Ribs? for Ribs I held no hope. Here he was, walking his ribby little redheaded body across the floor of a Sydney pub and shaking his ribby finger in the faces of the first three NFL players he had ever encountered. "This," Ribs declared to the blinking San Diego Chargers, two of whom were defensive linemen, "is the question: Why are American football players such skirts? Look at yuz! Buncha 300-pound wankers who need to wrap yourselves in steel and plastic so you won't get hurt. You seen the hits they cop in Rugby League? If you American football players copped hits like that, you'd never get up again, even wearing all those pads and crates on your heads."
For Nash, I had only slightly higher hopes. Nash was even more of an Australian Rules Football freakazoid than Ribs was a rugby one. On game nights Nash would paint his face the red-and-white colors of his beloved Sydney Swans, wrap his throat in his red-and-white Swans scarf and his chest in his red-and-white Swans shirt, and stride through the streets and pubs and train stations of his city bellowing, fGo, them Swanners! To this day, Ribs's beige sofa wore the spooky red-and-white Shroud of Turin image of Nash's face from one of those nights when Nash had forgotten to wash his painted mug before collapsing.
But I wasn't a man in search of easy conquests. The Festival of Football was unfolding last weekend in Sydney, the closest thing to an international showdown the football world had ever known: three days, three games, three different strains of football, back-to-back-to-back, beer-to-beer-to-beer. Already Nash and Ribs and I had bashed, baffled and buffooned our way through Friday night's rugby and Saturday evening's Aussie rules games, each of us bent on proving that his football was the finest on earth. Now Sunday had dawned, my country's turn to stake its claim. At the beastly hour of 9:40 a.m. we trudged up to our nosebleed seats, wobbling like prizefighters in the final round, for the NFL preseason game between the Chargers and the Denver Broncos, the first American pro football game to be held in the Southern Hemisphere.
More than our pride and our brain cells were at stake, of course. For behind the smiles and beneath the neckties of the marketeers from the National Rugby League, the Australian Football League and the National Football League who were staging the festival, a war was being waged, a scrum for the hearts and minds and wallets of the Nashes and Ribs all over the planet, to resolve this question: Which game, as TV expands and the world shrinks, will be the global village's game? Even as we sagged into our seats for Round 3, Rupert Murdoch was hatching a professional rugby league in America to be televised by Fox, and the NFL—already seeding nearly three dozen countries with agents establishing both tackle-and flag-football clinics and tournaments—had discussed bringing a game to China in the next few years and was envisioning a day when a Pan-Pacific League might be formed of Australian and Asian teams, following the model of NFL Europe.
We were needed, men like us: Nash, as his pro-wrestling-loving buddies called Rob Lane, a fence builder from Sydney's southwest suburbs and father of four whose confession that he relished playing his children's NFL video game after they fell asleep gave me a ribbon of hope. Ribs, a train shunter and former Australian water-skiing champion named Scott Selby whose stubborn refusal to replace the left front tooth that a neighbor's brick had claimed 22 years ago had me deeply worried. And me, brand new to Sydney, rugby, Aussie rules and the nickname that Nash and Ribs had bestowed on me: Sepo, because Sepo is short for septic tank, which rhymes with Yank. We were a focus group, as the marketeers would call us, lacking just one characteristic, and that was before we had even exited the Captain Cook Tavern and crossed the street for the festival's first game: focus.
As the Chargers and the Broncos stretched their hammies on the floor of the 110,000-seat stadium where Olympic dreams will blaze and fizzle a year from now, I sat mulling over where the NFL and I stood. How could I feel confident? From the opening moments of the Sydney City Roosters' critical rugby match against Brisbane at Sydney Football Stadium on Friday night, I had blundered. Having noticed in the crowd San Diego backup safety Lloyd Lee, one of the three Chargers whom Ribs had harangued at the pub two nights earlier, I had pointed him out to Ribs and then compounded the mistake by pulling out the glossy flier for the rugby game. Ribs snatched it from my hands, scurried off like a ferret, thrust it at the American footballer and stabbed at the words emblazoned across its top: REAL MEN DON'T WEAR PADS. Curse these ambushes by Ribs, they were wearing the Chargers down, for moments later Lee was turning to a Sydney sportswriter and uttering words that were music to Ribs's ears: The contact in rugby is "incredible. It's really exciting to watch, but I'm surprised more people don't get hurt and get carried off in stretchers. To be getting tackled [without pads] by three guys and then get up to be tackled again, it's amazing. You'd have to have a couple of screws loose."
"Ahh, Lloydee Boy," cooed Ribs, whose favorite team, the Cronulla Sharks, was off that night. "C'mon down and 'ave a beer with the boys, you mug! Now you know what football is!" How was I now to argue that the NFL was the most violent of the three, what with Ribs on my right flank honking about the two busted ribs he had suffered in his pub's annual rugby game just a few weeks ago, and how ho-hum it was for ruggers to play right through fractured jaws and arms; what with Sydney City and Brisbane, wearing little more than jocks and shorts and shirts and snarls and mud, hurling their flesh and bones at each other over and over in a series of ground-shaking goal line stands in front of me; what with Nash dog-piling on from my left, bellowing, "Rugby's not even me game, Sepo, but look at 'em go at it! You can't even compare American football to this! Yours is just a chess game—your players spend more time deciding what to do than doing it, and then it's not even the players deciding, it's some 50-year-old bastard on the side sending 'em messages what to do!"
Uneasy, I shifted terrain. "Look at the crowd," I sniffed, gesturing to the 15,416 fans spread thin across the rain-sodden stadium. "We get 15,000 for high school games in hurricanes." Then, filching a line I'd overheard, I cheap-shotted the crablike scrum forming on the field's far side: "A scrum," I sneered. "One man trying to shove two men up three men's arses!" They surprised me, Nash and Ribs. They agreed. Emboldened, I went for the kill, citing the series of off-field scandals that were rocking the National Rugby League and offering an NFL man the last thing in the world he ever dreamed of attaining—the moral high ground. "What about the player in your league who admitted the other day to drinking 22 beers, god knows how many shots and chasing it with a half tab of Ecstasy?" I demanded.
"I've done lots better than 22," croaked Ribs, licking number 12 off his lips.