Junee rugby league great Laurie Daley caused a storm last week when he told a Fox Sports panel he believed AFL was the “national sport” and more popular than the game he played.
“Are you OK?” was the angry response from former Kangaroos teammate Gorden Tallis, who added he was “dirty about the old Junee Diesel backing another code”.
Sadly for league fans, Daley was right, and the region where he grew up proves it.
The ex-Canberra Raiders star argued AFL was a lot more popular in traditionally rugby league areas than vice-versa. The Riverina illustrates his point.
Although our region is in the rugby league heartland state of NSW, data indicates AFL is the more popular football code here, albeit marginally. League, by contrast, has failed to overtake Aussie Rules in popularity in any part of the four predominately AFL states.
In 1978, historian Ian Turner came up with the concept of the Barassi Line, a hypothetical line that divides Australia in two: a rugby league zone and AFL territory. Named after AFL great Ron Barassi (who pushed the expansion of his game), it was based on the number of clubs each code had in each town. On that measure, the line showed the vast majority of Australia’s land mass to be in the AFL camp, including the Riverina.
The Barassi Line has been updated each year since then by the online knowledge base Wikidata, which includes a map designed by data visualisation expert Brett Tweedie. The latest analysis shows the AFL is actually getting more popular in the Riverina and other traditionally rugby league areas.
In December 2022, towns such as Wagga, Temora and West Wyalong were deemed to have an equal number of league and AFL teams. The Victorian code is more popular in North Wagga, Albury and Deniliquin, while league is still king in Griffith, Leeton and Daley’s old town of Junee.
Overall, the Riverina is a mixed bag that slightly favours AFL, which has made incursions into several other NSW towns. But south of the Murray River is solidly Aussie Rules. Across Australia, there are almost twice as many AFL clubs as league ones.
But why is the Victorian code so popular in the southwest of NSW? The reasons are partly historical. Originally, the border between NSW and Victoria was to have been the Murrumbidgee River, so this area may be more culturally aligned to the southern state. But that doesn’t explain why the gap continues to widen.
Abby Favell, a rising Aussie Rules star who comes from a Griffith rugby league family, believes the AFL has done a better job marketing its code in recent times.
“The schools I went to were more AFL-based and there always seemed to be more opportunities to get involved in the sport,” she said.
But she had other reasons for her preference.
“I think there is more freedom [in AFL], and the ability to run in any direction made it more suitable to my game style. I like the ability to be able to get away from a defender rather than have to run through them.”
Reese Vidler, a 16-year-old who has represented the Riverina in rugby union, expressed similar sentiments about league.
“I prefer union to league. There’s more teamwork. In league, you just grab the ball and run. Union is more interesting and unpredictable, there’s no six and change over.”
All of this is debatable, and there may be many factors that explain why league is struggling to compete with other codes. But there’s no point shooting the messenger. Laurie Daley was right, and it’s brave of him to admit the limitations of the game he loves.