AFL Round 5 – St.Kilda v Sydney: Break on through to the other side

No one ever said AFL fans in New Zealand have it easy—and we haven’t.  No teams, no coverage, endless jokes from mates about “aerial ping pong” and tight shorts, and a media almost wall-to-wall committed to ignoring the game altogether, referring to it when they do with descriptions like “the festival of the knock-on.” (Melbourne Rebels fans will know what a knock-on is. Ask them.)

Anyone who’s never lived in Enzed would have no idea of the total world-class ignorance of our fine game.  I can remember two references on TV news in the last two years, one about poor John McCarthy and the other about the takeover by Essendon’s medical committee of their football programme.

So to get a live game right here in NZ—a real live well-promoted game for genuine competition points, with the prospect of many more if the St Kilda/Wellington Council deal continues—to get all that when it ‘s not even possible to see a game on NZ television … ! What bliss it was to hear that announcement, and to able to get there fairly easily very heaven!

This, we thought, could be the breakthrough the game needs to get noticed.

They came from everywhere. Our group of three, who we laughingly call the Auckland Geelong Supporters club (that’s pretty much all of us meeting that description, which tells you something about the game’s presence here), flew down committed to doing what we could to help out Wellington’s economy.  Turns out 4,500 Australians had got there before us with the same goal in mind: the city’s hotels were fully booked, the restaurants and pubs were full, and downtown Wellington was a sea of of red, white and black.

Right off the bat you could see all Wellington Council’s boxes were being ticked, and they’d be signing up in an instant to keep this deal going.

As would be the Aussie fans. All we talked to loved it: they loved the Dawn Service, which most showed up to, saying they felt right at home; they loved the friendliness of Wellingtonians, who they reckoned were making them perfectly welcome; and they were loving the city, about which Wellingtonians themselves say with a smile “you can’t beat Wellington on a good day.”

Dotted in amongst the red, white and black tide were a few small islands of local supporters, many like us who’d come from other ends of the country. It was a gathering of the tribes all right—blokes I’ve played with over the years. Blokes I’ve snotted, and blokes who’ve snotted me.  Supporters off all AFL clubs proudly sported their fading livery and relived past glories.

Some of us had seen the exhibition games in Wellington in previous years that had attracted people in their hundreds: 1998 at the Basin Reserve with Tony Lockett complaining because the field was so short all the goals were being kicked over his head; a few years later when the stadium fondly known as The Cake Tin first opened with two exhibition games played in a howling Wellington southerly with rain and sleet to match. Not surprising few folk showed up to watch.

But this time was different.  More knowledge, and better weather. We NZers may not be able to see the game on telly, but around 32,000 youngsters have been through what the AFL calls KiwiKick: teaching youngsters in schools about how to play the game.  Turns out most of their parents showed up to watch the game. Where the local rugby and soccer teams, the Hurricanes and Phoenix respectively, have been getting crowds of around 8,000 for some pretty lack-lustre games, the AFL clash attracted an enthusiastic crowd of just over 22,500!

The game started with large blocks of colour in the stands that were identifiably Swans and Saints fans, yet by half-time the colours had spread through the whole crowd. We discovered later that the merchandise brought over by both teams had been cleaned out! Wellingtonians were getting right behind the occasion.

And the game itself? I’ve said nothing about it yet because there’s not really anything much to tell. Too much dew on the ground meant the ball was slippery, and the narrow pitch meant the two teams’ rolling zones spent two hours running into each other.  As one spectator said beside us, it was like watching under-6 soccer with all the players following the ball around the ground.

A spectacle it wasn’t. Mind you, you couldn’t fault the speed or physicality, which was thunderous. And this was n bad thing as it struck a chord with many rugby-following NZers.  “You can’t do that,” you’d hear, and a second later, “But you can!”  They loved it. And as one new fan said to me, “In the time it takes rugby to decide whether or not to have a scrum or a penalty kick, these buggers have kicked two goals!”

One odd thing was the crowd noise, or at least the ebb and flow of it that regular watchers become used to. Starting off by not knowing what to cheer, there were strange silences when there should have been noise, and strange outbreaks of noise when there should have been none. It was like watching Muhammad Ali boxing to a tune by Vivaldi.

But by the fourth quarter things started coming right. The game opened up, the crowd had become more knowledgeable, and the nominal home team, St Kilda, started coming back against the tide to make a finish of it.  And when the siren finally went, 22,500 fans went home buzzing about AFL.

And next day, the game was being reported on the news. That’s another real breakthrough right there.

At the end of the night the official standings will show that Sydney won the football. But the event was a winner for everyone involved, from the council to St Kilda to the AFL themselves, all of whom took a punt on what should now be a firm three-years and more deal for the Saints to play two games a year at The Cake Tin.

Which will make the Auckland Geelong Supporters Club and about 22,000 others very happy.

 

About Peter Cresswell

Saw the game for the first time in 1984, and laughed so hard I had to play it myself. Played in NZ and the UK. Never in Australia. Never stopped laughing.

Comments

  1. Really enjoyed this Pete. Just exuded love and joy for the game.

    Wellington is a great spot.

  2. Thank you, sir. I hoped that would come through.

  3. Aussie Pete says:

    Great piece Mr Creswell.

    I was the Wellington Sydney Swans Supporters Club, but thanks to successfully convincing 12 bemused locals to come to the game with me, the ranks of the WSSSC have swelled to, well, not quite 13, but around 6. The rest of ’em, flamin’ turncoats, have pledged allegiance to the Saints. A reasonable result I guess, considering they have been ascribed “home team” status in Wellington.

    My express desire is we (expats and Kiwi converts to THE MOST AWESOME GAME IN THE WORLD, EVER) will fill the cake tin next time around. Better still, let’s fill Eden Park!

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