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‘Australia has its natural back with first bounce of AFL season’

28 March 2016 217 views No Comment

It’s back. That unforgettable, almost indescribable roar that tingles your entire body any time you’re standing outside an AFL ground, and something monumental has just happened inside.

Whoooooooorrrrraaaahhhhhhhhhhhh … interspersed with the pounding of feet, jeers and cheers.

There is no other sound like it. It is frightening, but reassuring. Compelling, sucking you in. A little disconcerting, as it resembles a warning signal that a mob is about to become unruly, but still inviting you to be involved in our game. The Australian game.

You cannot help but rush towards the turnstiles to be part of this.

Forget about the Super Rugby, and the NRL season kicking off early.

That’s clumsy foreplay before the main event.

Footy season, the proper footy season, started only last Thursday, when Richmond and Carlton returned for the latest episode of their century-plus feud, luring 70,000 and more spectators to Australia’s sports cathedral — the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

And with it Australia has regained its natural heartbeat — which will continue until AFL grand final day in seven months’ time.

The level of excitement at the start of any AFL season is overwhelming, and that was on show even in an Aussie Rules outpost such as Sydney last week, when a group of luminaries congregated to explain how the game was ingrained deep in their soul.

For such an intellectual stimulant is AFL – a game which must be seen live and not on television because much of what is really important is happening outside the confines of the idiot box – it is not surprising that its literature is rich, flourishing and always mind provoking.

Aussie Rules writing has often been top shelf, particularly in the Melbourne daily newspapers, while there are countless remarkable books on the game, including John Powers’ ‘The Coach’, Garry Linnell’s ‘Football Ltd – The Inside Story of the AFL’ and Martin Flanagan’s memorable ‘1970 and other stories of the Australian game.’ Then there’s Australia’s best sporting-based play, David Williamson’s ‘The Club.’

Another notable AFL volume, ‘Heartfelt Moments in Australian Rules Football’, edited by the prolific Professor Ross Fitzgerald, has just appeared on the bookshelves; and those who wanted an early taste of AFL headed to the Sydney Institute last Monday evening for the launch.

To get us really into the swing, meat pies and sauce were at the ready at the back of the room while up front Fitzgerald, wearing his Collingwood scarf, and two of his contributors — journalist Chris Kenny, wearing the Adelaide Crows colours and AFL Commissioner Gabrielle Trainor, showing off her North Melbourne scarf — explained how the code “cuts across all divides” and said that it was “this country’s greatest indigenous game”.

“We love it because it is our game,’ Trainor said, reviving memories of the notorious Tom Wills and his intense involvement in the birth of the game back in the 1850s as a way to keep cricketers fit in the off-season.

Professor Fitzgerald, Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, has gone down this AFL anthology road before. In 1988, he and Ken Spillman edited ‘The Greatest Game’, which included the classic piece by the masterful footballer Brent Crosswell, titled ‘Sex Before the Game’, which had been reprinted from ‘The Age’ newspaper.

Crosswell’s article began: “If you think that sex has absolutely nothing to do with football, you’re wrong. When you next see a player put in a shocker, have a good look at him. Does he appear languid? Reflective? Genial? Is he inclined to chat to opposition players, shaking hands before and after a match? Has he that ‘It’s not cricket’ look about him? In short, does he appear too civilised? Chances are he subscribes to sex on a Saturday morning.”

The good professor has compiled another impressive list of contributors, including several interesting past and present pollies — Julie Bishop, Amanda Vanstone, Josh Frydenberg, Jeff Kennett and Chris Bowen.

He describes his writers’ list as “vastly different in religion, class, income, ethnicity, gender, race and sexual preference”.

“The contributors range from Christians such as Cardinal George Pell, Geraldine Doogue and John Birt to atheists like myself, Dick Whitaker and Barry Dickins,” Fitzgerald said.

“Indeed unbelievers and clerics of all persuasions often highlight Aussie Rules. Hence the retired Roman Catholic Archbishop of Perth, Barry Hickey, regularly told this story: ‘An AFL umpire died and found himself at the Pearly Gates. When he related what he had done on Earth, the Saint replied: ‘Well we can skip Purgatory, you’ve done enough as a football umpire but is there anything weighing on your conscience that you need to admit before we consider letting you in? And the umpire said: ‘There was this match, Collingwood versus St Kilda, Magpies ahead by three points, and the St Kilda full-forward went for a mark right in front of goal. The sun was in my eyes and I couldn’t be sure whether he made it or not, but I gave him the mark and he scored and St Kilda won.’
“The saint said: ‘Think nothing of it, my son, come right in.’

“‘Oh thank you, thank you Saint Peter,’ said the umpire.

‘I’m not Saint Peter.’ replied the saint. ‘I’m Saint Kilda.'”

The Professor added: “As far as I know it was the only joke Archbishop Hickey ever told!”

Which reminds us all of the classic story when Hawthorn full-forward Peter Hudson was reigning supreme as the competition’s premier goal kicker back in the 1970s. A church near Hawthorn’s home ground put up on their noticeboard: “What would you do if Jesus Christ came to Hawthorn today?”

A graffitist wrote underneath: “Move Peter Hudson to centre half-forward.”

Historian Ian Turner often told that story in his talks. “When I tell the story outside Hawthorn, they ask: “Who’s Peter Hudson?” When I tell the story in Hawthorn, they ask: “Who’s Jesus Christ?”

Sydney Institute host Gerard Henderson wrote a gem — about how “even though I was just five years old at the time” he has never got over Essendon’s mighty full-forward John Coleman being suspended for the 1951 finals series.

“And I guess, I never will,” Henderson wrote.

“It was the occasion when a young Catholic boy came to grips with the consequences of The Fall, original sin, human imperfectability and all that.”

Coleman was rubbed out for striking an opponent in retaliation. It is a contentious incident still discussed as if it were yesterday, not almost 65 years ago. That’s the charm or hex of AFL.

And always in the book you are reminded that AFL is so rich in humour. It is a game that often never takes itself too seriously.

As Fitzgerald told the Sydney Institute audience: “One of my favourite footballing stories concerns a lad from the country who was to play his first senior game. When the coach took him aside and said: ‘I might have to pull you off at three-quartertime,’ the lad responded, ‘Golly, where I come from we usually are only given oranges.’

There’s that sound again … Whoooooooorrrrraaaahhhhhhhhhhhh.

‘Heartfelt Moments in Australian Rules Football’
edited by Ross Fitzgerald. (Connor Court Publishing) $30.

Greg Growden, Columnist At Large, ESPN (Entertainment and Sports Programming Network)
28 March, 2016

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