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Tassie’s footy fans deserve an AFL team

19 June 2010 No Comment

Ross Fitzgerald also asks Why is the AFL so desperate for a second team from Sydney.

THIS week we had rugby league’s shameful State of Origin, and now I’m looking forward to an AFL contest that promises to be infinitely more captivating.

Sydney’s favourite AFL team, the Swans, plays my team, Collingwood, at ANZ Stadium next Saturday night in what will be a crucial match for their chances of making the finals.

Thus all AFL attention will be on the clash between the red and whites and the mighty Magpies, played in the heartland of rugby league, in Sydney’s west.

In less than two years the area will be home to an interloper, coached by the redoubtable Kevin Sheedy and known as team Greater Western Sydney, an AFL folly if ever there were one. How absurd is it that Australian football-mad Tasmania cannot field a team of its own while soon there will be two teams playing in NSW?

Is it any wonder that many Sydney Swans supporters are mightily annoyed that, in its death throes, the beleaguered NSW Labor government, led by Kristina Keneally, has recently invested $45 million of taxpayers’ money to enable GWS to play its home games at a refurbished Sydney Showground arena? Next to ANZ Stadium, it will eventually take 25,000 spectators.

It is also not surprising a number of AFL players from other teams are highly indignant at the alleged $3m deal that has enticed rugby league star Israel Folau to transfer his allegiance to GWS.

But for the moment this is Swans territory, and they will be doing all in their power to shore it up, to repel the Magpie invaders, and in the process rust on as many fans as they can in Sydney’s west.

Collingwood coach Mick Malthouse said it well in a recent column in this newspaper. When we watch a sporting contest it’s about the micro moments in a fiercely fought game, as men pit muscles and minds against each other in pursuit of the oval ball.

But there is also the macro view of this particular match. It’s NSW v Victoria, coach v coach, club v club, chairman Richard Colless v president Eddie McGuire. And in this era of cross-code converts, of thick-limbed rugby league players trying their hand at Australian football, let’s not forget it’s also a showcase of code v code as football administrators vie to be the nation’s No 1 sport.

But for the 50,000-plus fans expected to attend the game, it will be about two hours of football that will help decide both teams’ fate this season.

The Magpies, still searching for a premiership under Malthouse, sit third on the AFL ladder a little after the halfway mark of the season. Will this be the Magpies’ year?

The Swans, looking to send revered coach Paul Roos out on a high before he retires at the end of this season, have had a roller-coaster season with a blend of exciting new talent and veteran stalwarts. They sit seventh on the ladder.

The Swans are desperate to finish in the top eight and play in the finals in Roos’s last season. So this is a game they very much have to win. They are smarting from the fact they haven’t beaten the Magpies since 2005, and then by a mere point.

Then there are the battles within the battle. Collingwood now boasts Darren Jolly, the former Swans ruckman who was part of their 2005 premiership side. Even though the parting was on friendly terms, Jolly is ultra-keen to play well against his old side. The Swans’ new ruckman, Shane Mumford, a recruit from Geelong, plays with a physicality rare in modern-day football and is perhaps even more talented than Jolly.

And let’s not forget the battle in the coaches’ boxes between Roos and Malthouse.

Both have done something rare in sport, indeed rare for leaders of any pursuit, whether it be politics, business, the royal family or football. They have planned for succession.

At the end of this season Roos hands over to his trusted assistant John Longmire, the former North Melbourne champion. At the end of next year, Malthouse will pass the reins to his club’s former captain Nathan Buckley.

Buckley is a much-loved son at the Magpies, yet the planning for his transition was not always smooth and already this season we’ve seen evidence of what seemed to be a Malthouse-Buckley clash of wills. That passion flows just as strongly in Roos and Longmire, but the outward signs are more serene.

This could be the last time Malthouse and Roos meet as opposing coaches unless their sides play again in September. Collingwood holds dear its recent strong record in Sydney and the diehard black and white army will invade ANZ Stadium with its usual numbers and intent.

In 2003, at the same venue, the Swans and Collingwood drew more than 70,000 fans,

That crowd set the head honchos at the AFL thinking: why not give the good people of Sydney’s west their own team?

So next Saturday night those apparatchiks who run the AFL, Andrew Demetriou and his mates, are sure to be there in Sydney, surveying the landscape and imagining a future when they have a second team in Sydney, playing at a boutique stadium right next door to ANZ Stadium.

Is it a dream too far, too ridiculous, even for the cashed-up AFL? Why in western Sydney of all places, when the good citizens of Tasmania are crying out for an AFL team to call their own?

And what about the Swans? The club that has been at the vanguard of the game’s expansion into Sydney and NSW, now has to use its energy to stand strong against an invader of the AFL’s own making.

Story-lines abound. Some will be played out over two hours next Saturday. Others, sports fans may be talking about for decades to come.

The Weekend Australian, June 19 -20, 2010

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