I was in Melbourne recently and took the opportunity to go and watch a game of Aussie Rules football at Etihad Stadium. The stadium was only a short walk from where we were staying and even though it was raining and I had a reluctant wife in tow I had a good night out. The rain didn’t matter because they closed the roof. As for the reluctant wife… well, my credit card’s only just recovered from a post game battering.
The game was between North Melbourne and Carlton and, if I’m not mistaken, it was a traditional derby. Looking at the map of Melbourne, the two suburbs from which these teams hail sit right next to each other. So it could possibly be described as the Liverpool versus Everton of the AFL. Possibly.
This was a home game for North Melbourne, in the sense they were the team listed first. With all the Melbourne-based clubs sharing only a couple of grounds to me, a football person, there is an odd sense of homelessness come game time. On the other hand, this allows for great facilities to be provided and a slick and world class show to be put on at each and every game.
I’ve watched a bit of Aussie Rules on TV, but being there was a different experience entirely. Watching what was happening off the ball was just as interesting as focusing on the main action area. It appears part of the game involves giving your direct opponent a decent thump early on, then repeating the dose at any opportunity. Bizarrely none of this resulted in an all out brawl. The players just took their whack and moved on. All very civil.
With eighteen players on each side the game shaped up as a giant exercise in man marking. The players pretty much followed their direct opponent around the field. Obviously, as the game went on things opened up, because they did a lot of running and some of them would have been buggered by the end. My guess is the best teams in this sport are the fittest teams.
Subs were coming on and off almost like in ice hockey. The field is humongous, so the only way to get the message through about who’s coming off is to physically run on the field and tell the player concerned. This meant little guys in orange were constantly buzzing on and off the field. They’d have to be as fit as the players.
It was odd to see the umpires warming up. There’s seven of them but it’s clear you need that many for such a large playing area. The game begins with the ump bouncing the ball in the middle of the field and I just about pissed myself when I saw one of them practicing this manoeuvre – without a ball. I’d throw my back out if I tried it. It also begged the question, has an umpire ever thrown the ball into the deck only to have it bounce straight back up into his forehead?
The fans were fun to watch. On one side we had a big stereotypical Aussie male, who supported Carlton, sitting next to his North Melbourne supporting mate. The constant ribbing was funny to listen to, even if it wasn’t terribly original and was laden with clichés. It ebbed and flowed with the match. On the other side we had a trio of North Melbourne fan who were quiet until the final quarter, when they came alive, jumping out of their seats, screaming and generally bouncing around. But with them it didn’t seem like genuine passion, more like they were performing because that’s what they were expected to do. Scream, then sit down calmly. Really odd.
The published crowd figure was over 37,000 people. There clearly wasn’t that many people there as the ground was only half full, but North Melbourne wouldn’t be the first sports club in the world to get a bit shifty with crowd numbers. It was also rather strange to watch the players basically doing the same thing and have the crowd boo – really loudly – sometimes, while sitting quietly on other occasions. Clearly I still have much to learn about the finer points of the game.
The game played out almost as if it was scripted for TV. North Melbourne took an early lead, before deciding to start missing easy goals. That pushed Carlton out to what seemed like an unassailable lead. But it wasn’t. North Melbourne screamed back in the final quarter and would have won if they could kick straight. They didn’t and ended up losing by a point – 109 to 108.
A couple of days later we visited the National Sports Museum at the MCG and it became very clear very quickly why this sport is ingrained in Victorian culture. It has a very deep history and boy is that over-played. The National ‘Sports’ museum is more a shrine to Aussie Rules. Actually, one of the things that most took my notice (because I notice these sorts of things) was that this sport is referred to as Australian Football. No mention of the word ‘Rules’ anywhere. And proper football was referred to as Soccer. No mention of Association Football anywhere.
This was in the National Sports Museum, not some AFL marketing wing. They should probably know better, shouldn’t they? It seems a certain amount of subtle creativity is involved in maintain the pre-eminence of what is a very well promoted sport. Like the Americans, many Aussies are proud to have a sport they can call their own and I guess they’ll hold onto that in any way they can. It is special and it is unique and that’s what I found interesting about Aussie Rules. Unlike many Kiwis with rugby, however, it’s clear the Aussies know their sport is not a global player and they enjoy it for what it is.