Aussie Rules Football

Brad (shaved-head, sharp-eyed, explosive mover, running-addicted, funny as hell) was the only one among all the folks at the seminar (including all my graduate assistants) to see my exhaustion and lie me down on the table for ‘a bit of a shake out’ after all the students left.  His knowing sports-fix-it hands immediately softened, doing a bit of gentle massage, the kind that none of us long-term specialists ever do any more.  He ended by whacking me a few times on the sacrum with a sandbag hand, which had me cocking an eyebrow, but when I stood up I had to admit it was effective in resetting me down into counter-nutation.  It takes some understanding and chutzpah to work on the visiting ‘master’, and this one was grateful.

He might have been trying to wake me up for his night out: his irresistible insistence that I must see a game of Aussie Rules Football.  I went back to the hotel room to change (and was shocked by the images of the Japanese tsunami carrying boats, cars, and buildings inland in a wall of dirty water), and off we were.

I went to a Red Sox game with Misty some months ago, as I was working with their rehab team, but mostly regard spectator sports as a waste of time.  You could see the jerseys with the team colors – red and black or black and white – becoming more prevalent as we approached the stadium; clearly a bunch of rabid supporters, though I never saw or felt any of the over-the-top yobbo violence that would keep me away from a European football game.  But enthusiastic they are – 45,000 people for a pre-season game that counted for nothing.

Brad was determined that I get that full experience, so we had flat warm stadium beer in a plastic cup and a meat pie in a plastic wrap.  A baseball hot dog is bad enough, but this was no excuse for food.  That meat pie was undoubtedly the most foul thing I have eaten in years – a lardy crust enclosing a liquid meat somewhere well south of Dinty Moore or corned beef hash – I was discreetly pulling pieces of cartilage from my mouth and dropping them between the seats.  It tasted indigestible, and I rather hope it isn’t, as I don’t want any of it to become part of my body.  Geoff’s wife, up from Sydney, looked at it dubiously and said “Crikey, coming to Melbourne, I was expecting a splash of red wine and some good Italian” – Accordo!

There were more bathrooms than anything behind the bleachers, insuring a steady flow of processed beer into the sewers of Melbourne.  Honestly, I said as I availed myself, what is the point?  Above us, seagulls wheeled around the top of the open state-of-the-art stadium, picking off the thousands of bugs that milled around the night lights.

The game itself, however, was great – no use trying to explain it, I barely understood myself – but it is played on a huge oval field nearly twice as long and much wider than an American football field.  We had great seats, but no matter where you sat, it was hard to see what was happening when play was at the other end of the field, but exciting as hell when it was right under you.

The ball is somewhat oblong, and there are uprights at each end, but here all similarity with American football ends.  The players are dressed as if for soccer, no pansy padding.  The refs (they need four, and they run, I am told, between 15-20 km / game) wham the ball down on the centerpoint of the oval, and like a basketball toss-up, the teams vie for possession from the bounce.

There are no touchdowns (we derive that from rugby); the goal is to kick the ball through the uprights.  No downs, no yard markers, just ongoing chaos.  Brad, whose family has played the game for four generations, was feeding me expert commentary when he wasn’t yelling himself hoarse. No point in trying to explain the game when I don’t understand it myself.

But if you get tackled, you actually lose the ball to the other team, so there is constant passing and kicking with no offsides, and the only time the game stops even for a second is when someone catches a kick of more than 15 meters, in which case he gets to kick it again unimpeded.  If someone gets a goal, the ump does a bounce up in the middle of the field again, and off it goes at full speed.

‘Our’ side was a green team, lots of first-year players, whereas the other side was highly-experienced premiership material.  The creamed us in the first half, but in the third quarter Essenden made a comeback, getting to within a few points of parity.  The crowd was on its feet for our boys, but in the last quarter, the more experienced team reasserted itself, and the final score was 102-79.  Lot of goals, plenty of action, great game.  Superb athletes, playing a rough but clean game with no protection, I really got into it and am hoarse myself this morning.

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