Almanac Yarn: Davo pulled it to the left.
I watched Baby spin out of the pack, straighten up and head in my direction. I took off and headed right, then doubled back to try and create some space for Stevo, then I doubled back again, heading for the open space on the flank. Baby finally got his boot to the ball and it tumbled into the forward line but the wind that streamed between the cypress trees behind the goals held the ball in its grasp. I could see his kick was going to drop short and so could the opposition back flanker, and he dropped into the hole in front of big Stevo’s lead.
Stevo tried to pull up as the wind slowed the drifting ball but his opponent- an aging back man who’d played with Port Haley Hawks from the under twelves right through to the seniors had a handful of Stevo’s shorts. He lurched into Stevo’s back and they both crashed headlong onto the spongy turf, taking out another Hawk back flanker as they hit the ground and they all crashed into a patch of muddied water at centre half forward. I heard Stevo groan as he took out the flanker’s legs. The ball spilled from the tangle of arms and gnarled fingers bound with Elastoplast and bounced once- just in front of my outstretched hand. I juggled it momentarily, stepped around the mayhem, and loaded up for a shot. As the ball dropped towards my left foot, I heard Baby’s call.
‘You’re Hot! Unload it!”
and out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of something that looked like a cement mixer in a red and black jumper. Whatever it was, it caught me with a hook to the belly and crashed on top of me. The ball skewed to the left, missed the goals and my shot sailed into the paddock behind the ground. Hooker Welsh, the Hawks defender I hadn’t seen until it was too late, sprawled over me and hissed in my ear,
‘There won’t be any easy kicks for you out here today, Mitch!’
‘At least I’ll be getting a kick Hooker, you haven’t had one all season!’
This was going to be a tough game. Games between the Dolphins and the Hawks, were always brutal affairs and the fact that this was the last game of the season and would decide which of us played in the Reserves Finals of 1981 added a little, shall we say, extra spice to the match. I wasn’t worried about Hooker; he was as slow as he was ugly. I was worried about the score.
Ten minutes into the first quarter and we only had one goal on the board; the Hawks had snagged two. Sure, they had the wind but I didn’t want them to get away to a good start. I cursed myself for missing the shot, then realized I had more to worry about.
Stevo looked pretty crook. His groan wasn’t just the sound of the full back squooshing the air out of him as they hit the turf. By the way he was hobbling and cursing it looked like he might have done his knee. Wally, our trainer jogged over to me.
‘Hey Mitch, Stevo’s knee looks like it’s rooted. He’ll have to go off.’
‘Jeesus!’ I muttered, ‘yeah, okay, you better bring Davo on.’
As usual, we were undermanned. It was always a struggle to get enough numbers for the reserves, though with the seniors doing so well we usually had enough half decent players to take care of the opposition sides camped in the lower half of the ladder.
We did have one player on the bench – Dave Beck. He should have started on the ground, but I had a strict rule – if you turned up late, you started on the bench. Dave was late…again.
He dashed into the rooms just as we were about to run onto the ground. I told Baby to lead the team out while I had a quick word to him.
‘Jeeze, you’re late again Davo!”
‘Yeah Mitch, sorry. Slept in’
‘Shit Davo, it can’t be too hard to get here by eleven thirty. You’ll have to start on the bench.’
‘Orrr, come on Mitch, I can get stripped and be out there before they bounce the pill. I’ll get Wally to give me a quick rub out on the ground.’
‘No way Dave. You bloody-well know the team rules.’ and I left it at that but now here he was, ten minutes into the first quarter, jogging out, ready to take Stevo’s position in front of the goals. I got a word in his ear during a break in play,
‘You right Davo? Warmed up?’
‘No worries Mitch, I’m ready to have a run on the ball.’
‘Look, I’m going to keep you at full forward – just play it cool. Keep your leads towards this flank. You’ll have less problems with the wind.’
Davo rubbed his palms together, eager to get a chance in front of goal. He didn’t have to wait long.
Baby was carving them up in the middle. He pushed off a few Hawk on-ballers, and was heading for home. I held my ground, waiting to see if this kick would float like the last one, then I took off. I sprinted to the far flank, then slowed to get in position for a mark. The back man was right on my hammer and gave me a jab in the ribs as I slowed and we both jostled until two other bodies catapulted into the air from behind us. Someone’s knee caught me a stinging whack behind my right ear-hole and I realized that whoever was climbing onto my shoulders to pluck the ball from the air was a long way up. I could see the soles of his boots. The nylon stops clogged with tufts of grass and turf went by me in slow motion. Then the pack collapsed, all knees and elbows, grunts and gasps. I heard the umpire’s whistle shrieking as he signalled a mark and I prised myself out of the tangle of turf, elbows and arms. Standing above us all was Davo, the scuffed footy in his hands. Lying at my feet was Hooker, his hands cradling the back of his head as a gush of bright red fluid poured between his fingers and trickled down his wrists and forearms. Davo strolled back to take a shot at goal as three Hawk trainers, with their white overalls splashed with blood led a staggering Hooker from the ground. I got to Davo as he lined up for the kick.
‘Aim for the left post and allow for the wind.
‘No worries Mitch.’
Davo was barely thirty metres out but he pulled it to the left and the ball swirled with the breeze and just made it through for a behind. I trotted back to him,
‘Don’t worry mate, get the next one.’
I wasn’t particularly worried that he’d missed. Baby was on top in the centre and I knew the Hawk backmen would be worried by the way Davo had climbed into the pack. Without Hooker they had no talls left in their defence.
The football gods had endowed Davo with some obvious gifts. He was tall with a trim, muscular and athletic body, and a male endowment which was always the subject of mirth in the showers. But while the gods had bestowed him with a magnificent physique, they’d omitted a few handier attributes. One was common sense, and the other was the ability to kick straight. By the first break he’d had three shots – for three points plus one out-of-bounds from a shot in the goal square. I’d seen him kick goals from all kinds of impossible angles, but today it seemed his kicking action was off.
By half time he had kicked another four minor scores but he started off the third term with a fluke snapshot that finally got him into the goal umpire’s note pad. We were on top but we hadn’t been able to convert enough shots to put the game out of the Hawk’s reach.
By the last change Davo had taken eight shots at goal, for a grand total of one major and six minors. He was busting through packs, plucking down screamers and bowling Hawk defenders out of the way, but every shot he took he pulled to the left.
Baby and Dougy Walsh, our ruckman, both took him aside during the final break and tried to show him the finer points of goal kicking. This was not a good sign. For one thing, too many instructions would only confuse him. Davo was irresponsible, careless and went about life in a constant daze but he wasn’t stupid. He knew what everyone else in the club knew – that neither Baby nor Dougy could kick over a jam tin. The trouble was that both thought they were crack shots, so as we walked back onto the field for the final quarter I had a quick word in his ear,
‘Just keep getting the ball mate. Just ignore Baby and Dougy! Just keep going! Right? We don’t want Port Haley getting a sniff!’
‘Jeeze Mitch… it’s my follow through, just can’t get it right.’
‘Yeah, I can see that, but just keep getting to the contest, alright?’
In the centre square the umpire held the ball aloft, the siren blatted its echo around the ground, and hostilities resumed for the last quarter. Almost immediately I sensed something was wrong. Twice in the first minute the Hawks swept the ball out of the centre, but couldn’t score. Then when the ball made its way slowly back to our forwards, the Hawks gathered it and barged forward again. I don’t know what their coach had said to them at the last change, but it was working. They had a sniff, and we were looking flat-footed. They goaled and then we missed twice. They goaled again and were within striking distance and we had the staggers. We’d held them in check for the whole match and I wasn’t going to let them snatch it from us at the last moment so I waved to Wally and watched as he bustled out onto the ground, all arms and legs; trying to sprint across the half forward line while holding each of his pockets shut so that his supplies of tape and chewing gum wouldn’t spill onto the grass and mud. It seemed an age before he got to me, all puffing, panting and ruddy faced.
‘Wally, go and tell Baby, and all the other on-ballers to bloody well tighten up. Yeah, and tell them that if they get a free or a mark to go down with cramp. And hey Wally, as soon as they do, I want you out there. Rub them down, call for a bloody stretcher if you like, but make sure you can slow this game up. Know what I mean?’
Wally had been around. I watched him scoot around the on-ballers delivering my message, but the Hawks drew closer and closer until Baby took a mark in the centre and went down like he’d been hit with an axe handle. I sprinted from the forward line to where he lay on the ground writhing and got to him just as Wally and the umpire did. Wally was telling him,
‘Better not get up son, you don’t look well.’
Baby groaned back, ‘Oooohh, Arrrnhh!’
The umpire stood over him and said to Wally,
‘Is he alright Wal? Can he take his kick? What’s wrong with him?’
‘Case of cramp, I reckon ump.’
‘Cramp? He’s making a lot of noise for someone with the bloody cramp! Can he take his kick?’
‘Don’t think so.’ said Wally ‘Think we’ll need a stretcher.’
‘Stretcher? For the bloody cramp?’ said the Port Haley skipper who’d trotted over to see what all the fuss was about. ‘Shit, there’s nothing bloody-well wrong with him. Come on ump, they’re just wasting bloody time.’
‘Okay son…’ the ump leant over and said to Baby, ‘…up you get, there’s nothing bloody well wrong with you that a beer after the game wont fix’.
I could hear the Port Haley crowd yelling from the boundary. They wanted action. From behind the cars parked around the ground I could hear the whistle of a netball umpire and the polite applause from the junior netball teams as their game finished. That meant time was running out for our game too.
Baby got to his feet and swooned theatrically then went back slowly, step after painful step to take his kick as the time eked away. He went back and unloaded a long penetrating punt.
‘Nice kick son,’ said the ump as jogged off in pursuit of the ball, ‘…for someone with cramp!’
I ran back with the flight of the ball, ready to snatch it up if it spilt from the pack and as I churned through the patches of goo and grass I saw Davo jostle his way through the pack and leap in front of two Hawk defenders. The umpire’s whistle signalled the mark and I got to Davo as he turned to take his kick.
‘Davo, take all the time you need. Don’t kick until you’re ready.’
The Hawk defenders knew they were still in with a show.
‘Hey Mitch!’ one of them yelled across at me. ‘You watch him stuff this one up. He’s gonna lose the match for you!’
‘Hoy Davo!’ another one yelled ‘You can’t kick this, you big…dork!’
We were five points up. Any score would do. Davo had to score. The players, the umpires and even the little kids doing water-bottle duty knew it and all eyes were on him as he marched back to line up the shot. He turned and flipped the muddied Sherrin in his hands a few times then settled over the ball and started his run up. The Hawk backmen were still taunting him and goading him, reminding him of his faulty kicking style when a long triumphant blatttt echoed from time-keepers box perched above the clubrooms.
It was the final siren. And we had won the match without Davo having to take his kick. He looked over at me
‘Still have a shot Mitch?’
‘Yeah, why not.’ I replied as I walked past some of the Port Haley players, shaking their hands.
Davo trotted in and kicked truly. Straight through the middle. He trotted over to me patted me on the back and shook my hand.
‘No worries Mitch.’
‘Yeah, no worries Dave. Good game. Okay fellers…’ I called out, ‘in for a shower and I want to hear that bloody song too when we get in there!’
‘Yeahhh!’ the rest of the team growled as we trudged up the race past the netballers in their pleated black skirts and past the red faced trainers and coaches of the Port Haley Hawks. I grabbed a beer from the esky just inside the change-room doors and fumbled in my jeans pockets for a pack of Stuyvesant. Baby lit me up as we slouched back on the slatted bench seats.
‘Jeeze, I thought we were gone then.’ said Baby between drags. ‘How about Davo, did you see that mark he took in the third quarter? If he’d kicked bloody straight, we’d have walked that in.’
We both looked over at Davo, standing against the far side of the change-rooms that were slowly filling with steam from the showers. Amongst the steam and sweat and glistening arms peeling off grass-scented jumpers, Davo stood tall, like a glistening Greek god, guffawing and beaming as he peeled off a strip of tape wound around his thumb. As he threw it to the change-room floor I caught a glimpse of more tape showing just below the hem of his shorts, at the top of his left thigh. Suddenly it all made sense. His thigh was strapped. Bloody Davo must have had an injury that he hadn’t told me about – probably a groin strain or maybe a slight tear in his upper thigh muscle. He must have asked Wally not to tell me about it, worried that I wouldn’t pick him in the team. I pushed over to Wally, who had just finished strapping Stevo’s wonky knee. Wally slapped Stevo on the back.
‘There you go big-feller, a couple of anaesthetics and you’ll be fine!’ then he turned to me and as he rolled up the rest of his tape and stowed it in his medicine chest. He grumbled.
‘Good game Mitch. Bit bloody close though.’
‘Yeah, Wal. Thanks. Look, what’s the story with Dave’s thigh. You should have told me, you know.’
‘Told you what? Don’t know anything about Dave’s thigh.’
‘No, come on, Wally. It’s strapped up!’
‘Well, I didn’t strap it. He must have done it himself.’
Of course. That made even more sense – he’d strapped it himself and that’s why he couldn’t kick. He’d probably made the strapping too tight.
‘Hey Davo,’ I called through the mass of dripping, freshly-showered bodies and beckoned him over.
‘What’s up with your leg?
‘My leg? Nothing. Why, whaddya mean?’
I pointed at the piece of Elastoplast just below the left leg of his shorts.
‘Nope, nothing wrong at all.’
‘Come on Dave, what’s the tape for then?’
Davo looked down and studied the muddy floorboards of the change rooms. He looked a little sheepish. He hesitated.
‘Well, you know how I got here late, right?’
‘Not the sort of thing I’d forget Dave’
‘Well, I slept in and I was in such a rush that when I got here, I realized I’d left my jocks at home.’
He gave me another dumb, sheepish look. None of this made any sense to me. But he must have read the expression on my face so he went on. He lowered his voice a couple of notches.
‘Mitch, I couldn’t go out there without jocks. My shorts are all baggy. You know how I said I couldn’t follow through properly when I kicked’
I nodded, then it dawned on me.
‘Well, that’s why I couldn’t kick straight!’ He paused, then added,
‘Yeah, I didn’t want my old feller hanging out and flopping around while I was chasing the footy…so I taped it to my left leg!’