Monday, March 01, 2010


"Footy" Australia's Game

Last Friday night, we took a tram to the Docklands in Melbourne to attend our first game in the Australian Football League. According to the expert prognosticators, the Hawthorn Hawks were supposed to dispose of the Western Bulldogs, in short order. The game was part of Round Two in the National Australian Bank Cup Series, a pre-season tournament that sparks some fervour in the lands down under. The game was held at the Etihad Stadium, easily accessible by the metro train or by tram. Attendance was somewhat disappointing at 17 000, in a stadium that holds more than 60 000 fans. Little different from an Argos game at the Rogers Centre, where the limited number of fans is dwarfed by the enormity of the stadium.

Hawthorn had disposed of the Richmond Tigers a couple of weeks ago, and were keen to move on to the semi-finals. The Bulldogs had other plans for the Tigers. The Bulldogs had moved into the quarter final by disposing of the Brisbane Lions on Valentine's Day.

We sat several rows behind the players' bench during the game. But the fun begins long before the umpire drives the ball into the ground for the "opening bounce of the ball" to start the game. Loyal fans, dressed in their respective team's garb, press their noses to the fence to watch a bit of the warmup before they are even allowed to enter the gates. There are a few chants and cheers, and a few "coldies" quaffed long before the game gets under way.

Pre-game warmups are much the same for all professional sports. Get out the kinks, stretch a little, stretch a little more, get acclimatized to the surroundings. But there are many things that are very different with this game. The long passes in this game are done by foot, the short passes by hand. The ball must rest on one hand, and is punched to an opponent.

But the kicked passes are truly fascinating to my untrained North American eyes. Players must direct the ball with their feet, most accurately, from ten to fifty yards. Distance is a key in this game, as the oval field is at least 170 metres in length, and more than 100 metres wide at centre field. One of the drills before the game has players running at each other, full tilt, and passing the ball by foot when they are twenty yards (metres, whatever) apart.

The object of the game is to score goals. There are two sets of goal posts, high ones in the middle, with shorter ones beside them. A goal, six points, is scored when the ball goes between the high posts. A single point is attained when the ball goes between the outside posts. There is an official who signals the result of a kick with hand motions, followed by flag waving. I tended to rely on the giant score board.

There are eighteen players on the field at any given time, give or take. Injuries do not result in stoppages of play. Trainers rally around fallen competitors, tend to them, assist them off the field---while the game continues. There are four quarters, all about twenty-five minutes long. (The exact length of a quarter is determined by mysterious circumstances, like soccer. We hockey folk will never adjust to that. Twenty minute periods are just that, no more, no less.)

Another odd wrinkle is the messenger. Players in bright green uniforms run on and off the field with messages for the players. There are banks of coaches in the upper levels of the stadium, sending messages to bench coaches. They, in turn, send the messengers on the field to the players.

The score usually runs up pretty quickly, and there are often more than one hundred points scored by the winning team. The final score was 111 to 54.

I am now convinced that every huge and menacing star in any game of physical activity should shave his head. Such was the case in the game I watched. Barry Hall was unquestionably the star of the game for the Bulldogs. He perched near the Hawks' goal, and dominated his opponet with brilliant catches, called marks, within the fifty metre line. On a couple of occasions, he hoofed the ball between the goal posts from almost impossible angles. Mark Messier played a similar style in the National Hockey League, and was respected and feared by his opponents, especially the young rookies. A wily veteran, Hall is entering his fifteenth season in the AFL, but his first with the Bulldogs.

Hall plays ferociously, and has faced suspension in the past; however, he appears to be the missing link for the Bulldogs to make a run at the title this year.

All of this NAB Cup business is strictly exhibition play. Round One of the regular season begins on March 25th, and ends on September 25th with the Toyota AFL final, to be played at the Melbourne Cricket Grounds, capacity more than a hundred thousand. Follow the action on the internet. Better yet, Quantas would like your business!

Credits for this column go to the AFL office, David McNamara from the Bulldogs, our host Paul Granger, and super fan Bill Mc Donagh, who presented me with his Bulldogs hat at the end of the game.

"Sons of the 'scray, red, white and blue.
We come out snarling, Bulldogs through and through!
Bulldogs bite, and bulldogs roar, We give our very best,
But you can't beat the boys of the Bulldog breed
We're the team of the mightly west."

Note: The team was formerly Footscray, another suburb of Melbourne in Victoria.

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