With the NRL Finals in play, I’m ready to confess.
Or rather, to purge. I’ve been acting sheepishly this past winter and I can’t contain it any longer – Catholic guilt will always prevail.
I have been courting a new flame – the Australian Football League. Yes, that’s right – raised by staunch Rugby League brethren, where every Friday night footy telecast was treated like a visit from a monarch, the anticipative intensity reaching levels akin to those prior to Led Zeppelin’s Sydney Showground performance in 1972.
Fed up with the relentless bludgeoning of immoral player behaviour and kludgy sanctions imposed by club and league administrators, I tuned out. On the whim of an excited neighbour (he barracks for the Bombers), I tuned into the AFL’s Anzac Day clash between Dons and Collingwood. Admittedly, the game of kicks has always been around, waiting to pounce on a dejected leaguie.
Aussie Rules is a game of lightning-quick ball movement; crafty field placement and player management; full stadiums of fans intent on a fair contest; incredible kicking accuracy, basketball-like screens and zone defences and momentum swings.
I fell for a few players that day. Lovett, McPhee, Watson, and of course rookie David Zaharakis, who diligently slotted the winning goal to erase a 14 point deficit as the deafening siren roared. But it was 21 year-old Paddy Ryder that caught my eye.
The ruckman forced to ‘pinch hit’ for injured mainstay David Hille, was engaged in his task of defending Pie stalwart Josh Fraser. The Bomber’s ’05 seventh draft pick put in a ‘coming of age’ performance. A timely last-stanza goal, 13 tackles and 16 possessions secured the West Australian the ANZAC medal for best on ground – the sight of Ryder exuberant through his exhaustion as the medallion swung from his 1.90cm frame, left this writer w/ a sneaky ‘how good is this?’ grin and a few guilt ridden weeks would follow.
Exactly two months later I went on my first date. The MCG was fervent for a midseason Blues v Bombers clash. Mrs Ink and I melted in with ‘lifers’ from both sides and witnessed a dominant Dons 63-point win.
We left the MCG in awe that a game with such a large winning margin could be so engaging, dare I say it – a complete sporting experience.
I woke up dusty from a few post game drinks – I felt dirty. The Dragons and Bulldogs were stamping their dominance for the ’09 NRL title, and here I was smitten in the heart of the enemy.
I’d had enough – ashamed and in midseason limbo, I craved a 40-20 penalty, a deft halves play from a scrum feed, a back-rower putting in a 45 tackle effort – I craved my Raiders.
I found a comforting shoulder in a Major League baseball game. I took solace in the refusal of baseball fans, whose game has been tarnished by a decade or so of HGH abuse – blowing out statistics and distorting records, to remain committed to their game.
I knew that if I could just stay in touch until the back half of the season that a couple of quality performances could restore my faith. The following week – I received a text from my lil’ bro, “the Eels are gunna win the comp”. The Eels went on to string together seven in a row.
Then it happened. Round 15. The Raiders dug in with a cracker performance to beat the league leading Dragons. A game which was probably in the top 5 matches this season.
Two weeks later, I witnessed the Raiders belt the Broncos in a 56 point shut out.
I haven’t tuned into an AFL game since.
The final few rounds were vibrant as teams manoeuvred their way into final contention. I wasn’t at all disappointed that the Green Machine didn’t make the eight for the first time in three seasons (a few rookies established themselves as competent first graders, a decent slab for the future).
Today my flirtation with the game of kicks seems but a distant blunder, a mid-season blip.
Luke Robert’s NRL Finals Week 2 Predictions
Parramatta Eels vs Gold Coast Titans
Despite Parramatta’s electric performance in toppling minor premiers St George this past weekend, I’m confident the Gold Coast’s veterans, Scott Prince, Preston Campbell and Matt Rogers, will have the resolve to disrupt the Eel’s finals run.
Brisbane Bronco vs St George Illawarra Dragons
Dragons coach Wayne Bennett is confident his squad can bounce back from its week one finals loss, Bennett has named an unchanged side for the clash against his former club. The Broncos were impressive in beating the Titans 40-32. This will be a close one.
And if you’ve ever been in a code conundruum, please handpass it on to upstart, and who knows, we might give you a free kick.