I’m driving through Air Force bases, and Army bases, and American Military bases and palm trees and R.A.A.F museums, when I hear Townsville Sharks Masters Footy Club are having a training run on a stinking hot Sunday morning.
I’ve been on the road for a day and a half, and still have to get to promised work in Cow Bay, another day away, but stuff it. I introduce myself to a chubby, important looking fella, who is, indeed, the President, motivator, and band leader. He introduces me to the coach, a stand up bloke, and I’ve joined in, easy. It’s not 10am and the sun’s impossibly sharp. The patch of grass we’re on is a thin, green sliver, rimmed by sand, caught between deep blue sea and cloudless sky. It would be pretty if the heat wasn’t so biting.
“G’day, mate,” one-by-one the players say, and give me their names.
“Matty,” I tell them.
I reckon Old Dog wouldn’t cut it with these people.
We train and I’m more nervous that when I played an intra-club at Coomera, a working class suburb behind Movie World on the Gold Coast. That was a bit weird, everything small time, in a great way. Tiny rooms, no stands, gum trees and roos behind the goal square, If they won a flag no-one outside the club would know of give a shit. Yet, every time I took a mark, or somebody slipped a tackle, from just beyond the mangroves I’d hear shrieks and squeals of kids and big rides and money.
When the warm-up drills are done, teams are picked for a scratch match. Shark on Shark, I’m toeyer than when I pulled in for a run in a rural N.S.W town I can’t remember the name of. Their scoreboard was two-thirds buried in wheat bails. It felt like home: the small populations, a list with no depth. I was a glacier compared to the Aboriginal kids, but up to standard.
The Townsville mob, though, are mostly ex-Victorians, living in a large city, and have won just about everything over-35 and beyond. They’re jets, I figure; must have played a lot of good footy.
But I needn’t worry.
A lot of them fumble. Too many are hungry. Most of the players have been out of the game a long time, and started up again.
because they woke up one day and realised how damn much they missed it!
Because they were sick of being 40-something,
of being predictable,
of leaving youth to the young and doing what sane people tell them.
What is it about our country that we’re so American these days? That so many people laugh at or get shitty with you if you defy age brackets?
In their time away from the game a lot of the players seem to have lost their hardness, their aggression. Their whack! One of the blokes on our team is wearing something like a Richmond jumper. He charges and doesn’t fumble and still has that burst and kills it like a knife through butter.
“Yeah, he plays in the local league, too,” someone tells me.
The difference is mighty.
I ask about the military.
“A number of them play locally,” I’m told. “Each troupe used to align with each team, but when a ship went out the club would lose about ten players. Now they spread them more evenly around.”
I try to imagine playing a team with ten army men in their prime in it, if that would be intimidating?
I don’t think many would try and blue them.
A couple of the on-ballers have reverted to the selfish footy you find in social matches, where the bench is no threat to anyone. It makes them as easy to read as schoolyards. I run hard and get a mark or two.
While the ball’s down the other end, between quarters, after the game, we talk life and footy.
“Do you get knuckleheads?” I ask.
“Nah. Sometimes, but we sort them out pretty quick. That’s not what Masters is about. Our team or theirs, we send them packing.”
It’s great, everybody’s here because they want to be. There’s no peacock strutting. Nobody’s trying to be the Alpha. Suddenly, half way through my first kick, we’re a bunch of mates, as if we always have been, taken from the pub and housed in footy. We know the lays, we know the lies. There’s so much that doesn’t need be said, so isn’t. So much worth telling. It leaves not much room for ego.
They’re here because they love life and love footy.
The coach has played every-damn-where in the country. He gives a quick speech, then says:
“Okay, now lets get back out there before we get cold,”
It must be 36 degrees!
“Is he serious?” I ask, but eveybody’s too busy sweating to answer.
No-one keeps score. When the game’s done I’m introduced to one of the backmen. He looks late 50’s. I’m told his name, but forget it just as quick, which is shit, but damn it’s hot, and I’ve met too many people.
“I hadn’t played since I was 15,” Old Mate tells me, “Then, last year, I was walking alone this foreshore, and saw the team training.”
“And now he’s not just sitting on the coach every day. He’s fit, active, and in his first year after forty-something off, won All-Australian,” the Prez cuts in. “He can be your story.”
The Prez is an earnest bloke. I’ll talk about what I damn well want to.
One of the players keeps it real.
“It helped that you put him on a 70 year old for his first game,” he smiles in passing.
Old Mate smiles, too. All-Australian is All-Australian. CHB no less. National carnivals involve three or four games in two days against all sorts of opponents. He seems like a ripper fella, is still stoked one year later.
“It’s great, I’m playing sport. Now I get to have a kick with my boy. Isn’t teaching your child how to kick a footy as good as life gets? Isn’t that the sort of thing you live for?”
I’m glad I met him.
Unlike a lot of Queensland teams, full of youth on the go, when we’re done about fifteen of the players hit the beer garden. I’ve really gotta get going, but this is what footy’s about, as important as goals and marks. The game isn’t done yet. I have one for me, and one for Ben Hudson.
The Prez comes to life when he tells me about representing Australia in Masters against Ireland.
“All the Irish wanted to do was blue. Near the ball, away from it. If you got a touch you got a whack. One game got called off and had to be re-started.”
I bet Dale Weightman, Chris Johnson, and all those other Aussies weren’t thinking of the ripple effect when they went the hack like that at the top level. Those Masters games in Ireland would have been sweetly ugly.
I can just picture gnarly, disgruntled old Paddys hissing “Revenge” and going the knuckle.
All the boys have stories. Short, sharp, funny. Well honed, stripped back over the years, devoid of bragging. When everybody’s an Old Dog, they know what matters.
The Sharks only play six games plus carnivals a year, though. I just couldn’t do it.
I love that grunt, that mongrel, the hardness of youth and pride of prime that you get in a country club. I love the mix. A season’s relentless ebb and flow. Its constant weather. The hunger to win. The way a good victory rules a Saturday night at the local.
Where being an Old Dog gives you a place in things.
Masters is brilliant. I would never have known if not for the military-heavy city of Townsville. A place that’s both beautiful and preps the defence of our nation. That’s top-heavy with scenery, sweet, blue water and ex-Victorians.
Teams like the Sharks restore flames. They involve carnivals, travel, mateship, are used for fitness and even, sometimes, to fight depression. Talent handy, but not essential. They’re the stuff of adventures, and stories.
For people who’s lives are already full of stories.
It’s just not for me, though.
They ask if I’ll be about when they play in Cairns in a few weeks. I must have done a bit better than I thought. But my ute is not five minutes away, and it’s tapped into the open highway…
Ol’ Mate! All-Australian!