Posted on August 25, 2012

So, with the signing of Israel Folau and Karmichael Hunt complete, the AFL now has its Ringling Brothers – two NRL stars to act as wandering AFL troubadours through western Sydney and the Gold Coast.

Written by Sean Fagan
[originally published in The Sun-Herald]

Although Folau is still a NRL player, his role has already begun. Whenever he now leaps into the air to catch a Steeden, the accompanying written and spoken acclamations will assuredly include ”AFL” in there somewhere … as if catching the ball was an unknown and unheralded feature of rugby league before last week’s media frenzy.

And never mind that the ”mark” Folau takes in league actually demands he keep hold of the ball if his effort is to be of any value, something that no longer seems to matter for the AFL ”speccy”.

On the other hand, if Izzy should tuck the ball under the arm and run, we will be reminded of what he won’t be able to do in AFL.

Indeed, in commenting upon Cronulla fullback Nathan Gardner’s incredible length-of-the-field solo try, the ABC’s Melbourne-centric Offsiders panel chuckled in half-seriousness that “anybody can do that if you don’t have to bounce the ball all the way”.

Perhaps we should recall that in 1866 the need to bounce the ball (which wasn’t particularly easy on uneven ground with a misshaped ball) was added to Australian rules to make it practically impossible to venture off on a long run while holding the ball instead of kicking it.

Nowadays, AFL players are so proficient at bouncing the ball, and run with the Sherrin so frequently and far, that William Webb Ellis would have willingly joined in. Bouncing the ball is now nothing more than a superfluous show, rather than an impediment meant to stop players from haring off on a ”rugby run”.

And what of the ubiquitous hand pass in AFL? One of the founding rules in 1859 was “the ball, while in play, may under no circumstances be thrown”. Player ingenuity soon led to punching the ball to obviate the rule. Given they are all so good at the hand pass in the modern game, they might as well forget the flourish and throw it rugby-style anyway.

Which brings us back to the ”mark” – a rule that existed in league until the 1960s and is just hanging on in union. Indeed, when the boys at Rugby School first put the game’s laws down in writing, the ”fair catch” rule was No.1. Its purpose was to ensure the well-being of a player who caught the ball – to save him from the opposing pack about to descend upon him.

How can anyone take seriously a code that has evolved a mercy rule into an art form?

But we all know that AFL is rapidly turning itself into mum-friendly soccer with a few handling rules added in for variety. While league, with all its imaginary dangers to the untrained eye, might sometimes give the appearance of being a caged gorilla, there’s little doubt that AFL is hurriedly turning itself into a pet poodle.

Ever since the late 1870s the orbit of the Aussie Rules Comet has every few decades or so brought it close to Sydney. As the ”Australian rulers” again faded into the dark after their 1903-07 passing, one letter writer to the Herald concluded: “The Victorian game may be the best game of football, but if it is so manifestly superior, one would fancy it could plead its own cause, and not require advertising like a quack pill.”

Maybe AFL should examine poaching the concepts of rugby posts, off side, knock-ons and full-blooded tackling – then Hunt and Folau would be of some real use.

[originally published in The Sun-Herald]

© Copyright – Sean Fagan

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