ANZAC DAY: FROM RESERVOIR TO THE ‘G, TO THE EYE OF THE STORM

The national anthem brings the dawn service at the Reservoir cenotaph to a close and a greying man wrapped in black and white trumpets, Carna Pies! Some giggle into their winter coats while a few women puff on heartstarters.  Children hang from parents’ arms.  A craggy digger approaches another standing at the rear of the small crowd and pokes at the medals on his chest.  There aren’t many of us left, mate.  My name’s Jack.  An elderly woman on a squeaky bike wobbles up Edwards Street, parks against a tree and melts into the gathering.  A man approaches and kisses her on the cheek.  Good to see ya, mate.

Afterwards, around the corner in the RSL, the Gunfire Breakfast is doing a roaring trade.  Snags, bacon, eggs, hash browns, instant coffee, and the choice of one beer, wine or juice.  Most go for the beer.  The window advertises Darryl Cotton for Mothers Day: show and two courses, $35.  A digger in a blazer reminds non-members to sign in.

Outside, a dark sky is merging into a promising pink and a train rumbles along the Epping Line.

Later in the morning, I’m on the platform at Reservoir.  I love train stations; they’re a bubble of humanity, movement and emotions.  A digger spills his tray of poppies and badges and two teenage girls in torn jeans and footy guernseys dart over and silently clean up the mess.  A young Indian male buys a poppy from his mate.  A Vietnamese youth in a Geelong scarf is on his mobile making plans for the day.

The train arrives and fills with Bombers and Magpies.  It’s alive with families, groups of mates and laughter.

The pre-match ceremony at the MCG is respectfully understated.  The AFL does this well; they know it’s not their day to steal.  Our national flag is at centre half-forward and the Last Post carries in the wind.  90,000 people are silent.  This is the one day of the year an irreverent nation is not.  We acknowledge the sacrifice made by those before us and appreciate the freedom it has brought.

Before the first bounce, Nick Maxwell and his troops form a huddle in the Ponsford Stand end goal square.  The Magpie army lovingly envelope them and inject courage for the battle.

The first quarter is like a final: confused, nervous, fumbling, frenetic.  Collingwood settle, kicking direct and long.  Essendon try to handball through the Magpies’ zone, however, repeatedly choose the wrong option, handballing to stationary teammates.   Collingwood’s pressure forces turnovers.  Cloke provides a target and kicks three for the term.  It’s over at quarter-time.

At half-time, I move from the polite, designer shirted Members’ Enclosure into the Ponsford Stand and the Magpie army.  It’s an utter cultural shift.  This is more than a group of football supporters; this is a family gathering.  The warmth and familiarity are palpable.  Faces are painted and glowing.  They hug and call each other Love and Darl.  The army love this day; they live for it.

Nephew Lukey is running around in the Auskick.  His black socks are pulled up past his knees and he glows like one of the light towers.  Lukey gets his first touch when the ump gives him the kick-out after a point.  He hits his mate on the chest.  Lukey’s got it again in the dying seconds and streams into goal, only to spray it wide.  His dad, the goal umpire, throws his head back and signals a point.

I leave the ‘G during time-on in the last quarter and walk through Birrarung Marr.  This is one of my favourite Melbourne locations, the intersection to our city’s greatest features: sporting precinct behind me; CBD ahead; Yarra and Botanical Gardens on the left; grass under my feet. When I reach the city, young sailors are having a few in a trendy bar.  They’re getting loud and are in for a big one.

A river of purple is surging and bubbling along the concourse from Southern Cross Station. Outside Etihad Stadium, the atmosphere is a mixture of relief and defiance and there are queues at the merchandise tents and ticket windows.  Melbourne Storm fans have endured the worst four days in Australian sporting history and now want the rubbish over and football to start.  This is their team, they want it back.

I’m at Melbourne Storm versus Auckland Warriors thanks to my good friend and consistent provider of celebrity freebies, Dave Hughes.  We’re each handed a ‘player pass’ and ushered up the players’ race where we mingle with cheerleaders and cheer squad members for the national anthems.  Liz, a Storm staffer, has tears in her eyes.  It’s been a tough week, she says.  It’s still a bit raw.  Liz explains that membership sales have gone through the roof this week and the club’s family day was well supported.  A Polynesian woman grabs Dave for a photo.  Go the Storm! she says.  Sport is about people.

By the time we arrive upstairs, the pre-match VIP function is finishing and people are making their way through the glass doors to their seats.  Ben Roarty, a member of the Storm’s 1999 premiership team, rushes over and grips Dave and I in genuine and warm handshakes.  Dave interviewed him on radio a few days ago and Ben wanted to know how he went.  I was just being honest, mate.  I’ll support these guys to the end’, he gestures to the playing field.  He’s built like a brick wall and has a scar over his left eye.  He looks like a league player should.  Ben nods to the men leaning against the bar.  All the boys from ’99 are here. We’re here for the boys out there.  I recognise Glenn Lazarus and Matt Geyer.  Geyer, who also played in the now stripped 2007 premiership, still looks fit enough to play.

Out on the paddock, the Storm are being carried by a wave of emotion and adrenalin.  Billy Slater is darting and sliding through the Warrior defence.  Cameron Smith is converting tries.  The Storm crowd is rejoicing and chairman, Rob Moodie, is clapping and whistling louder than anyone.

Liz introduces Rob during half-time.  He looks like actor Tommy Lee Jones.  He is exhausted and frustrated.  Fans have been locked out of tonight’s game because stadium owners, not expecting a large crowd, haven’t opened the top tier.  Are you an alcoholic yet? Ben asks cheekily.  Rob laughs, shakes his head wearily, and says he hasn’t had a drink today.   He needs one.

In the sheds post-match, coach Craig Bellamy is holding court, thanking all for their support during the last few days.  He has tears in his eyes and looks suddenly old.  His team sit before him, heads in hands or staring at the floor.  Bellamy breaks with tradition and asks all present to link arms and sing the victory song.  I’m on the outer edges of the circle and do my best to mime the words.  This is surreal.  I’m at my first Storm game; I feel like an imposter and expect someone to ask me to leave.  This doesn’t happen and with the speeches over, the atmosphere is friendly and relieved.  Champagne is being passed around.  Bellamy pushes through the throng and kisses his wife.  Geyer is rounding up the kids.  The players move off for their warm down.

Dave and I thank our hosts and take our leave.  What a night, I say shaking my head.  Inner sanctum, he replies.  Inner sanctum.

What a night, what a day.  ANZAC Day.

Comments

  1. Andrew – is it possible that the current Storm storm could help in the long run – you know, the any publicity is good publicity thing. It seems to me that it may in fact act as a galvanising experience. Melbournians of all persuasions may get behind their team.

  2. John Butler says:

    That’s a great piece Andrew.

    A big sweep of emotion and experience for one day.

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