It’s footy, Jim, but not as we know it

(AFL Quebec Preseason Cup: Concordia University, Loyola Campus, Montreal, Saturday April 28)

A few things I’d never encountered in over 40 years of footy-going: snow en route to a game; a bagpipe medley of Advance Australia Fair and Waltzing Matilda; a rule forbidding goals kicked from beyond the 30-yard line; a field of artificial turf; barracking in French. But that was before last weekend, and the playoffs for the AFL Quebec preseason cup: six men’s teams (all local), three women’s teams.

We were there (via the Ben&Jerry’s factory in Vermont and a drive through four hours of snow flurries) to cheer on the Boston Lady Demons, because our Lydia was pulling on the boots as their full forward. She’d played two games of competitive footy in her life before we moved to the States; she’s already got three more under her belt, courtesy of the USAFL National Championships last October. The new Boston team had taken eight players to Nationals for a combine team (the Boston Lady Demons/Columbus Jillaroos/Baltimore Washington Eagles – a bit of a mouthful for us barrackers), and had been working their butts off since to recruit and train players for the forthcoming season. In fact, recruiting’s gone so well that the Preseason Cup Footy Record (an impressive 28 pages with colour cover) still lists the Montreal Angels’ opponent as a Boston/New York combine, but Boston’s fielding a full nine-a-side team, and New York’s brought eight girls. A handful of ring-ins from Ontario turn it into a three-way comp, and give the teams some subs.

At nineteen, Lydia’s the baby of the Boston team, and their only Australian. If you long for the days of old-fashioned hard-fought footy, played by people with an unrivalled love of the game, you can’t go past women’s footy in North America. These aren’t players who’ve grown up obsessed with footy, being dressed in club colours from the cot onwards, trotting off to Auskick. These are players who’ve stumbled on the game – or on someone who plays the game – and become hooked. And some bring star quality and a history of sporting excellence to their new love. International Cup veterans like Montreal’s Aimee Legualt, New York’s Drea Casillas, and Boston’s own Emily Riehl could match it with the men of many local footy teams at home in Australia.

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This tournament’s being played at Concordia University’s (Loyola campus) aptly named Stingerdome – a gridiron field with a stand of bleachers open to a stinging wind. Goal and behind posts have been added to the gridiron goal, but that’s as far as modifications have gone. The artificial turf will leave savage burns on unprotected Aussie Rules knees, and fill mouthguards with ripped up green flakes.

The day’s temperatures? A minimum of minus 2 and a maximum of 8. It makes the worst days of Arctic Park feel like a loll on the Gold Coast. I spend most of my time huddled in five layers of clothing, wrapped in a hat and scarf, taking photos that keep screwing up because I can’t feel the fingers that are trying to adjust the camera and keep ending up in front of the lens.

The first women’s game is Boston against New York. New York’s Lady Magpies have been going a few years, and made the Grand Final at Nationals, but they’re in a rebuilding phase, and Boston’s expecting an easier contest. In the end, it’s a resounding win for the Lady Dees, 6.5.41 to 0.1.1. Lydia’s settled in well at full forward and manages four goals. Boston’s rookies – Sarah, Leah and Eileen – put in a great effort in their first game. Under captain Jen Vogel and playing coach Emily Riehl, they’ve been working on basic skills, and drills that emulate match play. The Lady Dees are focussed on the team-oriented things that will give them an advantage: shepherding, tackling, second efforts. And it shows – the team are talking, supporting each other, making quick decisions. Not always the best decisions, but they keep the ball moving, and usually in the right direction.

Watching this tournament, you sometimes get a reminder that players haven’t grown up with the game – a player who tucks the ball under her arm under pressure and goes to ground, or who waits too long to get a kick off, or who eagerly kicks back towards goal a football being returned for a centre bounce. And sometimes you get a reminder one of them has grown up with footy. Lydia’s best goal comes after marking a Magpies kick wide toward the wrong end. The umpire pulls her round to a tough angle (this is a rectangular field, so tough is really tough), and she stands juggling the ball nonchalantly while the umpire sets the mark and her line. I hear someone on the sidelines comment that she needs to go further back for her run up, and PJ (the Boston Demon who’s subbing for Montreal, and managing the girls’ interchange) responds that she’s an Aussie and should know that. But Lydia’s an Aussie who’s grown up watching Stephen Milne, so she picks her moment, takes those critical three steps off the line, opens the angle just enough, and slots it through. Centimetre perfect.

Boston’s second game was always going to be tougher. Montreal are a class outfit, their best player an absolute star. Boston stay in touch for a while, and Lydia gets credit for their only goal when Emily sends a lovely kick from beyond the thirty-yard line and Lyd swoops on it and pokes it through. But Boston’s chances fall moments after, when their captain Jen, twisting the wrong way while chasing an Angel up the wing, goes to ground. Wincing with the pain, she has to drag herself into the sidelanes while play continues. This is the most fun the four St John’s Ambulance volunteers have had all day – they get busy with a splint and bandages and ice and instructions, lots of instructions, and send her off to the emergency room for x-rays. They’re worried about a hairline fracture; Jen’s teammates are worrying about an ACL.

The rest of the game is played mainly in the Angel’s half. The Lady Dees fight it out, with their experienced crew competing hard – Aimee relentless round halfback, Andi stalwart in defence, Kristina fierce around the midfield. But with no subs, Boston are outplayed by a fitter, more experienced team, and outfoxed by an opponent that seems to know what do with those absurdly deep pockets.

*

A few hours later, the girls are unrecognisable, spruced up, showered, aglow. There’s a gathering at a local Irish bar, and the Lady Dees have comandeered a booth down the back. Apart from worrying about Jen, who’s still tied up at the emergency room, they’re agreed it’s been a good day’s footy. Lydia, who’s ecstatic to be in a country where she can legally drink, gets started on the business at hand. Her new teammate Eileen, who fell for footy while doing a semester’s study in Melbourne, is helping by working through some Aussie drinking chants.

It’s about two hours later that Jen appears, to a volley of cheers that starts with the Quebecoise teams and ends with the overjoyed Boston girls. At which point we parents bow out, and leave the team to it. What happens in Montreal, stays in Montreal.

*

With two veterans staying in Boston and three more rookies getting to training regularly, the goal of a full 16-a-side team for this year’s Nationals is in sight. In the meantime, stay tuned for reports from forthcoming tournaments in Philadephia and Boston.

Comments

  1. Dear Stephanie,
    I feel privileged to have read this love ode to your daughter, your football, Aussie rules, travel and adventure, and parenting through all weather conditions! It’s good to get your live footy fix and the adventures that go with it. Be well.

    Yvette

  2. Stephanie Holt says:

    Thanks Yvette!
    So hard to go so long without live footy to watch, we have been hanging out for the season here to start. Between the replays online and the Almanac etc we can stay in touch, but it’s just not the same. No bagpipers live in the loungeroom!
    And great to see you keeping up the reporting on our beloved Sainter boys – love getting your take on the season unfolding.

  3. John Harms says:

    Jen’s injury Steph?

  4. Stephanie Holt says:

    Hi John,
    Last I heard, looks like nothing broken, but so swollen it’s hard to tell what’s what. She’s getting about on crutches for the time being, and cracking hardy. Apparently still managed a good effort on the dancefloor Saturday night – apparently a proved recovery technique in these parts!

  5. Great stuff. Dunno why you found the prohibition on goals outside 30 so unusual. You obviously missed the Eagles Hawks point fest. I reckon the Boston Babes could have shown us how to do it. Cheers.

  6. Perfect Ms Boots! A great summary of os footy. The last playing original Falcon is off to Boston in a few months. He is a Demons tragic, so going to the right town. Keep an eye out for Woody. Very handy leading half forward. For a ginger…

  7. For those who would like to take a look at what this looked like after Steph’s great coverage you can see some of it on Youtube at http://youtu.be/Qbh_VXQGtHU

    No footage of post game activities.

  8. Cait Mullen says:

    I loved reading this. I actually went to school with Lydia (I still go to school there, I’m in year 12) so I thought it was a funny coincidence that I saw this while perusing this site.
    I’m glad she’s found a team to play for in America and I hope she keeps playing :)

  9. Awesome read. Looking forward to chapter two of the Demons/Magpies/Angels adventure in Philly.

  10. On behalf of the Montreal Angels Footy team, thank you for the exciting coverage of the tournament from a spectators perspective. Boston and New York have solid teams and have done an amazing job at recruiting players. I remember meeting Jen at US Nationals two years ago. She was the first and only Boston Lady Demon at the time. Its very encouraging to see your numbers increasing each year. We will see you in Philly!!!

  11. Stephanie Holt says:

    Thanks Margo.
    That was a great tournament! Wonderful spirit between all the women’s teams. Very excited for Philly!

  12. pamela sherpa says:

    Dancing off their injuries sounds like a great way to loosen up and recover after the game Stephanie. It’s amazing how people play sport in such cold conditions. Will look forward to the next report.

  13. Richard Naco says:

    Seeing the game like that, on a gridiron field with small teams having a red hot go in a far far away place, is strangely heart warming.

    It wasn’t on the sound track, but I kept hearing Paul Kelly singing “From Little Things Big Things Grow”.

    It would be really nice if the AFL could invite those teams over to experience this year’s Grand Finals (including the women’s one).

  14. Cynthia says:

    This is hilarious Steph. Takes a PhD in comparative sports to be able to pull off the subtle geographic differences with such skill. Love your capaci with gender issues as well. 2nd paraId put in the first mention of Vermont as Vermont Canada. We don’t want to me mid placed in Vermont Melbourne and lose the joy of 1 seconds laughing. Cynthia x

  15. Stephanie, would you have a contact for the Boston Demons? My mate is looking to get in touch with them. Cheers, Gus.

  16. Gus – try president@bostondemons.com or billrobert@statesidefootytv.com also may be able to help you.

  17. Stephanie Holt says:

    Their website board page has emails http://www.bostondemons.com/board.php and is still current (don’t be put off by the website itself looking out of date!). Let me know if you need me to chase further.

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