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Phil Walsh’s shocking death inspired a heartfelt AFL showdown

27 February 2016 141 views One Comment

He is as tough a man as ever played the modern game; but skilful, too. He has hurt opponents on and off the field. He played 312 AFL games, all with the Crows, and won a Brownlow medal. He is an eight-time all-Australian (twice named captain) and he captained Adelaide. One year he cried from the sidelines as his teammates won a grand final and the next he returned to hold the premiership cup. When the AFL allows cloning, the Adelaide Football Club’s first draft pick will be Mark Ricciuto’s DNA sequence.

He is known simply as Roo — a name that can part crowds and open doors — but it is his full name that graces the AFL Hall of Fame and a grandstand at Adelaide Oval. He is the sort of bloke who is miserly with his words but people hang on them; Roo can make a player’s reputation from the commentary box just by saying “he’s all right.

Yet as we discuss one particular game, Ricciuto’s voice trembles with emotion and his words convey compassion and tenderness, as well as footy pride.

I suggest this match might have been Adelaide’s greatest victory outside the finals. “Maybe it was bigger than the premierships, he says, and goes on to recount bittersweet memories.

Yet he didn’t even pull on his boots for this one. Rather, he looked on as a TV commentator. “Everything about the day was perfect, he says, listing the weather, record attendance and crowd generosity.

“It was as hard a game as you get, but played in brilliant spirit. This was a Showdown — Adelaide versus Port Adelaide — and Roo says that even with no Victorian club involved, commentators far and wide agreed it was the best game of the season.

The intensity of Crows antipathy towards Port — and vice versa — is beyond words. It is more easily conveyed in a Tony Modra mark, a Mark Bickley tackle or the imprint of Port captain Josh Carr that was once left on the bonnet of a Mercedes Benz. Roo infamously invited Carr into the car park of the Ramsgate Hotel the day after a 2002 Showdown loss. “Carr used to tag me pretty closely, says ­Ricciuto. “In a game, there’s not much you can do about that but I just wanted to let him know that it’s a bit different off the field.

For all the bruising encounters, what often escapes Crows and Port supporters is that theirs is a classic love/hate relationship; born of a shared love for the game and hatred of the other’s success. The history is vital. Rather than developing over time, this animosity is the very foundation of the Crows. It was the 1990 revelation that Port Adelaide was secretly trying to dud the other nine South Australian clubs by entering the AFL that saw the Crows conceived and cobbled together by the SANFL. We Crows didn’t learn to hate our cross-town rival; the desire to beat Port was our inception.

In sport, such tensions can be wellsprings of motivation. It is surely no accident that the Crows’ first premiership came in the first year Port joined the competition. Losing the inaugural Showdown helped spur the Crows to the top. Showdowns come around twice a year; must-win matches with ­finals-like intensity.

This heartfelt game came long after Roo had hung up his boots alongside his Brownlow, premiership and all-Australian medallions. Seven years after he retired, while successful in business and media work, Ricciuto took up a place on the AFC board. The club’s most decorated player wanted to make more history. He was after a coach. “I went digging across Australia, ringing and catching up with lots of people and I kept hearing the best bloke they’d worked with was Phil Walsh (who was assistant coach at Port), says Ricciuto. “But they told me we’d never get him, so I tried three or four times and eventually he said he’d catch up.

Walsh had played at Collingwood, Richmond and Brisbane, and coached at Geelong and West Coast. But in two stints at Port ­Adelaide, including a premiership, the Power had become his home. Roo lured him to the senior coaching role with Port’s arch-enemy at the late age of 54. And early in the 2015 season the Crows’ promising squad started to deliver: attack, run and intense pressure were the attributes. The spectacular new Adelaide Oval brought fresh excitement to routinely packed home games. The optimism was palpable.

Then the unthinkable; people in Adelaide woke to news of an overnight stabbing murder in a suburban home. Soon came the shocking revelation — the victim was Walsh. And, horror upon horror, the suspect was his 26-year-old son. The Crows coach was gone, suddenly, tragically and in the most gut-wrenching of ­circumstances.

People were numb with shock. Character took hold. From club and AFL management to players and supporters, everyone just did what they thought would help. The club got around the Walsh family; the AFL looked out for the players; the community got around the club; the players supported each other and the football world mourned. The next game against Geelong, just two days away, was cancelled and the clubs split the points.

The first post-Walsh game for the Crows was eight days after his death, in Perth against one of Walsh’s former clubs, the West Coast Eagles. As with matches across the country for the previous 10 days, there were tributes at match’s end as all players embraced around the centre circle. Soundly beaten, the Crows players looked lonely and worn as they walked from the centre circle to the players’ race with the Eagles crowd applauding their bravery. Players were openly weeping and consoling each other — on-field warriors looking, at once, courageous and vulnerable.

Looming the following week was Adelaide Oval and Showdown XXXIX. “These were young men who had spent 40 to 50 hours a week with Walsh, staring into this bloke’s eyes, listening to him, says Ricciuto, “and suddenly he’s not there — there was no playbook on how to deal with it, for the CEO, the coaching staff or the players, no one had been through this. There was uncertainty leading up to the Showdown.

“We knew Port were ready to play (they’d just won a tight game against Collingwood) but we really didn’t know about the Crows. One state, one city, one oval and one game — but two teams. The Showdown rivalry is fierce and visceral. Yet on Sunday July 19, 2015, Crows and Port players ran onto the ground before a crowd of 54,468 through a shared banner. The inscription was stark: Vale Phil Walsh, 1960-2015. The teams came together in grief and respect.

At the end of this epic match there would be only three points between the teams; the tightest margin ever. “Both coaches went for an attacking, fast and high-scoring game, Roo says. “Port made a typical late charge, Travis Boak stood up and tried to lift his team, Scott Thompson stood out for us; it was enormous.

After the game, the record crowd stood, opposing teams applauded on the field, the rival club presidents embraced and alongside them a young woman wept and forced a pained smile of ­appreciation. Her name was Quinn Walsh and she had lost her father just 16 days earlier.

After an intense battle between her father’s final club and another where he’d been loved and respected, Quinn summoned courage her father surely would have admired to present the specially minted Phil Walsh Medal for the best player. Adelaide’s Scott Thompson wrapped Quinn in his bulging arms, bowed to accept the medal then stepped to the microphone to praise his team, the opponents and the crowd. He said the game was played in the “right spirit had been a celebration of the “life of a fantastic man and was “overwhelming for everyone. “How Phil’s daughter did it, Ricciuto says, “how she managed to hand over the medal, for her to do that in honour of her dad, blew everyone away, including Scott. “I think the Phil Walsh story is incomplete, says a steely Roo. “We found a diamond; he would have been a premiership coach with a bit of luck; he was a brilliant leader of men. Ricciuto took great comfort from words spoken at Walsh’s funeral by Port Adelaide’s Rob Snowden.

“He said Phil had told him, not long before he was killed, that he had never been happier, that he was going to be a long-term Adelaide coach and that he was pleased he had finally become a head coach; I was very pleased to hear that. Ricciuto believes that ­although Walsh’s time at Adelaide was tragically shortened to just eight months, his influence will endure. “We’ll continue to implement his plan.

In the wake of the Walsh tragedy, perhaps more than any time in Crows history, that line in our club song about being “respected by our foes rang true. As Walsh used to exhort the players; they got the job done. Showdown XXXIX will remain an exemplar of how the game should be played and how sporting rivalry engenders deep respect. And, best of all, the right team won.

‘Heartfelt Moments in Australian Rules Football’, edited by Ross Fitzgerald (Connor Court Publishing, $29.95), will be launched on Tuesday at Il Gambero on the Park, in Carlton, Melbourne at 6.30pm.

Chris Kenny, The Weekend Australian 27-28, 2016, Inquirer p 19.

One Comment »

  • Christian Kerr said:

    Footy fanatic

    Will George Pell appear by video link when Ross Fitzgerald’s compilation, ‘Heartfelt Moments in Australian Rules Football’, is launched in the heart of Blues territory at Carlton’s Il Gambero on the Park tomorrow evening? His Eminence, it should be remembered, signed to play for Richmond in his final year of school in 1959. As Pell writes in the book: “I was promised a place on their training list and financial help to attend Melbourne University.” Alas, seminary life made a VFL career impossible, but the cardinal still took to the field in the annual showdown between theology and philosophy students which, as he tells, offered a most erudite standard of sledging. Pell remains an avid follower of AFL. Indeed, readers may recall the time he took away from matters ecclesiastical to provide footy tips each week for those superior stirrers Imre Salusinszky and Tim Blair and their sadly short-lived ABC Radio National show.

    Christian Kerr, Strewth, The Australian, 29 February 2016

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