses the goal line, but you'd still get at least one point. The ball is moved down the field by kicking it or running with it and tapping it (not throwing it) to your teammate. If the ball is kicked to a teammate and he catches it in the air, he gets a free kick. If you run with the ball, you're fair game to be tackled--and if you're tackled to the ground, you lose the ball to your opponent. When running with the ball, it has to make contact with the ground (bouncing it off the turf) every 15 meters, or you lose possession. Simple enough. At least, much simpler to understand than League rugby.
St. Kilda entered the Premiership the underdog, even though they finished atop the standings for the year. The Saints and Cats traded the lead several times in the first two quarters, and St. Kilda tied the score in the final seconds and converted a free kick for a goal after a Geelong player argued that he touched the ball on the tying goal--and St. Kilda should've been awarded one point instead of six. The umpires didn't buy his argument, and penalized the player for being argumentative by awarding St. Kilda the free kick.
The Cats actually trailed by six points at the end of the third quarter, but St. Kilda blew several opportunities for goals with inaccurate kicks.
"Indeed, this is a grand final the Saints will forever rue, for it was their inaccuracy in that quarter that ultimately cruelled their chances," wrote the Australian newspaper. Indeed, they scored no goals at all in the fourth quarter, and Geelong broke a tie with minutes left wtih a clutch Paul Chapman goal, icing the victory with one last goal at the siren, to win 80-68.
St. Kilda was crushed. “To St Kilda, footy sucks sometimes ... we were very, very lucky and we're very proud of what we've done,” winning coach Mark Thompson told the cheering fans following the game.
It's really a pisser ESPN doesn't regularly carry AFL during the regular season. That sucks too.
And Rugby, Too. . .
As the Premiership began late Friday evening, Texas time, the second-tier cable network Spike was carrying a semi-final match in the National Rugby League of Australia. The Paramatta Eels took on the Canterbury Bulldogs at ANZ stadium in Sydney. Rugby is a bit more arcane to follow than footy, so, once again, I really wasn't sure what was going on in a match Paramatta won 22-12 (I really needed Rick Schoenfelder with me to fill me in on the action!). Still, it was a blast to watch--and violent! As I mentioned after watching the Wests-Melbourne match back in April, our NFL players are a bunch of pussies compared to these guys.
Paramatta moves on to meet Melbourne (and Rick is no doubt delighted!) for the Grand Finals to be played October 4. I've already got the DVR set--10am Sunday morning.