As the NFL nears the end of its’ third week, there’s certainly been plenty to talk about in the United States’ most popular sporting competition.
Whether it’s the response by players and the NFLPA to the controversial comments made by US President Trump over the weekend, the Ezekiel Elliott ruling or that only two teams, Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons, remain undefeated after three weeks, NFL aficionados aren’t short of talking points. And that’s not even mentioning the controversial nature of the Falcons’ win over the Detroit Lions to keep that unbeaten record alive…
Cast your eyes to social media, and you’ll see plenty of Australia’s top Rugby players are passionate about American sports, and the NFL in particular. Western Force flyhalf Jonno Lance is one of those guys, and as he explains to RUPA his interest comes from not just finding the sport fascinating to watch, but also from a ‘players only’ Fantasy Football league he competes with alongside nine other men.
It’s a group of current and former Super Rugby players, some still based in Australia and some overseas, and some of whom haven’t even met one another; they’re simply bonded by a love of NFL, and have been introduced to the league in one way or another over the past couple of years.
Lance, current Waratahs Jed Holloway and Hugh Roach and Rebels star James Hanson are joined by Tom Kingston, Scott Fuglistaller, Cam Crawford, Rob Horne, Luke Morahan and US international, and former Waratah, Greg Peterson.
“When I moved down to Sydney a few years ago, I was already quite passionate about my American sport and I got along really well with Cam Crawford who was also really passionate about it,” Lance explains, when I ask him how the league started.
“I told him about a Fantasy NFL league I was in with a group of mates, and then he suggested we start one down there with a whole bunch of Rugby players, and that’s where we are today. We’ve got a great WhatsApp group which allows us to throw a fair bit of chat at each other.
“We created a trophy for the second year because we needed something big to reward the winner; it’s quite large and difficult to transport and it’s called the Charissa in honour of Fox NFL Kickoff host Charissa Thompson. The winner gets the trophy and the respect of the group, and the loser gets the punishment of the ‘Sacko’, which means it is their responsibility to organise and pay for the transportation of the Charissa to the winner.
“When we started off we were all based in Australia, but now everybody is all over the world so there is a lot of pressure associated with not wanting to be the Sacko!”
Lance’s interest in the sport was initially piqued by a visit to the States as a kid, and maintained by the excitement of the fantasy league.
“I am a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan; I went there on a holiday when I was 10 with my family, and my Dad and I went out to check out the stadium,” he explains. “He bought me a jersey from the team shop which fitted me then, and then he also got me a jersey which still fits me now!
“I’ve been over to the US three times to travel around and go to different sporting events. I have been to four or five NFL games, a few college games including down to a couple of LSU games in Baton Rouge and some NBA games; my passion for American sport has been existence for a little while.
“Chibba (Hanson), Luke (Morahan) and I went over four years ago to travel through New York and the South together and from there it has sort of manifested… every year we muck around and talk about another trip overseas and then it gets to holiday time and one of us pulls the trigger and the others follow!
“I think you can see with America how big the fantasy sports world is, and it just shows how invested into every game the fans are and how much they follow the games that they have drafted. It creates a way for the fans to be a lot more invested in the competition and players as whole, not just the team you support, but if you’re not a (New York) Giants fan and you’ve drafted Odell Beckham Jr. you’re probably watching all the games anyway.
"I can admit that I’ve cheered against the Bucs many times because as much as I love them, my fantasy success is a lot more important!”
It’s a concept that is fairly alien to most Australian sports fans; imagine cheering for the Springboks against the Wallabies this weekend, for example, because you’ve got Eben Eztebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit in your fantasy line-up!
The reality is that American sports, and how their fans consume them, are markedly different from their Australian equivalents. There is a greater emphasis on the players as individuals, and on the entertainment aspect of the contest, which Lance loves although he admits that Australia might not be ready to replicate all of the showmanship just yet.
“I don’t think Australian culture really lends itself to intense celebrations after your score like the NFL does,” he says. ”I do rate my dance moves but I don’t think I could pull off a try celebration like Digby Ioane did a few years ago.
“The biggest thing for me, and I have seen the AFL start to get onto it, but the interaction that the media have with the players in the changeroom after the game is cool when the heat of the battle is still relevant. It’s awesome in the NFL to see the commentators interview players immediately afterwards and they have a bit more freedom to say what they want and make some really interesting comments.”
And as for the, let’s say interesting, outfits that players wear as they arrive at the game, or as they front the press in the US? Would they work down under?
“Why not?” Lance says. “It’s all good being in team kit, or your team suit, but I think having a bit of uniqueness and being able to express yourself is something that they do really well in America and you get to see the person just as much as you the player. I would never wear some of the outfits athletes rock over there, but it is entertaining and that’s what American sport is all about it, it’s part of the entertainment industry.”
As for the battle for the Charissa, and according to Lance it could well be a two-horse race between himself and former ‘Tahs teammate Crawford.
“The winner last year was Hugh Roach; nobody is quite sure how this actually happened and a lot of other teams suffered injuries later in the year and he floated to the top. He is early favourite for the Sacko this year, to take over from Cam Crawford who is generally looked at as one of the favourites and wasn’t predicted to come last.
“After the draft, we think Cam’s line-up is quite spectacular and mine too; I don’t normally blow my own trumpet but I have a good squad and Cam has already suffered from a few injuries so I’m looking good.
“Chibba drafted Ezekiel Elliott, and he is pretty happy that the course case continues to be postponed, so that is a stroke of genius from him even though he reached very high for him. The first draft pick was Scott Fuglistaller, and he took Lavean Bell when he wasn’t even at training camp, so that was a fairly dubious pick.”
We will keep you posted with how the battle for the Charissa progresses throughout the NFL season; stay tuned!