Hard man … Civoniceva. Photo: Getty Images
'I THINK we've got the crowd,'' former federal treasurer Peter Costello said before the annual AFL finals debate yesterday morning at the MCG.
This year's topic was: ''AFL is hard … but is it as tough as rugby?''
''Let's get rid of the debate and go straight to the vote,'' said Costello, a speaker on the AFL side, knowing the winner would be declared by the ''crowd-ometer'', the acclamation of the AFL-obsessed Melbourne audience. ''Just like the next federal election.''
While Costello is convinced the public have decided who will be the next prime minister, he was certainly right in anticipating yesterday's audience would cheer loudest for his team, which included former Geelong premiership captain Cameron Ling and The Age writer Caroline Wilson.
Costello attempted to drive a left-right split between the members of the team for the negative: former rugby league international John Ribot, who founded the Broncos and Storm NRL clubs; former Wallabies and Rebels hooker Adam Freier and myself.
Costello derided the Australian Super Rugby teams, claiming one was named after a flower (Waratahs) and another had a koala as a mascot (Reds).
He conveniently ignored the fact he was once No.1 ticketholder of the Cronulla Sharks.
But the rugby league-union team stood united in Planet Victoria, a state that does not know the difference, as the debate question reveals.
The debate, which raised $210,000 for the Very Special Kids charity, focused on athleticism, skill, physical impact and fitness. The only competition that pits athletes of different codes is Rexona Greatest Athlete and Ribot revealed that the Storm's Billy Slater won it two consecutive years (2009, 2010) and the year he did not compete, the winner was Wallaby Quade Cooper.
Ling pointed out that Wendell Sailor, an international in both codes, came last but declined to mention he came sixth and the best placing for an AFL player has been third.
''Tatts make you 10 per cent tougher,'' Ling declared, ''and we've got the rugby league crowd covered'', citing the names of AFL players who have recently covered their bodies with ink, concentrating on the Collingwood contingent.
Ling also questioned the toughness of Freier, who had his arm in a sling. ''You've come with a prop'', he observed, but Freier said he had his shoulder reconstruction ''three years ago … sorry, I mean three weeks ago.''
''It was nothing. I said to the surgeon, 'don't bother about the anaesthetic, just cut right in there.'''
However, Freier also listed all the prominent people who have played rugby union, including the Pope, George Bush, Bill Clinton, James Bond and Meatloaf. Given Meatloaf's dreadful performance in the half-time entertainment at last year's AFL grand final, this was a tactical error. But NRL-AFL statistics produced by Ribot were most telling.
When you compare the codes in terms of most number of games played, the AFL's Michael Tuck, with 426 games, took 20 seasons to do it and averaged 21 games a season.
The late Jim Stynes holds the records for most number of consecutive games (244) in a 264-game career and has the highest average, 22.
Ribot pointed to retiring Broncos prop Petero Civoniceva who, in 15 seasons and 387 games, has averaged 26 games a season, including State of Origin, which AFL does not have.
He listed Civoniceva's injuries, including operations on both knees (twice), a torn pectoral muscle, a broken foot and hand and arm (twice).
''But how many tries?'' Ling wondered.
In AFL, a player immediately comes from the field when kicking a goal; interchanges are more than 100 a match and coaches resist all measures to reduce it. Rugby league is restricted to 10 substitutions, but many players want to be on the field for 80 minutes.
Nor did the AFL have any answer to the fact that there are at least four easybeat sides, including expansion teams GWS Giants and the Gold Coast Suns.
An NRL player can't wake up on the morning of a game expecting an easy win - wooden spooners Parramatta had six wins.
The debate adjudicator, Hamish McLachlan, did not mention the reasons his brother, Gillon, rejected the job as ARL Commission chief executive.
But my colleague Caroline Wilson considers her father's time as chairman of Richmond demonstrates that the politics of an AFL club are more brutal than what McLachlan would have confronted in Sydney. ''My father came home from Richmond board meetings with a black eye and he wasn't even a player,'' she said.