. . . and the Big Men Fly

A brief foray into Aussie Rules, for North American readers.

Melbourne 2007

Late Friday night I’m at the old Royal Hotel in Richmond with Andy. It’s crowded. I manage to push my way through the throng and get to the toilet to pee. There’s a drunk punter pissing copiously at the other urinal. He looks over, red faced, tubby and happy. It’s as if he wants to grab my eye and take it where it doesn’t really want to go, down to his frothy splish-splash. He gazes over, grunting proudly, “tike a look at that! That’s pure fucken’ alcohol that is. Pew-er fucken’ alcohol…” He’s got his left arm propped against the tile wall so he can’t fall in. Everyone’s just come from the footy, and Richmond has just won.

My poetry comrade took me by surprise when he invited me to tonight’s game. I’d thought Andy’d be the sport-shy type, being perhaps a tad intellectually superior (maybe this is why we get on well). He teaches Indonesian and writes wisps of cerebral verse. I’ve known him a few months, and had him pegged as a Young Fogey of the High Melburnian sort (as yours truly once was). But he says he’s been a Richmond (“the Tigers”) supporter for years. It was my team when I was a kid up in the country. I went for them because of the yellow diagonal stripe on the black jersey, manly, yet elegant. My brother Norbert has been a loyal Carlton (“the Blues”) fan ever since he was little. And tonight they’ve come together. Norbert, up in Sydney, has forbidden me texting him the score as he wants to catch the replay at 11pm.

Australian Rules football is played by two teams of 18 players, with interchange players in reserve. It’s ferocious and fast, with spectacular leaps as the men compete for the ball. To begin, a coin is tossed, and the winning captain selects the end of the field for their goals—and this will alternate every quarter. Players disperse across the relatively large oval—up to 200 yards long by 160 yards wide. After the first siren, the umpire bounces the ball hard in the center of the field, and the two ruckmen battle for it high in the air on its way back down.

Four banks of bright arc lights hover over this huge steel and concrete stadium, squatting on the banks of the Yarra River like a mother-ship convertible, very Spielbergian. We’re high up under the eaves of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, built for the 1956 Olympics, used for cricket in summer, football in winter, and recently remodelled with new stands, lighting and electronica for the 2006 Commonwealth Games. Tonight the crowd is a bit over half capacity, at 55,000. From way up on the North East side the oval below is a grass galaxy scattered with fast moving stars, tiny molecules of men. To a blind man unaccustomed to new light, the first minutes of play seem brilliant and exciting. I have never been to a big game. I barely dealt with football at school, always picked second-last or last, trotting around the periphery trying to keep my self, my left foot and my wire-rimmed spectacles out of the way.

The object of the game is to score goals between two flagpole-tall goal posts. A goal is worth six points. Outside the two goalposts are two shorter “behind” posts, and getting the ball through either of these is worth a point. If a player touches the ball before it crosses the line, if it hits a goal post, or soars over them it’s only worth a point. Aussie Rules differs from other football codes in having no offside rule. The offside rule delineates an offence in which an attacking player is closer to the goal (thus interfering with the defense and making scoring too easy) than any two defenders—usually a goalkeeper and one other.

There are no limits on ball and player movement, but players must bounce or toe kick the ball when running and must hand-pass the ball by punching it. Throwing is forbidden. Running with the ball is allowed, provided it is bounced to the ground every ten paces or so. Bumping and tackling is allowed, and when tackled a player must get rid of the ball, or risk a penalty (at tackle points, the crowd erupts, roaring “ball”). If a player marks the ball after more than 15 yards in the air, the game pauses and he gets a free kick from that spot. Apart from those rules, the ball is fair game. Fast, ferocious and often confusing play with high balletic leaps, tackles, and spinning scrums of wrestling men is the result. The game is played without body protection, although these days all players wear mouthguards, as boxers do, to protect their teeth. Bruised ankles and battered knees get taped up. Bones are occasionally broken, but there’s rarely a serious injury.

When my friend extended the invitation I suggested smuggling in a bottle of Pinot Gris and a chicken salad hamper (and, fished from the back of my cupboard, a couple of pairs of opera glasses, with which to analyze the form). “Don’t you dare, you’ll be killed” said he. I’ve brought the two pairs of binoculars, but play is far too rapid on this vast field to follow the ball. I get some beers and fries between the first and second quarters.

The Tigers and the Blues seem to be playing quite different styles of game tonight. The Richmond players employ rapid hand passes back and forth, zigzagging around the Carlton players, and trying to get enough room for a decent kick. The Blues are playing a much more spacious game, and more often than not during the opening half hour their players are where the ball is falling. At the end of the first quarter it seems the Tigers, trailing by 19 points, are getting creamed. But for the rest of the game they manage to push ahead.

“Aussie Rules” originated in Melbourne in the 1850s as a game to keep cricketers fit during the winter off-season. It borrowed elements of Gaelic football and Rugby, both played by British and Irish immigrants pouring into Victoria during the gold rush. It may also have been inspired by a local Aboriginal game, Marngrook, which used a ball of stuffed possum hide. The local native term for a high leap to catch the ball was “mumarki,” from where the term to “mark” the ball may have originated. The first code of rules was drawn up in 1859 at the Parade Hotel in Richmond, close to where we are at the MCG.

By the 1870s there were a number of competing teams in the inner districts of Melbourne: Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Fitzroy, Geelong, Melbourne, St Kilda and South Melbourne. The Victorian Football League was established in 1896. The game soon spread to other towns and Australian colonies, then New Zealand and South Africa. Major league football has always been a Victorian game though. In New South Wales and Queensland rugby is king. There used to be few interstate Aussie Rules matches, but in the 1980s several Melbourne teams migrated to other cities, and the Australian Football League was established in 1989. If you want to see footy in North America you’ve got the Ontario Australian Football League, with a dozen teams competing this year.

I begin to notice how messy the performance is tonight. Rapid, with bone crunching contact, and high arching leaps to mark the ball, but the ball gets dropped enough times for me to become aware of the clumsiness of play. I’m excited to be here, but there are groans all around at the mediocre level of tonight’s game. Carlton hasn’t been good in a decade, and Richmond in more than two, says Andy. They were gods when my brother and I were young, but they’ve both been on the bottom half of the ladder for the past few years. The level of play seems to be infuriating a lot of the spectators. There are a few good precise, difficult kicks from both sides, but a lot of easy goals get missed. What the hell is going on?

The crowd is good-natured, there are plenty of women along, and kids with oversized football jerseys, clutching half-size red leather balls, wear team coloured war paint on their bright and shiny little faces. Booing and roaring erupt from all quarters. The jesting is rarely hostile (it’s ironic that cricket, the gentleman’s game, has lately been marred by racist taunts toward visiting African and Asian players). I’ve developed a high piercing finger whistle that gets angry winces from the guys in front of us—Carlton supporters obviously—so I better stop it. There’s not much noise from Andy though. He murmurs indignation at Richmond’s poor show, perhaps a sigh of resignation, or an occasional approving nod at a reasonable kick. I roar with red-faced plebeian gusto along with the rest, having a blast. Finally, I register a genteel yell from my friend, “pick em up you fucking idiots.” The game is getting slaughtered. In the end, Richmond stumbles forward to collect an undeserved win: 12 goals 20 points (92 – a goal being 6 points) to Carlton’s 11 goals 18 (84).

Two and a half hours have gone by fast. It’s raining as the crowd empties out of the stadium like water pouring through holes in the bottom of a steel drum.

And now, back to where we are at the Royal Hotel. It’s the pub where Richmond footy club was founded in 1908. It’s got topless barmaids now. The mostly male crowd is very loud, mooing and rumbling in beery satisfaction. I manage to get myself back to the bar without having been sprayed with “pew-er fucken alcohol.” Andy’s got a sparkly-eyed grin. Maybe the look on my face is just as boyishly callow as the look on his, as if the steel-smiling English backpacker barmaid just dipped her nipples into our pints of Kilkenny and proffered her frothy tits for us to lick.

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org

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