Sunday, 26 September 2010

Oh when the Saints...

The last Saturday in September is an important date in the Australian calendar. It is the date on which the Australian Football League Grand Final match is held. The whole of Victoria, the home state of AFL, stops for this event and visitors to the city would be forgiven for thinking that a 2.30pm curfew had banned local residents from leaving their homes (or a pub). When Tom and I arrived in Melbourne in October last year, many people expressed their sympathy that we were three weeks too late to catch the infamous ‘Grand Final weekend’. To me, at that point, having to endure a weekend of anything connect to the word ‘football’ sounded like torture, and I was really rather pleased with myself that our timing had worked out to fortuitously.

That was then. One year on however, I have been officially enchanted by the WONDER that is Aussie Rules football and Grand Final weekend is all of a sudden a rather more attractive event than I ever thought it could be. I’ll forgive you if you have fallen off your chair at reading this news, and if you had placed a bet 12 months ago on me ever enjoying a sport with the word ‘foot’ in the title, you would now be very rich. There are just some things about the AFL that I find so much more captivating than the British ‘soccer’ equivalent – and no, it’s not (just) the very short shorts worn by the muscular males.

Here are eight reasons why I think that AFL (Australian Football League) is better than EPL (English Premier League):

1. The scoreboard – in AFL a team scores 6 points for kicking the ball between two central posts (a ‘goal’), and 1 point for kicking the ball between two outer posts (a ‘behind’). In any game you can expect between 10 and 20 goals, and the scores frequently enter triple figures. I’ll take that over a nil-nil draw any day!

2. No acting – an AFL sportsman is tough. The tackles are fast and hard and yet the players always get up and keep playing – none of the diving and acting that you see in football. We have watched an AFL player get stretchered off in a neck brace with concussion, only to rejoin the game 25 minutes later – how about that Ronaldo?

3. The seven umpires – the most respected people on the pitch, especially by the players. How novel is that? I personally find the umpires very amusing to watch as well – from the hand gestures and semaphore flag waving used to indicate a goal, to the backwards sprinting to keep up with the game.

4. The draft system of giving the lowest finishing team in the league the first pick of the best new players means that a Manchester United equivalent will never occur in the AFL – fairness rules, and I like it!

5. Watching an AFL game at the stadium is a family friendly event. Supporters for opposing teams can sit together without threat of violence and there are signs kindly asking patrons to mind their language. Now that’s what I call civilised – not a football hooligan in sight!

6. On the topic of civilised match watching – it is easy to park at an AFL stadium, there is healthy food available (as well as the traditional Aussie meat pie, if desired), the tickets are reasonably priced and readily available, and one of the stadiums even has a roof in case of rain!

7. The players are true all-rounders – athletic, talented and articulate! They can all give brilliant post-match interviews and you never get that sinking feeling that happens when a fit soccer player actually opens his mouth to speak...

8. And finally, I have no choice – EVERYONE in Australia has an opinion on AFL and a team that they support. In the UK I can ignore football and still be respected as an individual, but here in Melbourne that is just not possible – either in social situations or the workplace.
(Please note I have tried to avoid offending all of my family and in-laws favourite teams by drawing my comparison against the EPL and not any leagues inhabited by Southampton, Bournemouth, Norwich City, Ipswich or Coventry.)

Anyway, that’s enough rambling – what I really wanted to blog about was Grand Final weekend 2010!

So to recent events – yesterday was our first GRAND FINAL WEEKEND (GFW hereafter), and it was extra special as our team, St Kilda (affectionately known as The Saints) were competing in the final against the Marmite team of the AFL, Collingwood (ie you love them (as 90,000 people do), or you hate them). Tom and I have become very passionate about St Kilda, which most locals find quite hard to believe. We are constantly ribbed for jumping on the bandwagon of a team that is doing well, as well as being accused of being fair weather supporters. When asked in the run up to the GFW if we’d ever been to a Saints match, I was proud to be able to confirm quite the opposite!

Tickets for such a hallowed sporting event are few and far between, despite the stadium holding 100,000. Unless you are a fifth generation Aussie descended from convicts, or have a spare $10,000 to spend on eBay, you don’t really stand a chance. So instead we took up an early position in our local Pub (appropriately named ‘The Local’), along with a couple of hundred other Saints fans and 3 or 4 lonely Collingwood outcasts.

With Collingwood (the Magpies) as the firm favourites, the Saints had a tough game on their hands, and after a strong start from the Pies, Saints trailed throughout the game. We always remained in contention, but were consistently 2 or 3 goals behind. Tom was a ball of nerves the whole time, and he was shouting so loud at the screen I think the players could potentially have heard his words of encouragement 5km’s away in the stadium! With 6 minutes to go (context: in a 100 minute long game), Saints FINALLY took the lead, but it was short lived and with 90 seconds on the clock the Pies scored again to regain the lead by just one point. In a last ditch shot on goal the Saints could only secure a behind, which made it a tie at 68-68! We all watched the final seconds tick away in what was to ultimately become what was the first Grand Final draw in 33 years.

I was exhausted, Tom was gutted, and everyone else was drunk!

Instead of playing extra time like ANY other sport, both St Kilda and Collingwood now face a rematch next weekend – GFW2! What a money making machine for the TV networks, league and stadium – they must be laughing. The players certainly weren’t, with both teams visibly angered by their failure to secure a win in a match full of opportunities. Tom and I will be back next week for more of course – how lucky to get two grand finals in our first year in Melbourne.

Next week we might even get a shot at parting with hundreds of dollars to watch the game first hand, as fewer tickets are allocated to corporates and more to the REAL FANS... I will report back in due course!

Here are some pictures from the weekend:

Tamara was the only person game enough to join me with the facepaint!

Jordan and Amanda

Tamara and Richard

Pat and Tamara

Even Baby Ben joined in (the son of my colleague Sam and his wife Lou)

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