Dylan Cleaver's Midweek Fixture
There were a lot of oval-ball antics to digest this past weekend and many more to absorb this coming weekend.
This is the annual sweet spot for those who can't get enough of contact ball sports. The NRL has reached a crescendo, as has the AFL, the NFL has cleared its throat in a big way and the Rugby Championship is, well, Rugby Championshipping along in its own comfortably predictable way.
The Northern Hemisphere rugby season has begun with a hiss and a splutter, not that you really care, and the NPC continues its long, slow descent to complete irrelevance (while still, admittedly, throwing up implausibly good rugby for a third-tier competition).
So, in honour of the opening of the NFL season and the size of their match-day squads, here are 46 quick-hit thoughts about this flood of footy.
1. The AFL won the weekend, hands down. The first of four finals, between Richmond and Hawthorn, saw 91,466 mostly Melburnians turn up to the MCG. Bust out your Google Maps app and check out Richmond and Hawthorn – they're just two neighbouring suburbs separated by the Yarra River.
2. The AFL fosters that suburban tribalism better than any league in the world. You would have to include the English Premier League as a lot of the bigger clubs have targeted global, rather the local, fan bases.
3. To reinforce the point, the Melbourne Demons – often sniffily referred to as the club for the city's professional elite – beat Geelong, a port town of less than 200,000 people, in front of 91,767 people the following night.
4. We're going to run with this theme for a bit longer. It's important. On Saturday, the derby between the Sydney Swans and Greater Western Sydney, attracted 40,350. This, historically, for the fourth most popular winter code in the city (though A-League football has shifted to summer).
5. Just up the road, the Warriors and Penrith kicked off an NRL elimination final in front of 17,168 people rattling around inside cavernous ANZ Stadium.
6. The decision to play the Warriors-Penrith final at ANZ was boneheaded and an easily avoidable black-eye for league.
7. Later on Saturday night, 59,585 spectators paid to watch the West Coast Eagles beat the hated Collingwood Magpies in an AFL qualifying final in Perth. At the same time, back in Sydney, 24,588 watched the Sydney Roosters beat the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks.
8. Got your calculators out? Don't worry, here's the math: 283,168 people poured through the gates for the opening weekend of the AFL finals; 106,358 dribbled through the turnstiles for the opening weekend of the NRL finals. And yet, and this is a big yet, the NRL won the TV ratings battle for the season.
Have fans, as one colleague suggested, come to the realisation that league is superior TV product than it is an in-ground experience?
10. Does AFL's unstoppable popularity come with a subtle anti-globalisation message? It's a uniquely Australian game, it's theirs, there are no outsiders mucking around with the sanctity of it and they don't really care if you understand it or not.
11. If so, how very zeitgeist.
12. The NRL's numbers were boosted by the 47,000+ that watched the popular Brisbane Broncos eliminated, thus reducing the NRL playoff picture to five Sydney teams and a Melbourne Storm side vying for attention in an AFL wonderland.
13. But at least the NRL isn't Australian rugby. Suncorp Stadium, one of the great sporting theatres of the world, looked pitiful, with the Wallabies attracting a crowd of just 27,849 (and even that figure looked fanciful).
14. Seriously, how must it feel to be a proud Wallaby, like Michael Hooper, preparing to play one of your staunchest rivals, and look up at half-empty stands when you're singing your national anthem?
15. I hitched a lift on a Duco junket a couple of years ago to a similar double-header. The Broncos played at home on Friday and the Wallabies beat the Springboks the following night. Both matches were distinctly unmemorable, though I do recall some poor punter being on the receiving end of an epic king hit on concourse following the Broncos match. The crack of his skull hitting the ground will stay with me for a long time though somehow he got up and walked away.
16. Which has nothing to do with the fact that Australian rugby is in Trouble with a capital 'T'. The only thing worse for a sport than fan anger is fan apathy.
17. Meanwhile, over in the US of A, we'll play a guessing game. Who tweeted this? "Wow, NFL first game ratings are way down over an already really bad last year comparison. If the players stood proudly for our Flag and Anthem, and it is all shown on broadcast, maybe ratings could come back?"
18. Yep, it's the clown getting orange skin flakes all over the White House linen.
19. Like most of the bile Donald Trump spews, it was only loosely tethered to the truth. TV ratings for the opening NFL weekend were up on last year and that is without taking into account the streaming numbers. The old network ratings model is near irrelevant these days anyway, due to the different ways consumers can access the product, but you keep shouting at clouds, Donny.
20. There were times in Nelson that Los Pumas looked like the All Blacks.
21. The only problem with that is unless you can keep it up for 80 minutes, you'll only end up being All Blacks Lite, and lite never beats the real thing.
22. Still, you can look at Argentina and say there is a side that has genuinely benefited from the Sanzaar shemozzle. They are a million miles from the old side that used to rely on the "bajada" – the eight-man shove – goalkicking and little else.
23. They're clearly still a hard sell, however. Nelson one week; Robina the next. They're the Boutique Pumas.
24. Shannon Frizell had one of those breakthrough matches that are probably only possible in the All Blacks' environment. It's a hypotheses that will never be tested but it's hard to imagine anybody playing in just their second test would be given the latitude to back their athleticism and skills the way Frizell was if they were wearing a, say, England or Australia jersey.
That is not being naïve to the fact that it is much easier to cut your teeth in the international environment while playing for a dominant team.
26. And yes, I'm aware that 12 months ago we were saying similar things about the luckless Vaea Fifita.
27. We're just over halfway through here – perhaps 46 points was way too ambitious.
28. Plugged the word "scapegoat" into Google Images and was surprised to see a mosaic of goats – half expected to see pictures of Shaun Johnson.
29. There can't be many sportsmen in New Zealand history who have been celebrated and denigrated as much as Johnson, often within the space of two games.
30. For what it's worth I think he's a wonderfully gifted player who has never been, and at 28 is unlikely to ever be, a classic organisational No 7. He's an instinctive player and is so often the case when those instincts are a wee bit off, your game is a long way off.
31. Still, it'd be crazy to contemplate breaking the Johnson-Blake Green halves pairing after one season, given the quantum leap the Warriors took between 2017 and '18.
32. Thought everything about the NRL finals looked a little jaded, including the TV coverage. Obviously screening playoffs in front of half-full houses doesn't help, but it felt like they were limping to the end of a long season.
33. NFL RedZone remains, for me, the gold standard of sports television. It is a breathlessly produced, expertly edited real-time highlights zone of all the Sunday afternoon slate of games that kickoff across multiple venues and up to four time zones.
34. The NFL season is lauded for its tight schedule. Each team play 16 regular season games over 17 weeks and the playoffs take place over five weeks, with the fourth given away to the largely irrelevant pro Bowl. Funnily enough, the mechanisms they use to engineer such a tight schedule with so many teams (32), are some of the mechanisms Sanzaar are mocked for using in Super Rugby: a divisional system, a crossover schedule that changes year on year and playoff spots determined by divisional position more than overall win-loss records.
35. That means some years you get some horribly uncompetitive divisions still being represented in the playoffs. The 2010 Seattle Seahawks made the playoffs (and won their first game) after winning the godawful NFC West with a 7-9 win-loss record. Five teams missed the playoffs with better records, including a pair of 10-6 teams. Four years later the Carolina Panthers won the NFC South with a 7-8-1 win-loss-tie record, with three "superior" sides missing.
36. Complaining about the fact your team never got to play the Sunwolves this year? Consider that the New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys both joined the NFL in 1960, both have become among the most storied (hated?) teams in the league, and have hosted each other just six times.
37. Yes, I know we're comparing apples and cantaloupes, and throwing five countries into a competition's mix is a lot more trying than four time zones within the one nation.
38. Really don't know how much puff the NPC has left in its current format.
39. Steve Hansen made some, IMO, crass remarks about the All Blacks needing more cash to keep the best players in the country. Perhaps the best place for the national union to start looking for the necessary savings might be to revisit the costs of running a third-tier professional competition.
40. They tried to cut the NPC to 10 teams in the past and it was hugely unpopular, but the timing might be right now.
41. How much must it cost to send teams to Invercargill to play games few care about?
42. That was a bit mean to Southland, but in reality you could switch out Invercargill for any number of cities and the point would remain the same. This must be one of the most inefficient development competitions in sport now, considering that actual "development" role has been largely usurped by schools, for better or worse.
43. Not bitter about Taranaki losing the Shield. It's good to give other minnows a turn.
44. But Waikato… seriously?!
45. Brodie Retallick plays with no respect for life and limb. It's what has made him the best lock in the world; it's also what should give All Black fans the heebeegeebees ahead of a certain tournament next year.
46. Got there… just.
THE WEEK IN MEDIA ...
There was some well-reasoned commentary on the Serena Williams imbroglio and much more ignorant claptrap. Generally speaking, there is nothing more cringe than listening or reading those who have rarely, if ever, experienced racism or sexism trying to define what racism and sexism is. There is some dissembling going on in this column and cherry-picking of examples, but the highlighting of tennis' double standards are rock solid.
This story about a man's search for his parents is moving.