Messages from Melbourne — In September, AFL is the only game in town
On a few days in Melbourne this week it’s been possible to discern Spring’s halting attempts to deliver seasonal change. But what is overwhelmingly in the air is finals fever. Footy finals. And by footy I mean Aussie Rules.
Much as Kiwis would like to think that Australians expend much hair-pulling and hand-wringing energy on bemoaning the parlous state of rugby and the Wallabies, they don’t. In fact, in Melbourne it is hard to find anyone who can be coerced into giving a single f**k about the rugby. In circles that I do not move in, it’s possible there are some private school boys who have shed a private tear but the fact is that in this city, rugby is far down the sporting totem. If your planned Australian holiday necessitates a gloating conversation about the current dominance of New Zealand rugby, change your flight to Sydney where 99.9% of Australian rugby fans reside.
At my small town high school north of Auckland we laughed like drains when the PE teacher took it into his head to organise a pick-up game of Australian No Rules. There was the oddly small and elliptical ball, the unnatural punch pass and the total lack of an offside rule. What we didn’t realise is that we were simply incompetent. While we sliced kicks in all directions other than the intended one and angstily chased the ball’s eccentric wobble along the ground, players in the AFL can kick that pill accurately for 60 or more metres, bounce it on the ground and back into their hands while running at full speed, and slot it between the posts in open play from impossible angles with a banana kick, a torpedo or a drop punt.
They’ll also climb high into the air using the backs of other players like a step ladder to claim a ball in a “speccy” or spectacular mark, and they run and run and run. The MCG playing field is 171m long and 146m wide and top players, tracked by GPS units in their jumpers, will regularly run 17km in the course of a game. By comparison, a rugby player will run about 7km on a 100m by 70m field.
The vast expanse of the MCG field is, of course, because it is the Melbourne Cricket Ground and a quirk of the game is that Australian Rules Football was invented as a way to keep cricketers fit in the off-season. And don’t let your brain explode here, but back in 1857 the game was dreamed up in part by one Tom Wills who was the former football captain of Rugby School in England. I know!
WHAT’S MY TEAM?
When I arrived to live in Melbourne eight years ago, my born and bred Melburnian partner explained to me in all seriousness that I must pick an AFL team. I was a little dismissive at the time, I felt like I could still follow the rugby and there was the new local Super 15 franchise, The Rebels, to get behind. I was, however, drawn to attending a game at the MCG. This imposing and legendary ground sits right in the heart of the city next to the Yarra River and the idea of joining a crowd of 100,000 sent a tingle up my spine.
I lived in St Kilda at the time and the obvious thing to do would have been to simply support St Kilda because they were both the local team and my partner’s team. However, at the time, a small group of St Kilda players were making headlines for all the wrong reasons as serial sex pests. In the end, my first game was a season opener between Carlton and the Richmond Tigers. I liked the navy blue strip of the Carlton players and as I was a free agent at the time I was actively recruited by my brother-in-law who was a Blue Boys fan. But he had his work cut out because while my partner went for St Kilda, the rest of her large Irish Catholic family were staunch Richmond supporters.
In the end, Richmond won out for me because on the day I liked the way they played. They were a young and hungry team who played with ambition and flair. I also knew that in picking Richmond I’d always have somebody to go to the football with and I’ve always liked tigers. As reasons to pick a team, I guess they’re as good as any. I have a friend who grew up in Richmond but didn’t choose them because he didn’t like the team colours.
But what I really took away from that first game is how much I enjoyed it as a sporting spectacle. Unlike rugby where the action is often lost in a thicket of bodies at the far end of the field, AFL is open and expansive and flows from one end of the ground to the other at breakneck speed. In fact, no matter where you sit, you get an excellent and involving view of the game.
THE LONG ROAD TO GLORY
So, my side chosen, I settled in for six years of disappointments culminating in a truly shambolic season in 2016. Still, I couldn’t really complain, the rest of the family had waited 36 years at that point since Richmond had won the flag. For the younger generation that was not even a memory because they simply weren’t around in 1980. But my partner had it considerably worse, St Kilda has not won a flag since 1966. For one team, however, there was a fairytale ending that year. The Western Bulldogs took their first flag since 1954. This is a game of patience, people.
Then came 2017 and Richmond went on a roll. We won the first five games on the trot and it was like watching a different team. There was talk from the coach about loosening the reins and the players playing for each other. In the rest of the regular season we got smashed twice, lost a few others by less than a goal but won enough to finish 3rd on the ladder. A result that put paid to the recurring Richmond joke of finishing a “strong ninth”, one place outside of the final eight.
At this point I started to fret because we had tickets to see Midnight Oil in Alice Springs as part of their Grand Circle reunion tour (with my Carlton-supporting brother in law, Jack Howard from Hunters and Collectors, joining the band as a hired hand on trumpet) and we were going to visit Uluru. These were things I really wanted to do, and I told myself that we still had to get through two tough qualifying finals against teams that had beaten us in the regular season to make the Grand Final and I had no prospect of getting a ticket to the big game as they were harder to get your hands on than Unicorn droppings.
Inevitably, that meant I ended up driving 450km across the Outback from Uluru to Alice Springs in a relentless rain storm to reach a pub before the 2pm kick-off of the Grand Final against the Adelaide Crows. I was too nervous to drink or eat and didn’t really appreciate that after the first quarter we had the game by the throat and didn’t let up. To the point where a guy we’d been chatting to felt he should intervene when we were 40 points up and tell me that I had to “enjoy it sometime.” But as every good Richmond fan knows from hard experience, it is possible to lose from anywhere.
In any case, Richmond won, and family members as far away as Chengdu and London exalted on Facebook while the inner-city suburb of Richmond itself went off in the kind of street-closing euphoric mayhem that only waiting 37 years for a Premiership can inspire. An experience that my partner told me I was a fool to miss and that she would never dream of leaving town when St Kilda was in a Grand Final. That’s solidarity for you.
Star Richmond midfielder Dustin Martin is of Ngati Maru descent and his neck ink reflects that along with his iwi’s marae of Matai Whetu in Kopu near Thames Photo by Flickerd – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.
THE BACK TO BACK
This year I have stayed put as we chase the “Yellow and Black, back to back”. And tonight for our Preliminary Final against old foes the Collingwood Magpies I will join tens of thousands of the Richmond faithful along with an equal number of Pies supporters as we swarm from all directions toward the MCG from trains, trams, buses and cars to fill the stadium to capacity. The atmosphere will be electric and the noise phenomenal.
To secure my tickets I fought the good fight against Ticketek’s flaky and recalcitrant servers. Wasting an hour on Monday morning sitting with multiple browser windows open in the hope of breaking through to the purchasing page before the system crashed or the tickets were sold out.
We will shout “Go Tiges!” and “Ball!” and “In the back!” and all the usual insults about the umpires being blind and lacking intellect. Much of the time I will not understand what infringement has been penalised and neither will at least half of the crowd. Even now, my knowledge of the intricacies of tactics and field positions is severely limited but I can cheer goals and rail at missed opportunities with the best of them.
I’ll be standing with the rest of the family next to the Richmond cheer squad, a coterie of fanatical fans with a vast repertoire of chants. Our star midfielder Dustin Martin (a player with a mean stiff arm fend that is called here the “Don’t Argue”, and Ngati Maru heritage through his Kiwi father) has earned perhaps the best chant of all that will be sung each and every time he scores a goal.
“Dustin Martin, you are the love of my life. Dustin Martin, I’ll let you [insert highly questionable reference to intimacy with a legally recognised female partner]. I want neck tattoos, too.”
If we win — and I’m not crazy enough to put a hex on us by suggesting that is a given — we will sing the Richmond club song. A song based on a tune called Row Row Row from the 1912 Ziegfeld Follies that sounds hilariously anachronistic in the 21st century but affords the opportunity to yell “Yellow and Black!” at the top of your lungs.
On the other side of the draw the Melbourne Demons are looking for a fairytale of their own with their first finals appearance since 2006. A star of that team this year is 208cm ruckman Max Gawn whose parents are Kiwis and who dreamed as a boy of locking for the All Blacks. To this day he is still a fan of The Men in Black. That just might make him the go-to guy in Melbourne for the floundering Kiwi rugby fan looking to drum up some interest, even if, confusingly, he supports the same team.
As for myself, I’ve even found a way to be in the ballot for a Grand Final ticket so I’m learning.
By Ted Gibbons
Featured image 2017 AFL Grand Final by Flickerd – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.