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An Englishman under the footy sun

Rob Page  February 22, 2016 3:05 PM

AFL 2016 NAB Challenge - Adelaide v West Coast

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 21: Eddie Betts, Tom Lynch and Dean Gore of the Crows celebrate a goal during the 2016 NAB Challenge match between the Adelaide Crows and the West Coast Eagles at Unley Oval, Adelaide on February 21, 2016. (Photo by James Elsby/AFL Media)

Football to English immigrant Rob Page is played by the Fulham Football Club. So we convinced him to sample the Australian version of football at Unley on Sunday. Here’s Rob’s very-English wrap of the day …

As a Pom recently arrived in Adelaide I decided that it was hightime I discovered what this Australian Rules Football malarkey was all about. First up – the NAB Cup Challenge and the Adelaide Crows versus the West Coast Eagles.

Following a sweltering ‘football’ session of my own in the morning I hightailed it over to Unley Oval for the Aussie equivalent of the beautiful game. With temperatures hovering around the 36 degree mark for the afternoon (arvo) I made sure to slip, slap and slop, donned a hanky on my head, shades (sunnies) and the obligatory flip-flops (thongs) and attempted to find the ground.

Driving along Unley high street I started to wonder if a sign conveniently pointing me towards the ground would ever materialise, as I contemplated asking a local I rounded the corner to be greeted by a mass of people standing/cheering/waving on a grassy knoll. Coming to the conclusion that this must be it, I parked in the nearest space, 45 kilometres away.

By the time I negotiated my way into the ground the game had already kicked off. As I stood with ticket in hand looking for the home supporters section I realised that the crowd had fans from each side seemingly intermingling with each other - laughing, joking and enjoying a beer or seven. Alarmed at this discovery I made it known to a member of the security team who reassured me that this was normal behaviour and that there were no mounted police around the corner, no chants designed to rile the opposition to a fight after the game and that I could walk around the entire pitch and sit/stand where I liked. Aghast, amazed and with some trepidation, I did just that.

I strolled past vest (guernsey) clad supporters sitting in comfy camp chairs, a children’s playground (which one of the big kids had commandeered the top of the climbing frame for an excellent view of the game), an army of food trucks, 127 beer serving bars (give or take) and found a lovely looking spot opposite the grandstand. Unfortunately all shady areas had long since been taken so I stood by the low, white picket fence on the edge of the oval field in full glare of the sun and attempted to work out what the bloomin’ heck was going on with the spectacle in front of me.

Initially it seemed that the aim of the game was simply to lump (kick) the ball as far towards the opposition’s posts as possible, hope that a team mate would rise above the mass of players to catch it, run a bit, bounce it a bit and then hoof (kick) it once more in the same direction for a teammate to do the same.

Once someone was near enough to the goals/posts/white sticks it seemed they could either boot the ball straight away or stop, check the wind direction, adjust their pants (underwear), clear their nose and have a stretch before taking a long, languid trot for a few minutes towards the posts before launching a kick between them. If they achieved the holy grail of getting it between the two tall centre posts they were awarded six points and the adulation of the crowd. If they took a punt from outside the 50 metre line they got nine points and god-like status. However if they stuffed it up and trickled it either side and before the next white post they got a ‘well done for trying’ point.

From my new, slightly elevated vantage point I started to see a real game emerging – players passing the ball to each other by fist pumping it, snaking runs around the opposition, positions, tactics and some very impressive body slams. Because of the heat the game was shortened, the players were masked head to toe in sun block and men in bright pink regularly entered the fray to distribute water (not to disco dance, which I think should be added as a rule). However this didn’t seem to stop the players from putting in a full shift and what seemed to be many kilometres of running, certainly very impressive for a pre-season game in such heat. For the record the game ended in a convincing win for the Crows, 148 to 48.

All-in-all my overriding impression was of a very professional sport played at high tempo with plenty for the crowd to get excited about, although I have to report that the shorts are no longer as tight as us Poms are led to believe and that wearing vests in public is alive and well here in Oz. My introduction to Aussie football has made me realise that I will now have to refer to the beautiful game that I play as ‘soccer’ but on the plus side I find myself looking forward to enjoying more footy games in the future. Once I get over a mild case of sunstroke, that is.