AFL Round 1 – Hawthorn v Geelong: Old Rivalries and Chance Encounters

I’m sitting in an aisle seat on the top deck of the Great Southern Stand waiting for Hawthorn and Geelong to resume rivalry for this year. I haven’t made arrangements; sometimes I like just turning up, being unplanned.

A man, middle-aged, longish hair, and looking a little unkempt, sidles up and in a quietly spoken manner checks if the empty seats beside me are available. Rather than take advantage of the vacant space, he says, “I’ll sit with you if that’s okay”.

“No worries”, I reply, wondering to myself if he supports Geelong. Not that shared allegiance is essential to spontaneous camaraderie, but it does allow you to discard some diplomacy once barracking commences.

“It’s a long climb up here,” he quips, and I counter with a comment about my knee feeling the pinch. Ice broken through mutual self-effacing, in the Australian tradition, he goes on to say he nearly didn’t arrive at all because of a delayed Broady train. Signal faults. The Geelong train was late too, probably because of the same reason, and in keeping with tradition. It was also meant to stop at Flinders Street, where I wanted to get off, but kept going through to Richmond.

His name is Mick. He’s unshaven, a fading tattoo of a star on the back of his palm. He wears the demeanour of someone who lives life hard in a quiet way.

The players emerge. Mick applauds the Cats revealing his loyalties. The National anthem starts. Part of me wants the return of God Save the Queen, an anthem it’s okay to disrespect. I’d like the irreverent briefness of: “God save our…” “GO CATS!!!”  Or Pies, or Blues…

I had thought some Geelong fans overly optimistic about our chances this year, but the pre-season form is as sharp as I’ve seen since 2008. That’s not necessarily an indicator, but the improvement of our young brigade is promising. Could it be Baby Bombers ala 1993 reincarnated as Cats circa 2013?

The pace of the game is hot from the start and both teams make errors, but it’s more contagious among Geelong players. Pods hits the post (but takes a screamer), and Motlop sprays. At the other end Breust kicks a goal. And so it goes, Cats miss, Hawks take chances.

“We have to keep peppering,” I say.

Chappy looks different, though: younger, more nimble, and almost colt-like. Eventually the reason dawns – white boots!

In the second quarter, the Hawks are inaccurate, though a lot of their points result from speculative snaps under pressure. Credit to our backline. Geelong’s only twenty points behind at half time, but we’ll have to start winning it out of the centre to be a chance.

The conversation turns to Bruce Springsteen. Mick saw him perform during his recent ‘Wrecking Ball’ tour. Twice! Apparently, the Boss varied his repertoire in the second gig.

Mick comments on my Community Cup T-shirt. He’s aware of the event, but has never been. I reveal it’s now played in Elsternwick, opposite the pub, which triggers memories in him of long lunches with customers when he worked at a bank nearby.

Mick used to live above a studio in Fitzroy, but regrets having to vacate when the owner decided to sell. A Glenroy weatherboard is now home. He moved there to look after his sick mum, and stayed on after she died. Glenroy is almost inner-city these days, I console. He says the house might not survive a reno, but he likes it there – everything you need is nearby.

The spark the Cats revealed pre-season reappears in the second half and the Hawks feel the pressure. Maybe this is where the psychology kicks in because they are falling away quicker than expected. Then, I’ve seen it before – teams start at a tempo they can’t maintain.

Hawthorn colours seem to be thinning-out among the crowd at the Punt Road end, which could be a little premature seeing, by now, it’s only the start of the last quarter and the margin’s still small. Maybe Hawk fans, fearing the worst, are further back under cover waiting to see what unfolds.

Geelong does break away, but Hawthorn come back. Breust kicks another fine goal but blots his copybook by missing his easiest shot that would’ve brought the Hawks to within a kick. We’re feeling the tension, though. Then, surprisingly, the final siren sounds. A twenty-six minute quarter! If we’d known that we would’ve relaxed earlier. Ten in a row against the Hawks has a satisfying feel to it (but I don’t want to get too satisfied).

I’m meeting a friend at Gate 1 for a drink and tell Mick he’s welcome, but he’s already had a heavy weekend and makes a good-natured, slightly dishevelled way to the tram stop.

After a beer or three with Chris I board the 8.07 at Southern Cross. I overhear the person in the seat behind complaining that he’s been waiting in this train since 6pm. Victoria’s public transport may often be Third World, but the display put on by the Cats and the Hawks remains first class. And going to the footy still results in chance encounters.

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