Oct 13, 2010

Trip To Tocumwal

I thought that I would take the trip up through the Goulburn Valley for a look as a few friends were playing in the Murray Football League Grand Final. I hadn’t been to the ground at Tocumwal for 12 years, when I saw the Cobram Tigers beat up on Congupna to win the flag in ’98. This year Mulwala were taking on Moama in both of the seniors and the reserves. Moama were outsiders for the win in the seniors and were paying $2.90, mostly because Mulwala had not been beaten since very early in the season.

Although Mulwala is very close to my old stomping grounds at Burramine South, a combination of a wager and a friend meant that I was hoping for a Moama win. I happened upon an old team mate of mine, Isaac Orr. Isaac was turning out for the Lions as he grew up in Mulwala. I think that he was a little surprised to see me there. But such is the nature of country footy, everyone and anyone goes because there is always some connection to the town and the players. The short chat I had with Isaac was indicative of how most players feel before the game. Despite wanting to talk to me and enjoying saying hello, you could see his focus was on the game ahead because of how distracted he seemed in the conversation. The only time he showed any real emotion or focus on what I was saying was when I mentioned that I wouldn’t be supporting his team in the match ahead. You could see in his reaction that it was incomprehensible that anyone would be supporting the enemy.

Having spoken to Isaac and then after saying hello to a couple of other Lions, I ducked into the Moama rooms to investigate proceedings there. Players were getting ready and I went over to chat to James Scambler, a Magpie onballer. We spoke quickly about how things were shaping up for the Magpies and, of course, he was positive. Again, the nerves and anticipation in this player were apparent in the nervous shivering and constant distraction from the conversation. Even though he was listening to what I was saying and responding appropriately, his mind and body were focused elsewhere.

The teams ran out to much fanfare from the different camps. One could also hear the celebrations of the Mulwala reserves. Despite the best efforts of the much younger Moama side, the highly fancied and experienced Lions ran out winners late in the game. A touch ominous, I felt. The first thing I noted when the two sides lined up for the senior Grand Final was how much bigger and more experienced Mulwala looked. You could see the fear on the faces of some of the Moama players.

An early play set the tone of the game for me. On the grandstand wing a young Moama player, Ryan Hudson collected the ball. Hudson turned and ran. He looked scared.  He looked as though he was running for his life rather than just an opponent. But this was the pivotal part: he got away, kicked the ball deep into the forward line and his belief grew. From that moment, Hudson, along with supporters, teammates and opponents, knew that he could do it. And if Hudson could do it, so could the Magpies. The ball ended up with Angus Grigg, a teenage full-forward. He, significantly, also beat his much older and more experienced opponent in Nathan Parker. Parker has over a decade of senior country football experience and he was soundly out-pointed and out-manouvered by a teenager. Moama never looked back.

Every time the ball hit the ground, a black and white army swarmed around, won the ball and broke free. They made their opponents look slow. Mulwala centre half forward John McHenry is a very good player. He was awarded best for the Lions. But in the game I saw he was beaten soundly by his opponent in Luke Dunham. The Lions tried a kick and hope method at times with McHenry. Each time, his long-sleeved opponent calmy brought the ball to ground and then swept up, swiftly removing the ball from dangerous positions. Mulwala coach Tim Hargreaves was another who was in the best for his side. In the game I saw he had little influence as the Magpies were much too fast on the expanses at Tocumwal.

In a strange quirk of fate, the two players I had spoken to prior to the game lined up on each other. It was Orr’s job to silence the Moama best-and-fairest winner. Again, Orr was placed among the best for the Lions. Although he did well, Scambler kicked four goals, had at least 20 disposals and was challenging for best on ground honours. Moama won by so much that they easily had the best 10 players on the ground. It was stunning. After Moama’s opening burst, everyone expected Mulwala to respond. But the response never came. As late as three-quarter time when Moama were leading by 55 points, there was still a sense that Mulwala might make a late charge.

The Lions never did come. They were stunned. So were most of the crowd. I spoke to an uncle and aunty who both headed along for a look as a friend’s son was playing for Mulwala. They couldn’t believe that a favourite had been routed in such a way. Their kids had long been bored of the game and were agitating for an early departure.

When the siren sounded, the crowd sprinted onto the ground to celebrate with the players. The Lions were shocked by what had happened. I congratulated Scambler and decided against offering condolences to Isaac. Levi Moss, a smooth-moving onballer for the Magpies, was adjudged best on the day.

I left the picturesque ground by the Murray River for the long drive back down to the city. I was quietly happy that my little wager had paid off. Even though I knew Mulwala would be disappointed, I couldn’t help but feel excited for young men like Hudson as they carried the premiership cup on the bus ride back to Moama.

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Oct 4, 2010

Impossible To Split, Before And After.

2010 AFL Grand Final

In the weeks leading up the 2010 AFL Grand Final, I agonised over who to support. Collingwood or St Kilda? My dad always supported Collingwood, but with such a vocal fan-base they didn’t really need one more. I couldn’t bring myself to barrack for the Saints either. Their penchant for business and political doublespeak induces waves of nausea. Each time they lose there is inevitably a reference to ‘not Saints footy’ that doesn’t entirely make sense. For me, it ultimately comes down to the players. All of Daisy Thomas, Lenny Hayes, Luke Ball, Scott Pendlebury, Nick Dal Santo and Nick Riewoldt deserve their chance for what they most desire and so I find that I barrack for the individuals rather than the teams.

As I rode toward a pub in Fitzroy to watch with friends, I began to get tired of the St Kilda/Collingwood debate in my mind. For the first time in a number of years, I found that I really wanted my team in the Grand Final just once. Just so that I wouldn’t have to choose from a team who made the final eight, and then choose again from the two teams in the big dance. I barrack for Richmond and in my living memory they have made the finals twice. The constant disappointment inevitably made me drift away from my one-eyed support. The players I had worshipped as a teenager retired and each time they left a piece of me left the Tigers too. But here, for the first time in nearly ten years, I wanted the Tigers playing. So that I could pull on my woolen jumper with pride and ride the bumps like it meant something.

Darren Jolly snuck forward in the first minute of the game to sneak through a goal and the Magpies were away. As Collingwood roared to life early in the game, my support went to St Kilda. More than anything, I wanted a close game not a blow-out. As Collingwood skipped away to an early lead, I dreaded that the majority of the game would be a mere formality. But St Kilda came back. They took possession of the ball and slowed the game when Collingwood had momentum, a very useful tactic. They didn’t look to confront and attack a rampaging black and white squadron, but waited until it was their game to play. Then the Saints attacked quickly and efficiently. By quarter time, the game was again in the balance.

Collingwood’s frenzied attack on player and ball again won out in the second half. It was difficult to pick out individuals from the buzzing Magpies, but Dale Thomas played brilliantly. He, more than most, typifies this Collingwood team. Daisy looks a little unlikely as a tough footballer, but in spite of his wiry frame he attacks and defends with vigour. Again Collingwood skipped away. St Kilda again won possession, mostly thanks to Lenny Hayes, and they held the ball and possession to weather the storm.

At the pub, patrons grew disinterested through the last part of the second quarter and the beginning of the third. It is safe to say that the half-time ‘entertainment’ was also not entertaining this crowd. But as the Saints became emboldened, the punters’ attention was again drawn to the big screens. The majority were willing on the underdogs to snatch the win and it looked like it would be a famous win, nearly as famous as their other win in 1966. When Brendon Goddard towered above the pack to mark and goal it looked as though he had sewn up the Norm Smith Medal and the Premiership in one fell swoop.

But three things conspired to defeat the Saints. The first, a desperate and stunning lunge from Collingwood captain Nick Maxwell to reduce a certain goal to a rushed behind. The second, a goal to Magpie Leon Davis who was barely sighted all day despite this influential act. And the third, an unlucky bounce for Stephen Milne as he looked to be running into an open goal to give the Saints the win.

I remember looking out the window during the final quarter and seeing black clouds gathering on the western horizon. It was notable because the day was otherwise a perfectly sunny spring day in Melbourne. As the clouds gathered, it became clear in my mind that this was going to be no ordinary Grand Final. There was still the pedestrian build up and entertainment, the hyperbole, but it was clear to me just then that I was going to witness a draw. The first in my life time and only the third in history. It was an incredible feeling to be witnessing an historic moment.

I had played in a drawn Grand Final previously in local football and I remember the urgency of the last quarter and the nervous energy in the crowd. When the siren sounded I remember thinking “What now? What the hell do we do now?” and as the siren sounded at the MCG I could see the same response and emotion in the exhausted young men on the famous turf.

To many, it is the result which matters, there is a need for finality. A need for an answer. But to me, no matter what happens afterward, the 2010 AFL Grand Final will always be drawn. I won’t look back and remember the replay. I won’t think about who won the premiership. I will always look back and think of my indecision about who to support, the crowd and my friends in the pub, and the black clouds on the horizon as the siren sounded for a famous draw.