AFL Pre-season – GWS v Sydney: Chaotic Neutral (with photo now)



Having the Swans come to play in Marrickville on Friday night was like welcoming them to ours for a late summer aperitif. A Kir Royale perhaps; dry white bubbles and a dash of sweet red. The night was perfect for it, late sun dancing with cloud and the worst of the day’s heat reclining. I turned from home with my Cygnet and his mate in tow, a Newtown Swans Under 13 who bounced the ball perfectly along the heritage brick pathways that line the backstreets to the Henson.


The coast was my childhood home so I longed for precipice when we pushed west ten years ago into the landlocked valley of Marrickville. No matter which way I drove or walked, I could never find my way out or in, could never find the edge. But the streets were always vital, with people of every ilk. I came to appreciate the main drag—nuanced enough to delight but raw enough to thwart self consciousness. I came to love the industrial plains down by Sydenham station, tyres alongside dumplings, boxing beside ricotta. And I walked the backstreets, with their cobbled terraces and bungalows, their garages filled with old men playing cards, their rich rose gardens surveyed by Yiayias in aprons. When we first arrived in Marrickville, you could still feel the imprint of necessity over frill. But it’s changing.


It felt right that the two Sydneys were coming to play at Henson Park. The old and the new. The well established and the developer’s dream.


The kids disappeared the minute we walked in the gate to join team mates and old primary school friends flicking footies on the hill behind the grandstand. I walked straight up to the fence. Both teams were warming up. The sky looked more open than it had all week. A message came in from O’Reilly Max: ‘I’m in the stand under the R of Memorial.’ But I needed just one more moment at the edge, holding the hip high fence, breathing in the start of the new season, the big guns in our backyard, the promise of a couple hours of pure movement.


I clambered up into the open grandstand, where it seems ok to tread on the wooden bleachers. Over rows dressed fully in red, one gent smiling like it were Christmas, one lady holding her cane over the head of the man in front as if she were about to knight him. But I think she was just organising the forwards. The physios laid out the mats. The coaches climbed the aisle beside us. The jumbos speared into the sky from behind the brick periphery, alluding to the world beyond but continuing on to leave us in our bliss. A week of discombobulations paled in that pre-season pre-siren moment.


The Swans started strongly with the breeze. Their movement and touch looked balanced and efficient. The past years’ intra club Henson affairs have been carnival over contest, but this was footy played with the purpose of pride. A real opponent. Max and I caught up on summer. On his girls and my boy. Max is a sailor and bought a small boat over summer, a vessel to teach his daughters much more than sailing. They’re going to call it ‘Chaotic Neutral’, a Dungeons and Dragons reference used around the house by his 14 year old to describe her father in simple moments of dropping the remote or knocking something from a supermarket shelf. Moments of turmoil without serious ramifications.


Rampe gathered his defensive mob, arcing them around the Giants’ forwards like a lane rope. The Estonian General, the coastal boy, has grown so beautifully into his right to roar. Florent was lively if fumbly in jersey 53. Rohan looked the same as he always does, fragile and dangerous. Buddy showed no signs of the post-season surgical clean up job. While Papley and Cunningham, both neckless and wound as tightly as we’ve seen them, popped up all over the place. Early goals were cheered, the ball brought back into play off the bonnets in the carpark.


‘Good hands for this time of year,’ remarked Max. The hype on Tommy McCartin looks right. ‘Good hips,’ noted Max. It’s true. He swivelled up-field with each opponent, seems to be able to run in any direction, knows how to stay equally in touch with the man and the ball, high or low, in space or cramped. It’s a complex kind of awareness. It’s mobile and it’s compelling.


The lights came on in the halftime break as the plastic chairs were dragged onto the turf. (We noticed that defence got the bums on seats!) The ground announcer asked spectators to stay off the field in the break. They bled on, kids and adults alike, balls in hand, the odd whippet alongside. ‘Can I remind you …’ she tried. But nobody was listening. This is where after school kick to kick takes place and no one tells you what to do.


I wandered off to buy Newtown Swans raffle tickets. Macca and Hanners were milling about. A 70s tanned and neon blonde Isaac Heeney lurked at the membership tent, graciously dipping and smiling into people’s selfies. By the time the kids came looking for dinner, the chicken stand had one roll left and the canteen was all done on sausages. But the Batch beer was flowing. It’s Marrickville. We don’t need carbs, just boutique ale.


The effort to ‘think local’ in my burb started as artisanal. But these days as more and more business minds have jumped on the same board, the old shops have been converted into polished concrete gems signed by vintage display-board lettering. The stores with Bap Cai and bitter melons have given way to buzzing magazine-worthy street eats, pickle palaces and coffee shops with cold press and exposed light globes. The pebble concrete hose-down porches have been broken up for fenceless gardens with yarn bombed acacias. None of these things are essentially problematic, but their copycat growth points to the very kind of conga line they intended to interrupt. The ‘local’ ethos has become another brand, a suburb almost a parody of itself. And it’s noted on the boards erected in front of the demolished bungalows along the Bankstown Line. It’s a lifestyle used to sell the dispassionate towers that will replace individual homes. And now a different sign has emerged: ‘Marrickville not Mirvacville’.


The Swans reclaimed a lead in the third. We think. The scoreboard roller door was already firmly shut. Gone down along with the lights. It was good to see Aliir up. Good to see Jack at the bottom of the pack again. Good to see the dash in Ryley-with-the-two-Ys Stoddart and the goal from Ben Ronke. The last of the magic hour glowed across the largest hill in Sydney, then gave way to the muted greens of dusk. The players were like kids still on the streets long after they’ve been called home for dinner. One last kick. One last kick. But they shook on the third quarter, the sky gone mottled and dim.


O’Reilly Max acknowledged the rare pleasure of spending ‘footy mediated time’ without the pressure of premiership points. The Mirvacication of the Ville may have some symbolic resonances with the growth of AFL in Sydney and beyond. And while I too feel contrary about the implications of the game’s commodification and the distance it makes between the game-day experience of the season proper and the kind of night we were having at Henson Park, at the end of the week the game, for me, is always about the characters I love. It is a game of their bodies in action, of motion—unpicking claustrophobia and making mini freedoms. It’s a game that Sydneysiders need.


And just when we thought it was over and we stretched our legs over the emptying rows in front, the sports scientists returned the players to the growing dark to complete a final ten minutes. No doubt the spreadsheets needed a number in that fourth quarter cell. We watched them abandon to ‘Chaotic Neutral’ and prayed that none got hurt.


I never quite know how I’m going to feel about a footy season as it approaches. Whether it will be a worrying distraction, a close companion, a vivifying thrill. I never know what patience or need I will have for it. How it will start. If I am ready. As the kids and I walked home in the dark, nodding to the neighbourhood cats that man the evening checkpoints, past the garden of the old Greek lady who cuts me a chrysanthemum each mother’s day, I wondered if the night we had just spent might end up my favourite play of season 2018.


About Mathilde de Hauteclocque

Swans member since 2000, Mathilde likes to wile away her winters in the O'Reilly stand with 'the boys', flicking through the Record and waiting to see the half backs drive an explosive forward movement. She lives in Sydney and raises a thirteen year old Cygnet.


  1. Splendid musings and ramblings Mathilde. I just calculated that this will be my 56th season of “going to the footy” having started going with my grandparents in Adelaide in 1962. I currently feel I will need Viagra to get the new season going, but presumably the old feelings will stir in time.
    Your concluding comment about loving the characters hit a chord with me. I was musing about how to write about footy for the season ahead. There are only so many prognostications and game reports I can manage without plagiarising myself to death. The other night I thought I’d just pick a player from each side that I either love or loath. Thanks for the wink from the gods.
    “Yarn bombed acacias”? I need to get out more.

  2. Thanks, MdeH.
    Edges are so important.
    A horizon, an orientation, real, imagined.
    Down here we chose the Merri Creek.

    The personal scale of your footy encounter changes everything.
    So different from the industrial / match day experience/ fireworks -scale; the broadcast rights -scale.
    And with it, your wonderful observations of Marrickville. Of the game.

    “Chaotic neutral!” Love it.

  3. Mathilde – it doesn’t seem all that long ago that you were wondering about how 2017 would unfold!

    Its always fascinating that when the scoreboard doesn’t matter, everyone is still very aware of the scores.

    Your third last paragraph is a ripper.

  4. Thanks MdeH. Always enjoy spending a few minutes with you – and your experiences.

    Seeing trees and grass and other real stuff always makes the players and the game seem human to me.

    The players must go nuts being constructed and confected.

    I met half a dozen young Bulldogs’ recruits recently. Outstanding young men. And very real, especially at a buffet dinner in the cafe at the Western Oval. I hope we get to know the likes of Fergus Greene from Bendigo and studying teaching (like his Mum).

  5. Neil Anderson says

    Wonderful to be able to walk to a local ground to see your champions and future champions up close.
    Reading your first paragraphs I drifted away thinking of a tour of a Greek village. It turns out I wasn’t far wrong.
    It also reminded me of the Durrells family TV series set in Corfu.
    It’s a good time of year when our clubs are on top of the ladder, at least in our imagination. The first match is when the real tension starts. Win or lose that one determines our attitude for the rest of the season.

  6. Luke Reynolds says

    Great read Mathilde. Love the ‘think local’ ideal. When visiting a place there’s nothing better than sampling local produce and supporting locally owned businesses. Or doing the same in your own backyard.

    Does Henson Park get used for cricket/other sports as well as Australian Rules? Impressive looking venue.

  7. Mathilde – thanks for this. Never has a meaningless and decontextualized pre-season game been invested with such meaning and context. Reading your match reports is to undertake an internship in life’s finest moments at its most compelling places. The “muted greens of dusk” is wonderful.

  8. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says

    Thanks for your participations folks. Lovely readings.

    Luke, it’s actually mostly a Rugby League ground now, home to the Newtown Jets. (I know the Swans Academy uses it as a training ground too.) It was originally a brick pit which filled with ground and rain water after it was closed. The council bought it after number of children drowned there and turned it into a sports ground. It was opened in 1933 with a cricket match between a Marrickville 11 and a North Sydney District team. One Donald Bradman played for North Sydney. They won. It was also a velodrome and the principal cycling venue for the 1938 British Empire Games. The cycling track was converted into a running track in the 70s. So, it’s a place with lost of resonances. A true beauty.

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