Will Hawkes: Big match from Down Under rewrites broadcasting's rules

View From The Sofa: Australian Rules Football, ESPN
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The Independent Online

All too many British people fondly imagine that Australia is like Blighty, only a bit sunnier. In their minds the residents of Wagga Wagga are indistinguishable from those of Woking except for their leathery tans and a greater dislike for losing.

If you've been Down Under, you'll know this is a foolish delusion. For those who haven't had that good fortune there's ESPN, a sports channel which broadcasts an enormous amount of Australian Rules football. On Friday, it was Geelong (the Cats) against Carlton (the Blues).

Geelong is a Victorian country town described by an Australian acquaintance of mine as "a bit rough". They're the reigning champions. Carlton is a fruity suburb of Melbourne (arguably Australia's fruitiest city), boasting innumerable Italian restaurants of varying quality. It should have been no contest.

And it was, at least in terms of the enormous sheets – known as banners – both teams manfully burst through pre-game. While Carlton's congratulated a player on reaching 100 appearances (yawn), Geelong's took the fight to Carlton, who had beaten the Cats the last two times out: "It won't be the same: watch out Blues, Cats are on their game!" Now that's telling them.

Understandably, the Blues started like they were frightened. Geelong were quickly out to a big lead and Leigh Matthews, who appeared to be one of about 17 commentators, offered a reasonable explanation. Talking about Geelong's feisty midfielder, Joel Selwood, he said: "He puts his body in places where, I reckon, his family and friends must be very fearful." Crikey.

Impressive as that is, Geelong's best player, so the commentary team kept reminding us, was Gary Ablett. Ablett looks like a chunkier version of Fulham's Andy Johnson. He was having a terrible game, though. He kept failing to catch the ball and then chasing it around kicking it away from himself, like a silent comedian.

Aussie Rules requires frequent ad breaks, but fortunately ESPN has got this covered too. Even the ads were Aussie. One slightly impenetrable property ad explained how one could avoid tax on homes in Australia by using "Good Australian Common Sense". How that differs from Good British Common Sense is not clear, but I expect there's more giving a bloke a fair go and so on.

Carlton weren't getting a very fair go. Aussie Rules appears to have two basic states and Geelong were better at both of them. Either the ball is on the floor, which necessitates frenzied scrabbling around and bundling, or there are the hugely impressive running, passing and kicking moves.

After one such quicksilver move had ended in a Geelong goal, Dennis Cometti, another of the 1,000-strong commentary team, got a bit carried away. "He shrugged a tackle," he said, "and the rest, as they say, was hysterical." They don't say that, do they? Maybe they do. Nonetheless, it didn't seem very hysterical for Carlton. Every time they looked like they were getting back in the game, Geelong would put their foot down.

Although Carlton didn't score that often, they at least put their bodies on the line. "The spray is flying," said Tom Harley, yet another commentator, after a particularly blood-curdling collision. "We like to see that!"

In the end, Geelong won easily. The Blues at least had a good plate of pasta to look forward to while Geelong are one of the favourites to be champions again this year. "A good game of footy," summed up Harley at the end. If you say so.