The hit

For the most part when I post here I write pretty much as it comes to me, directly and with few concessions to my readers. There are times I think I should be more considered of what I’m writing, but one of the purposes of this blog is to simply blurt out what I’m thinking or feeling at any particularly moment. It’s not necessarily meant to be stream of consciousness – that would be awful – but it is intended to be an honest, unvarnished and occasionally raw recording of just what’s happening.

If there is any exception to this it is in regard to my international readers. I sit here in Melbourne, Australia, and while I have travelled widely and take a keen interest in the world around me I write from a local perspective. I am sometimes mindful that some of the more parochial stuff I write about might just as well be in a foreign language to my international audience for all the sense it makes. Perhaps I should give warnings, but I hope despite the local nature of some of what I write that my foreign readers persist. I may start from a local base, but hopefully there is something in what I write that anyone can relate to.

A case in point might be when I write about the cricket or the footy. While the sports themselves may be obscure and possibly even dull to many readers, it’s the spectacle I’m interested in, the nuances of attitude and belief, of memory and sentiment, and the full sweep of passion that is common across all countries regardless of sporting flavour. The sports may vary, but the themes are universal. 

If that doesn’t do it for you then consider this the warning I promised – it might be best to stop reading now because I’m about to write about the AFL.

On Saturday I wrote how I was preparing to venture to the MCG that afternoon to catch a critical game of footy. As it turns out I, along with 77,000 other people, watched a game that had pretty well everything in spades, excitement, drama and, above all, controversy. If it was a great game with the right result (for me) it was also sensational in every sense of the word.

At half time I sat high in the members stand feeling less than completely gruntled by the events to that point. With the whole season on the line my team trailed by 22 points having played with little of the passion you might have expected. I was unhappy, but I still thought we were a good chance of winning if we lifted our game. When the siren went to recommence the game for the second half I sat there eagerly awaiting what was to unfold.

It didn’t take long for it to unfold, even unravel, very quickly. Within 20 seconds of the re-start there was an all in brawl in the centre square. On the ground nearby there was a Hawthorn player in his brown and gold guernsey lying prostrate on the ground. The crowd simmered and boiled. Watching from my eyrie I felt a surge of feeling that was familiar to me from when I played the game, and in the years after watching one team go at the other hammer and tongs. Brawls, or melees as they like to call them now, are frowned upon and are much less frequent than they use to be, but are still greatly enjoyed by the punter in the outer. Rightly or wrongly it seems part and parcel of the game we nostalgically recall.

It all started when the Essendon captain, Matthew Lloyd, collected a Hawthorn opponent with his shoulder when the ball was in dispute. He’s a big boy Lloyd and Sewell, the player in question, was out cold before he hit the ground. Sitting where I was high in the stand my first impressions were that it was a deliberate bump and I applauded Lloyd for it. I believed he had set out to put his imprint on the game, to make his mark and ignite the spark that had been absent in the first half. There was something more primal in it to. I turned to my companion for the day and said: “I probably shouldn’t say this, but there are few more satisfying feelings than laying someone out like that.”

It soon became evident though that the damage was was worse than first thought, and watching the replay to see that it had been largely an accidental and unfortunate collision. Lloyd may have raced to the contest with intent, but it was clear that in the rough and tumble of the disputed contest that he had little control over what happened. In any case it was the moment that led to an ever widening circle of events that continue as I write.

It started the brawl which continued to break-out in angry patches throughout the second half. It won Essendon the match, igniting them to run away with the match – and therefore to make the finals. And it kicked-off vitriolic and personal attacks unusual for AFL, and catalyst for much comment and controversy. And I guess the last consequence is yet to be determined, that of the penalty Lloyd will face by his actions.

There’s a lot of history between these two clubs. Club rivalry is often overstated, but not in this case: there’s not a lot of love between Essendon and Hawthorn. It started out in the mid-eighties when footy was at its hardest, and these teams were the toughest in the land. They played off in three successive grand finals, with Essendon winning the latter two. In the years following the rivalry continued in some memorable clashes. There are many famous incidents, but the most notorious would be the now infamous ‘line in the sand’ match.

That day the biggest brawl for many a year broke out in the 2nd quarter. There were fights all over the park, but the low acts occurred when players where king hit from behind.Campbell Brown, who mouthed off on Saturday night, was the most shameful of these, and was subsequently rubbed out. Essendon went on to record a very big win.

That sort of behaviour is unacceptable, but it is not nearly so clear cut with incidental clashes between players and the traditional hip and shoulder (the shirtfront is now gone).

Man on man contact in footy today is very much a contentious issue. I grew up in an era when these sort of collisions were commonplace on the footy field. One of the great differentiating factors of AFL footy were the heavy hits and tough contests. That’s not the case anymore, and for many – most perhaps – it is cause for nostalgic regret.

Once upon a time contact as there was on Saturday would have been spoken of, but not penalised. Perhaps that was wrong, and there is a lot of common sense in the road the AFL have taken. Bumps to the head can be dangerous, they should be discouraged. Unfortunately this subject is so fraught with controversy these days that balance has been lost. We have gone to extremes when we should be tending towards the middle.

I suspect there will be a major overhaul of these rules in the off season. In the meantime I am resigned to losing our captain for the finals. Them’s the rules, what matters now is his integrity.

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