Canberra’s Own

By Carl Murphy

Canberra is a crossroads of the football civilisations. It has its own Rugby League and Rugby Union teams, and even had its own soccer team in the national competition for many years until continued failure meant everyone gave up and went home. But despite a flourishing local competition, it had never really gained a niche in the AFL. North Melbourne had sought to link up with the town, with much fanfare and little success; the team they were playing always seemed to have more support. Then the Western Bulldogs played a couple of games a year at Manuka, and generated a little more interest; at least the Prime Minister turned up to watch them play.

GWS was going to be different, we were told. Kevin Sheedy courted Canberra, recognising the opportunity of building a second supporter base for the new team in an environment less hostile than Sydney’s west. And the ACT Government was eager to be courted, knowing that there were potential votes in an AFL presence.  Almost 10,000 in fact, as that was how many people signed up as foundation members, and got to watch one trial game in 2011, when GWS scored the first two goals of the game against Carlton. They scored one more that day; Carlton responded with around 30.

The first game at Manuka in 2012 showed some promise. Though the Bulldogs won in a canter, there were flickers of skills from the local team, and just under 10,000 people turned up to watch. But a familiar pattern was starting to emerge, as the Giants would have periods – sometimes even whole quarters – where they were competitive, but would then fall away, struggling to clear the ball, let alone mount an attack.

And Canberra was still agnostic – or perhaps a little bit pregnant. The ground was a sea of bright orange caps, largely because these were freebies given to members on the day. But many supporters also wore the scarves of their ‘first choice’ team, reflecting a scepticism that the Giants might be as ephemeral as the Kangaroos and Bulldogs.

It was round seven when the Giants returned to Manuka on a typical Canberra winter’s day; cold and clear. As the sea of orange caps traipsed in to the ground, our agnosticism was channelled into one simple hope; that the team be competitive.

And for the first quarter they were more than that. In the second minute a great Israel Folau tackle resulted in Devon Smith kicking a goal, and before we knew it, the Giants had put four through the big sticks.  And they were physical; it seemed that League convert Folau had given his teammates a few tips on how to muscle up on their opponents. The Suns pegged one back just before quarter time, as Ablett started to warm up and give direction to his team, but the mood in the crowd was one of cautious optimism.

Only to be dashed in the second quarter, as the Giants demonstrated, yet again, that they couldn’t sustain it for a full half of footy. Giles kicked the first goal of the quarter after a series of Suns’ behinds, but after that the Giants fell away, and conceded six unanswered goals. They seemed to have run out of puff and out of ideas, with clearing kicks more in hope than expectation. And the Suns lapped it up, maintaining intense pressure and scoring three goals in the last few minutes before half time, to go into the long break with a thirteen point lead. As the sun dipped behind the grandstand and Canberra’s winter chill began to set in, the sense of disappointment was palpable across the ground.

Then something happened; the crowd might be agnostic, but the Giants started to believe. And had some luck. In the third quarter, the Suns fluffed a number of chances that should have put the game out of reach, and the Giants scrapped. Their intensity was starting to return, as were the attacks on goal. And the Canberra crowd was finding its voice. By three-quarter time the deficit had been cut to four points. Whatever Sheedy had put into the oranges at half time, it seemed to be working.

A cold breeze had sprung up, and the Giants were running into it as the last quarter began. The sides swapped behinds, before Dylan Shiel lined up and goaled for the Giants after eight minutes. We roared our support; a mixture of delight and disbelief. And the team was starting to dominate the game, with a series of attacks on goal, though all yielding behinds only. Until the twentieth minute, when Adam Treloar kicked a major, followed by Jonathan Giles a minute later. And two minutes later Jeremy Cameron extended the lead to 21 points.

It was beginning to dawn on players and supporters alike that the Giants were going to win. The roar reached a crescendo in the 28th minute when Giles marked and kicked his third, and the fifth unanswered goal for the Giants in the final quarter. The siren sounded, the crowd and players celebrated. And then they played the song.

That bloody song. The Russian Anthem, as some described it. Shades of Leonid Brezhnev strolling out of the Kremlin to his favourite dance music. And of course none of us knew the words, given that there wasn’t any real expectation that we’d have to sing it. Fortunately the officials seemed to have worked this out, as they played the song at full tilt over the loudspeakers, thereby masking the complete absence of crowd participation. Besides, we were still too busy cheering for our unexpected heroes.

Safe to say, it was the first time there had been a genuine ‘footy buzz’ at an AFL game in Canberra. We’d played a small part in AFL history, and the Giants had moved off the bottom of the ladder. The change struck me most as Kathy and I were walking back to our car, through the Manuka shops. She still had her Geelong scarf to complement her Giants cap, but when an elderly couple walked past, and asked us who won, we both replied ‘We did’. For the first time, Canberra had a footy team.

Comments

  1. pamela sherpa says:

    Carl, just read the sports headlines in Canberra Times – “Canberra’s footy fiasco” all about the clash between the codes with the scheduling of the rugby and AFL game on at same time today. Now off to organise my clothing in readiness for the arctic conditions.

  2. Richard Naco says:

    I was there as well, Carl. It was a very god day for the footy club.

    There is a vast chasm of difference between Canberra Giants’ fans and those actually from western Sydney. I have since well and truly returned to my Corio Bay roots, but I hold a deep sneaking suspicion that I would relate far more closely to a Canberra Giants club than I did with those from the bogan wilderness.

    The clash of scheduling between the codes is no mere coincidence. The NRL is, intelligently enough, creating these clashes with both new AFL clubs in a vain attempt to sweep back the tsunami. For all its logic, it’s still sad & an admission of vulnerability, and ultimately doomed to failure.

  3. Richard, am I reading this correctly? Have you returned to the Cats? Has your flame for the Giants flickered out?

  4. Would someone please send this Adelaidean an iTunes link to the club song – sounds wonderful.

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