When I started this blog I hadn’t planned on ever writing about American Football, but here we are. Tonight I watched the Sydney University Lions take on the Central Coast Sharks in one of the more unique sporting fixtures I’ve seen in this city.
What would you expect from a game of Gridiron played in a country as far away from the code’s country of origin as you could possibly find on the map? It would be easy to expect a similar standard to a game of Aussie Rules in Montevideo, especially considering the Lions sit unbeaten atop the ladder and the Sharks are languishing second-from-bottom with only a solitary win to their name.
But the level of professionalism was remarkably high. Everyone knew what was going on. The lingo was down-pat (the ‘O’, the ‘D’, the chains, the flags, and the like). The equipment was top draw (although the sand shoe-astroturf combination had players slipping over like giraffes skating around an ice rink). The skills and athleticism were impressive. The Sydney Uni coach even had the Monty Burns-style signal system going.
On our side of the field, the Central Coast brains trust wasn’t as well-oiled. The man who appeared to be head coach had a proficiency for cheery, glib platitudes that he spouted with regularity. Every time Uni set up for a two-point conversion after one of their many touchdowns, he would exhort his charges to “not let ’em in here, boys!” or “concentrate on defence”, just in case their minds had drifted and they forgot the reason why they were standing in the middle of a hockey field in their resplendent orange garb.
The second coach was a younger man in a Metal Mulisha hoodie covered head-to-toe in tough stickers, apparently charged with the task of harassing the referees and the opposition. “We know we’re they’re going,” he warned – if true, his defensive team did a poor job of stopping them as the Lions quickly racked up a half century of points. Every time the blue-and-golds crossed for a six-pointer he would mutter something about the officials, with his American burr adding extra credibility to his grievances.
The third was another tattooed gentleman who doubled as the Sharks’ official photographer. Despite the peculiarity of the sport on display, the family and friends crowd and communal atmosphere (amplified by the cast of dozens that is necessary to field an American Football team) was as strong as any suburban cricket, rugby or football fixture in Sydney. I swear I even saw a defensive linesman selling Killer Pythons at the canteen.
What was typically American, though, was the brash hubris with which the game was played. As with most US sports, sportsmanship is paramount, at least ostensibly. In College Ball, points are rubbed off for excessive celebration. The Lions and Sharks loudly hip-hip-hoorayed each other after the final whistle, and the post-match handshakes were excessively enthusiastic, as if it were a competition as to who could more effusively laud the other team for a “great game today, fellas” or “top effort, mate”.
But there was a haughtiness that defined the contest that made those efforts appear superficial. Every time either side would kick, their bench would hoot and holler to distract the receiver. When a team was hammering the end zone, the bench would give the same treatment to panic the quarterback. When heavy tackles were made, a chorus of “woos” would ring out across the Pennant Hills hockey ground. When touchdowns were scored, they reached a crescendo.
By the time the Sharks scored their final touchdown to perhaps narrow the margin from 33 to 27 points or so, one of the Central Coast players was too hoarse to shriek his approval, so he settled for slapping his team-mates on the helmet, which seems to be a widely-done thing. When the other team stuffs something up, you slap them on the helmet to remind them of it. The benches bellow with laughter when an error is made, and indignantly protest when they feel ripped off by the refs.
For a game that was played mostly by Australians rather than Yankee expats, the locals seemed to embody that quintessentially American pridefulness. This wasn’t an especially ill-mannered game, I just suspect Gridiron is a culturally ill-mannered sport.
As for the match itself, Sydney Uni romped it home with a string of impressive touchdowns but the Sharks players got plenty to “woo” about with a few Hail Marys sticking in the last quarter. A flurry of penalty flags flummoxed the lay audience, who could have done with the refs’ explanation over the tannoy, a la the NFL.
Notwithstanding the confusion, Gridiron NSW turns on a good show. Some good pieces of skill, no shortage of intensity, and the unrivalled spectacle of dozens of grown men barge into each other in scenes reminiscent of a Simpson family reunion. God bless America, and this wacky sport.