Here we are again

It's a sunny saturday morning, the first day of October, and here we are again expectantly waiting to find who the 2010 AFL premiers will be.

It's been a week in footy. Somehow the grand final re-match has been overshadowed by the big news events off the field. It's added another layer on what would have been an unusual week in any case. Now it's saturday there's only one story in town: who's going to win?

As I did last week I'm tipping St Kilda, for much the same reasons plus an added few. They have the momentum and the belief I think, and quite likely history on their side. I tipped Goddard last week for the Norm Smith, and though acclaimed by most as BOG he lost out to Lenny Hayes, a great warrior. This week I'm picking someone else. I figure the game is all set-up for Nick Riewoldt. He was good last week without being great. His opponent Brown did everything he could to contain him, and did a reasonable job. The thing is though I can't see him doing it two weeks running against arguably the best player in the comp. Riewoldt is a player of steely resolve and he'll have set himself for a big game.

History has been a recurring topic all week, but with only two previous grand final draws I doubt anything conclusive can be drawn from them. The consensus is that will be a more open game. It may well be. In the two previous re-matches one team has drawn away from the other earlier and won easily. I expect there will be more space in the result this time – well there has to be, hasn't it? – and in my mind see St Kilda winning by about 22 points without being seriously challenged after the half.

The last draw and re-match was in 1977, and I remember it well. It was the first grand final to be broadcast live. We had one of the few colour TV's in the street so my mate and I sat down in front of it two weeks running. We were just kids. I remember the players well, the key moments, my determination even then that Collingwood shouldn't win it (in a time when the supporters were less feral I think). My mate, Peter Woody, was by contrast a Collingwood supporter, and was gutted by the ultimate result. Like kids everywhere, I danced all over his disappointment, gleeful that the dreaded Maggies had lost once more.

As I did last week I'll be at the Cheeses for lunch: this week it's hamburgers I believe. I'm taking over some cheese and some party pies to chew on at half time for traditions sake. I have to dash off afterwards. This was to be a dirty weekend for me, but I cancelled because of the grand final. The only part of the original deal was the dinner booking at Maze, and I'm going with a different woman now. It will be different today and, for the inportance, lower key I think. I may be wrong, but I don't expect the tension and drama of last week. (Famous last words?) Regardless I'm looking forward to it, as i always do.

One last note. For years the AFL has been concocting pre-game entertainment that verges on the embarassing sometimes. The NRL, a much inferior sport and poorly administered never fail however to put on a much better spectacle than their rich cousins the AFL. The problem is that the AFL have had a cool bypass. They are stuck in another era that seems pretty well irrelevant now,

Last week it INXS. Twenty years ago it would have been pretty groovy, but someone ought to tell Andrew Demetriou that Michael Hutchence is no longer with us. For the re-match they hastily engaged – wait for it – Lionel Ritchie. Now nothing against Lionel, but even in his heyday he wasn't really happening. His heyday is 20 odd years ago. He was probably sipping on a Long Island Iced tea enjoying a fruitfuil retirement when the AFL gave him a call. Dance on the ceiling? Yeah right.

Good luck to him, he might be great, but next year let's avoid the bland, innoffensive option and go for some excitement, let's go for someone who is current and happening. Let's get a vibe going. If this is not the premier sporting event in the country it's close to it – it deserves much better.

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Go Sainters!


It’s Grand Final day in Melbourne today. Even when my team is not involved – more often than not these days – it remains one of my favourite days of the year.

There’s a special vibe. The sun is out, the birds are tweeting outside, walk up the road, and there will be people bustling about getting their shopping out of the way early to leave the afternoon free or picking up some last-minute snags for the mandatory GF barbecue. Half the shops will have team colours displayed, a few will have scrawled messages urging on one or the other the teams, and the casual conversation is all about the big game. Even people who don’t really get into the footy find themselves infected and happily carried along by it.

This year it’s a little different from others. On the one hand, you have the most loved and hated team in the competition playing: Collingwood. They contest the premiership against the team traditionally associated with party-going: St Kilda (though this team is very dour).

Collingwood has a mixed history: a lot of early success, especially through the 1920s and ’30s. In 1958, when they won their next to last premiership, they were the most successful club in the comp. Since then, they’ve got to the upper reaches of the ladder repeatedly, but, excepting one occasion I can’t bring myself to refer to, they have fallen short of the ultimate prize every time. Their frailties gave rise to the famous Colliwobbles phrase, and in some way, has become part of the sports and the team’s mythology. Elsewhere I likened them to good old Sisyphus, rolling a boulder uphill for eternity only for it to eternally roll down again before it reaches the top.

St Kilda, in contrast, are the equal least successful club in the land. They have one famous premiership and several near misses since, most recently, last year. Importantly perhaps the single flag was won at the expense of today’s opponents Collingwood when Barry Breen famously bounced through a behind in the dying seconds to win it by a single point. There is some poetry in it to hope that St Kilda repeats the effort today, winning their second flag against the same opponent as the first, and nice to think by the same heart-breaking margin.

I am a Collingwood hater. It’s odd to think that on this occasion that Essendon and Carlton fans – the most bitter of rivals – are as one: we want Collingwood to fail once again.

You grow up with this hatred. For me, I recall kicking a football around in the schoolyard with more kids wearing the black and white guernsey than any other. The team seemed to play off every few years when I grew up, though they always found a way to lose. That early success, coupled with teasing hopes and the mythology that grew with it, created a fan base stronger than any other.

It is customary amongst supporters of other teams to deride Collingwood fans. They are feral, uneducated, dishonest, not to be trusted. And it’s all true. Well, maybe not entirely, but Collingwood fans are different. I have the occasional friend and many colleagues who are Magpie fans, and by and large, they are otherwise reasonable and intelligent people. I’ve also spent a lifetime going to the footy and encountering supporters of all breeds in their home habitat. I know different.

St Kilda fans, I always found good value. They’re good to party with. Through their many dark years, I recall how they would loyally traipse to the outer at Moorabbin and cheer on Plugger as he would do everything but carry them across the line. There was an almost cheery fatalism about it. Get us another beer, mate they might proclaim whilst having a go at some opposition pretty-boy (though the blondes all seemed on their side). They enjoyed the contest and hoped for better days but hardly expected them. Besides, there was always a party on afterwards somewhere. They were interesting characters, rough and ready at times, and often bohemian and arty.

Collingwood fans are much more serious. That’s probably a combination of the teasing glimpses of success they have given their fans over the years, keeping them interested, and the different roots of the club, solidly working class. It’s bred a fanaticism in them to get all that they have been denied. More than most teams, they have supporters who seem to live on the success or failure of their football team, much like English soccer fans do: they take it personally.

They are hated and know it, and it seems to me that for many, hope in their football team is tied up in their personal hopes. For all their strength and size, the club has underperformed. For the club to overcome this history and become top dog in a way, I think, validates the hopes and expectations of so many who support her. It is this fraught passion that leads to extremes in one direction or the other. I have seen these up close and occasionally in my face, and they can be repulsive.

I reflected on this yesterday as I made my way into town. Yesterday the traditional Grand Final parade took place, and the city swelled with supporters of both sides come to cheer on their team. Walking to the office, the first thing I passed by dozens of people wearing team colours, mostly black and white. By lunchtime, those dozens had become thousands: 100,000 reports said.

I tried not to be judgemental, and in my mind, thought of Collingwood as the much less offensive Juventus. I looked at the hopeful kids and excited parents: well, they’re all the same, aren’t they? Yet the image that came to me was akin to locusts infesting the city like some biblical plague; or the godless Mongols descending upon our civilisation to rape, pillage and lay waste.

I admire the Collingwood coach and have a lot of respect for the team he has put together. I think they’ll be successful for a while and, on pure footballing terms, deserve it. An incident at the parade, though, only affirmed my dread of them winning it. Nick Riewoldt, the St Kilda captain and one of the stars of the game, stood up to address the crowd in his turn and was drowned out by the baying of the Collingwood crowd. They would not be silenced in what to me was a typically graceless gesture. Riewoldt, unable to be heard, was seen to mutter ‘respect’. If any was needed, there was more motivation.

Collingwood goes in favourites. Form and their performance over the year demand that. I don’t know if it is wishful thinking, but I actually feel like St Kilda will win. There are some solid reasons to back that if hope is not enough.

I think their close loss last year will go a long way towards ensuring victory today. The history of the AFL is replete with stories of success following failure. The bitterness of defeat is not something the players forget and, once felt, is something they’ll do anything to avoid again.

I think Collingwood is more even over the 22 players taking the field, but of the best 10 players on the ground, 6 of them are in the red, white and black, including Riewoldt, possibly the best player in the comp. If he’s at his best today, the Saints should win.

St Kilda has also been the best team in the AFL over the last 3 years and has a stellar record against the best teams and when it counts. They are a tough side, strong-willed and drilled. In Lyon, they have a single-minded coach who has prepared for this moment for 12 months. I expect they’ll be cherry ripe today.

And, if it counts for anything, I think St Kilda has had the better preparation. Collingwood has waltzed into the Grand Final without any real contest. St Kilda has had to work harder, but you would think it has helped hone their game. It will be tougher for Collingwood today, and while I think they’ll be ready for it, any small gap is critical in a game of this nature.

So, St Kilda for mine, just. The first quarter should tell the tale. Collingwood is ferocious starters, but if St Kilda is nearby or ahead, then they’ll be confident.

Saints by 11, and Goddard for the Norm Smith. Oh, and watch out for the fireworks after, win or lose, I expect some action. I’ll be at the Cheese’s watching it, as usual, a few beers, a barbecue and a kick of the footy at halftime, just like half of Melbourne.

Regardless of the result today, there is, as ever, always next year.

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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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