Local footy – maple flavoured

(Author’s note: if I were any sort of reporter I would have remembered to take a notepad or recorder of some sort. Some quotes may not be quite verbatim. Apologies.)

It’s bye week for North (the words “sweet relief” spring to mind), so to get this week’s footy fix I decided to check out some local footy. Local footy in this case being the OAFL. The Ontario Australian Football League.

There’s a game Saturday midday, so I head off down the Gardiner Expressway, down by the lake past the CN Tower and Skydome to the West End. Most Toronto games seem to be scheduled at Humber College South, and today’s game between the Broadview Hawks and Toronto Rebels is the last of the day. Broadview Avenue is walking distance from our house, so I guess that makes the Hawks my local team.

The ground itself is pretty, and well set up. Ringed by maple and elm trees around three sides, under the gaze of stately old University buildings on the fourth, with Lake Ontario 50 or so metres back behind the Southern wing. Proper full-sized posts at each end, it’s clearly a dedicated footy oval. I’m told it’s a fairly recent setup, having been moved from the College’s Northern campus to avoid clashing with Cricket (both being summer sports here). All the Toronto-based teams use this as their home ground, while outside Toronto there are teams in Guelph and Hamilton to the West, and all the way out to Ottawa in the East. Word is someone is trying to start up a club in Kingston too, about halfway to Ottawa where the lake becomes the St Lawrence River.

Footy at Humber College South, Toronto

When I get to the ground the reserves game is still going. They started late due to lack of umpires, apparently. The Hawks seconds are playing the High Park Demons, and it’s nearly 3-quarter time. Reserves grade is 12-a-side, 12-minute quarters without time on, on the full-sized field. It’s a pretty open game and the players are running like crazy. When they come off for an interchange spell they’re blowing hard. The Demons seem to have three women doubling up from the women’s league, and one of them is close to their best player. She moves smoothly, runs intelligently to create space, disposes of the ball pretty efficiently, and kicks a couple of goals in the second half to help lead them to a come-from-behind win. She and her husband are of Irish background and Gaelic football converts, I’m told.

By the time the seniors start I’m chatting to Paul. He’s a neutral at this game, from the Toronto Dingoes, an expat of 20 years’ standing. The sort of stalwart local leagues need, sometime umpire and good guy. I’m interested in how Ontario, of all places, came to field one of the strongest regular leagues outside Australia. I mean, it’s hardly an expat hotbed:

“Well, I think it’s largely because they run it as a proper league. It started in 1988, and by 1993 it was 10 clubs. There’s still 10 now. Not all the same clubs; a few have come and go, but it’s not growing. It’s kind of funny with the Canadians, so many of them play 5 or 6 years and just start getting good, then drift away. Stuff happens in their lives, you know. The Aussies tend to stick around.”

Not growing, but not shrinking either, which has to be encouraging.

“I think if they really want to grow more, they need to play midweek.  I mean, you can play until 9, 9:30 at this time of year. It’s a big ask for people to give up every Saturday in the summer.

“The one that is a surprise is the women’s league. That’s really taken off in the last couple of years, and some of them are pretty good.”

The firsts is proper 18-a-side footy, with 4 20-minute quarters. Again no time on, except when the ball gets lost in the trees behind the goals. The league rules call for a maximum of 6 Australians on the field, with 2 more on the bench. Recently they have relaxed the rules to allow non-Australian internationals above the 6, so as well as the mix of Australian and local accents, there are Irish, Kiwi and I’m told a Sri Lankan running around today.

And how’s the standard of the league?

“Well, I’m from Jerilderie, and they play in the Picola league, which is an OK country league, and the best teams wouldn’t be out of place there. The standard’s really variable. The best players are guys who have played, say, VFL, but there are first-year Canadians in the same side.” Once the game starts Paul’s father, visiting from Australia, mutters, “This isn’t Picola league standard. Reserves maybe.” To be fair though, the game does go through patches where the best players get a chance to strut their stuff and it’s pretty entertaining.

My favourite bit of play came from one of the Rebels’ locals, the only African-Canadian on the field that I could see. Paul had already pointed him out:

“See this little bloke? He’s not bad. He’s like a bloody Lewis Jetta if he gets it in space. Was umpiring him once, and to get out of a tackle he did a backflip and kept running. Incredible.” And he does get it in space at one point in the second, dashing through half forward to pot a lovely goal on the run.

One of the ex-VFL players is the Hawks’ Conor Dullard, who played for Williamstown up until a couple of years ago. He’s clearly their best player, though he doesn’t entirely dominate the game. He’s a prototypical modern big ruck-rover, running around with normal suburban blokes. Takes plenty of contested marks and is a nice kick, though he ends up with about 1 goal 4 this week. At one point, when he goes back on from the interchange, the conversation over to my right goes something like:

“Good player.”
“Good bloke, too. Helps everyone out. If his opponent is new to footy he coaches them, shows them stuff, where to run and that.”
“Nice.”

Nice indeed. There seems to be a fair bit of camaraderie between the teams, though Paul plays that down: “Not so much any more. There used to be more, but the clubs keep to themselves a lot these days.” As if on cue, a melée breaks out on the 3/4 time hooter. Not much of one: two guys have a quick push and shove before they can think better of it, a couple more from each team run in to separate them, and it all looks messier than it really is with cries from both teams of “Stay out of it!” “Don’t do anything stupid!” “We’re here to play footy!” and the like.

The game itself, like I said, was pretty entertaining in patches. Both sides cracked in hard, and there were nice efforts from players of all backgrounds. The main skills factor that stood out to me was that the Australians were much better kicks, but the locals weren’t found wanting in many other areas. As so many games of footy are, it was essentially decided in a 10-minute burst, as the Hawks put on 4 unanswered goals in the first quarter. The Rebels never stopped running and pressuring, and got back in touch by 3/4 time, only to run out of legs. Final score 10.9 to 6.6.

Toronto Rebel with Raccoon on the shirttail

I would have liked to stay and chat with more players, especially Canadians, but sadly time didn’t allow it. Still, a great day out at the footy.

Comments

  1. Stephanie Holt says:

    Thanks for the report Rob! Really captures that odd mix of people and backgrounds that lead to our great game outside Australia. Interesting to hear your thoughts on what makes it take off particularly well in some places – a dedicated oval is a great start!

  2. Paul Daffey says:

    Hi Rob,

    Jerilderie! My favourite part is the gruff father putting things in proper context. Very country Australian.

    I like the fact that the players cared enough to give a couple of pushes.

    Sounds like you enjoyed a good day.

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