NRL and AFL code wars enter new era with the Broncos, Dolphins and Brisbane Lions

Before the code wars, only one team sport had the hearts and minds of young Brisbane men with time to kill on a winter’s weekend.

Australian rules football had arrived at the fledgling Queensland colony with migrating Victorian graziers and wool merchants, who spread the new gospel with such fervour that by 1866 Brisbane had its first club – years before the foundation of iconic southern brands including Collingwood, Essendon or Port Adelaide.

For about two decades, the code ruled Queensland; only to buckle in the early 1880s, when Sydney’s rugby union community came looking for a rival, according to author and historian Murray Bird, who has charted the Indigenous game in Queensland.

Of the first rugby team to taste success against NSW at Eagle Farm, he said, three-quarters of the players were pulled from the ranks of Australian rules.

“Being able to beat NSW at something was a real driving force [for rugby’s ascendancy],” Bird said.

Aussie Rules’ credibility was restored in Queensland the Brisbane Lions three-peat of the early 2000s. Credit:Getty Images

“The management of Aussie rules was poor, and they got little support from Melbourne, whereas the rugby people got support from Sydney – because Sydney wanted someone to play against.”

More than 140 years later, Australian Rules has fought back, especially in the key battleground market of Brisbane.

In his speech to launch the 2023 season this month, AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan even allowed himself a rare personal indulgence in the great cross-border tradition of code-baiting.

The enemy was no longer union, which had long receded from primacy, but rugby league. The working man’s sport had entered Queensland in early 1900s and truly moved forward, Bird said, when rugby was slow to re-establish competitions following the decimating years of World War I.

McLachlan’s speech was not overtly pugnacious like the regular barbs from ARL Chairman Peter V’Landys, (neither did he vocalise the bitter-tasting letters: N, R and L), but his remarks pressed squarely on his rival’s most sensitive pressure-point: Queensland.

The Broncos celebrate a try by five-eighth Ezra Mam (centre) against the Dragons last weekend.

The Broncos celebrate a try by five-eighth Ezra Mam (centre) against the Dragons last weekend.Credit:Getty

Australian Rules Football, McLachlan declared in the context of grassroots development, would be “on the brink” of being the Sunshine State’s number one code “within a year or two … something unthinkable a decade ago”.

Cue the scoffs, then the nervous glances.

Buoyed by the recent success of the Brisbane Lions men’s and women’s teams (and weakened Brisbane Broncos and Gold Titans NRL teams), the AFL has been on a Queensland popularity drive.

There have been other Aussie Rules resurgences, particularly the 1960s and ’70s, Bird said. Then, when the elite arm expanded nationally through the 1980s, the Brisbane Bears arrived at the Gold Coast’s Carrara oval. It did not go well.

While the Bad News Bears were getting thrashed and playing to small crowds, the similarly aged Brisbane Broncos were embarking on an era of national dominance under Wayne Bennett.

The code only regained Queensland cred in the early 2000s with the triple-premiership-winning Brisbane Lions, a merger club of the Bears and Victoria’s Fitzroy Lions.

The master NRL coach Bennett and has returned this year, but in the colours of the Dolphins, Brisbane’s overdue second team presently energising playgrounds, offices and headlines with the irresistible recognition of intercity rivalry.

“Let’s not mince words,” V’Landys said in a prescient 2021 interview with The Courier-Mail. “The AFL are invading Queensland and that is brilliant management. I’m not bagging the AFL. They have an excellent strategy. But I’m up for the fight … Queensland is our turf and I will protect it.”

Lamed with Queensland-shaped contusions inflicted by its great rival, the NRL has responded through the opening pages of 2023 with a swift two-punch combination setting the AFL on its heels.

The first and most brutal was the Dolphins, who enter the NRL with a rich history at Redcliffe and nostalgic ties through the south-east.

With the Dolphins and Broncos both undefeated, Friday night’s inaugural “Battle for Brisbane” has sent the city into State of Origin-esque anticipatory rapture.

Kevin Walters and Wayne Bennett go head to head when the Broncos take on the Dolphins on Friday night.

Kevin Walters and Wayne Bennett go head to head when the Broncos take on the Dolphins on Friday night.Credit:NRL Photos

For reasons it declined to explain to Brisbane Times, the AFL – which released its draw weeks after the NRL – decided the same night and time slot (almost to the minute) was appropriate for the Brisbane Lions’ first home game for 2023.

The Lions, who play Melbourne in a possible grand-final preview, return to the Gabba after the club’s most-hyped season and off-season for at least 20 years only to run into sporting history unfolding four kilometres away on the other side of the river.

If the NRL’s upper-cut was thrown from a stance of precision and strength, the left hook landed courtesy of a reckless AFL guard.

The Lions responded to the Battle of Brisbane hoo-ha this week with posters urging fans to come along and watch “real footy” instead.

“You’ve got be a little edgy to get a bit of cut through up here,” Lions chief executive Greg Swann told SEN radio on Thursday, adding ticket sales had moved past 30,000 after floundering from last week’s insipid loss to Port Adelaide.

“The code itself is going well, but this is a different battleground because with the Dolphins coming in you are up against Rugby League every [home game], whereas last year, you just had to worry about the Broncos, in a way.”

The Lions are on the verge of beating last season’s membership record of 43,319 on the back of finals appearances each year from 2019. The Gold Coast Suns AFL team, which has struggled for crowds, wins and television eyeballs in a notoriously difficult sporting market, reached 21,422 last year.

The Lions are looking to get back on track at the Gabba after a big loss to Port Adelaide Power last weekend.

The Lions are looking to get back on track at the Gabba after a big loss to Port Adelaide Power last weekend.Credit:Getty

Early into this season, the code boasts 38,000 registered participants (58,000 at its 2022 peak) at the grassroots level from northern NSW through Queensland, according to figures provided by the AFL.

It has added 34 teams – half of them for girls – to its Youth Community Football program and lists 170 community Aussie Rules clubs in 11 leagues.

Swann said a common complaint from the suburbs was the lack of grounds to accommodate record numbers of juniors.

The NRL was less forthcoming with its data, but said it had 54,550 Queensland participants, up more than 20 per cent. It would not say when the figure was captured.

In a telling display of cultural capital, the Broncos dominate the free-to-air television ratings when playing in the same time slot as the Lions. On the Friday night of August 19, for example, both teams suffered heavy home game losses against high-profile opposition. About 39,000 people in Brisbane tuned in to the Lions and 128,000 for the Broncos.

With the exception, perhaps, of Cairns, an Australian Rules talent factory, the work required by the AFL to achieve anything resembling parity was even greater in the Queensland regions.

“Anecdotally, there are parts, particularly in metropolitan Brisbane, where Aussie rules is the number one sport,” Bird said. “But it has a long way to go in regional Queensland to ever challenge.”

Dr Sarah Wymer, a lecturer in the business of sport at Griffith University, believed the under-served Brisbane market, benefitting from mass migration from NSW and Victoria during the pandemic years, had the fans to absorb a new elite entrant.

The same was true for sponsors. In the lead-up to the Brisbane Olympics, brands were increasingly looking to align themselves with sport, she said. The upshot, according to Wymer, was an expanding market rather than a bloody battle for a finite pool of dollars.

“Melbourne’s always considered the sporting capital of Australia and I think that is really changing,” she said. “Perhaps it’s time for Brisbane.”

Source link

Denial of responsibility! insideheadline is an automatic aggregator around the global media. All the content are available free on Internet. We have just arranged it in one platform for educational purpose only. In each content, the hyperlink to the primary source is specified. All trademarks belong to their rightful owners, all materials to their authors. If you are the owner of the content and do not want us to publish your materials on our website, please contact us by email – [email protected]. The content will be deleted within 24 hours.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.