When you truly love something, it can be hard to see its flaws. The fans had no such problem with AFLX.
Since last Thursday, when a bastardised, shortened version of Australian Rules football debuted, featuring seven-a-side on a soccer pitch-sized rectangular field, the shrieking from traditional footy fans has been long and loud.
The idea of silver Sherrin footys lasted exactly one night, and everybody seems to hate the word ‘zooper’ more than orange presidents hate the word ‘colluded’.
Commentator Brian Taylor was all but burnt at the stake for calling a player a ‘zooper specialist’ on the opening night.
Essendon great Tim Watson admitted on radio that the games left him ‘a bit cold’, which, for mild-mannered Tim, is a dead-set bake.
Given it’s early February and most clubs were playing kids, it all felt like a pre-season hit-out before the pre-season hit-out.
Nevertheless, talkback radio and social media acted like somebody had bulldozed the MCG. ‘Sarcastic parody’, ‘glorified training session’, ‘tacky bullsh–t’ and other descriptions poured onto the internet.
But here’s the thing, footy fans: it’s not about you. It never was. AFLX is not a replacement for traditional Australian Rules, just as AFLW is a complementary offering to the AFL.
Let’s all just chill for a moment, shall we?
The fact is that part of the League’s job, like any business, is to search for growth, and new markets. This is why Port Adelaide and the Suns played an official game in China last year.
It’s also why so much energy and cash has been poured into Greater Western Sydney and the Gold Coast, two potentially massive but footy-agnostic population hubs, instead of into the sure-thing, but limited, market of Tasmania.
This is also where AFLX starts to make sense.
If you’re new to the game, or a kid, a football oval is a dauntingly huge expanse and the game can be oppressively difficult.
I remember as a child believing Leigh Matthews was a god, because he visited my primary school and kicked a goal from the opposite goal square, the length of our ground. For me and my fledgling, wobbly punts, that oval was a vast continent from one end to the other.
And it’s not just kids. Last year, I interviewed a bunch of players in Australia for the International Cup. I spoke to players and coaches from Croatia, France, Ireland and China and attended a game between France and Nauru, which was the first time the French team had ever played 18-a-side footy or had ever played a match on a full-sized oval.
Think about that for a moment: they were running out, for a global competition, having never played on an oval. Ever. (They got smashed but had fun.)
In France, and most of Europe, there is no cricket and therefore no ovals. They can only play seven, eight or nine a side on soccer and rugby pitches. Ditto, the gridiron pitches in the USA, or the soccer fields in South America or Asia.
If only there was a form of Aussie Rules designed for that space and to give rookie players more time and space to use the ball … oh, wait!
So, sure, AFLX didn’t have me leaping out of my chair, either.
Why would it? I understand and love the real game. But then again, I also adore Test cricket and wouldn’t cross the street to watch Twenty20. Dancing girls, loud music, bowlers just there to be swatted? No subtlety. No guile. No tension. No thanks.
How is AFLX different? It’s not aimed at us, folks. It’s not aimed at 25-year club members. It’s aimed at kids needing a smaller expanse and more room with less players crowded around the ball.
It’s aimed at all those overseas countries that can only play on rectangular pitches.
It’s aimed at people who have never seen AFL before, to catch their attention, in easy 10 minute bursts.
It’s actually quite a clever idea, if you don’t confuse it with the magnificent real thing.
For the rest of us? Richmond versus Carlton on March 22 is almost here.
Nick Place has been writing about or broadcasting about footy since the eighties.