AFL Round 8 – Collingwood v Geelong: Thinking differently as the penguins huddle

We lived in the Top End for a year. Driving past the Flinders Ranges and onto Port Augusta as Port Adelaide hoisted their flag. A fair swag of South Australians seemed very pleased with themselves. Who knew there was so much teal on the face of the Earth?

Arriving in Darwin later that week for the beginning(!) of the Top End football season. Ronnie Burns going around for the Nightcliff Tigers (suburban oval, palm trees, freakish skills aplenty). A year later, almost to the day, packing up our belongings for the return trip south, as Paul Roos trumped all comers with his post-premiership speech.

It was a tremendous year of exploration, heat, adventure, heat, humidity, mates and heat.  The spirit of life runs deep in the Top End. People think just that little bit differently. At one job interview, where I candidly declared that Selection Criteria 2 was: “a bit outside my area,” the interviewer, soon to become my boss, replied: “Mate, look around you. You’re the only bloke for 2000 ks with a chance of doing this. Have a go.”

Events of southern Australia can feel a long way away, up there. But then, in this Age of Self-Centredness, there’s always another plane to hop aboard on a whim, isn’t there?

My mate DM lives & works & husbands & fathers from Darwin and has done for over 10 years. That’s longer than most up there. His email said: “A few of us are coming down for a footy weekend. Collingwood-Geelong. What do you think?” That was in January. My reply was in before I’d even checked the details.

And then DM arrives in Melbourne Town to a bleak grey Friday of low cloud and a truck collision on the toll road and gets in a cab to our place. I receive the text from Tullamarine. Forty minutes later he calls: “Where are you again? This Brunswick is a big place. This driver here can’t work the GPS. And he’s struggling with English.”

Some swift navigation later, he’s dumped his gear and we’re off to town. Arriving on the Friday, he’d teed up a couple of us to watch the Rugby Union at the bubbly box on Swan Street. Grand, I thought. I’d watched the Rebels a few times previously, despite the best efforts of both the ground announcer (“Come on everybody, CHEER now!”) and musical director (cultural dissonance of Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell being played alternately with Les Misérables’ “Do You Hear the People Sing”) to drive me away.

The Rebels, playing without their marquee James O’Connor/Kurtley Beale headliners steal the show from the Stormers. A late try to the Rebels will remain, like much of the sport, forever a mystery.

But DM successfully road-tests his beanie and thermals, and during the match only fails to mention the cold. By the time we walk up to Gertrude Street, we’re just in time to see his Kangaroos fall victim to Nic Nat heroics on the front bar’s big screen.

Awakening on Game Day, DM (“this floor is cold”) reaches immediately for his beanie. He checks over the Saturday Age. The words “penalty try” are used to describe the previous night’s rugby. Might as well have included “rabbit” and “hat”. Who knew?

The kids and I take DM on the #1 along Lygon Street and make Greetings to the New Brunetti’s. Sitting with his Italian hot chocolate (“that’s thick”) he plays the next card (“I love bookshops”) with Gilchrist-esque timing. Over to Readings where we hatch plans for a regular trans-continental book-swap. We’re kicking off with “All the Pretty Horses.”  An hour later we see him off from Readings, heading south, to rendezvous with the other Top Enders. We head back home for an afternoon of books and central heating.

After a rapid dinner, I set off from home base on my 2-wheeled steed, reflective vest sparkling in the oncoming headlights.  It is a teasing run in the dark and cold, past the inviting warm hospitality of the Rose and then that of the Napier. Oh boy.

Arriving at the G, I find the Darwin lads huddled outside Gate 3 just as Sir David Attenborough may have found the Antarctic emperor penguins. Lots of teeny tiny steps and a slow general circulation of the group. We find our seats on the ground deck of the northern stand (“Great seats. What a view”) and marvel at the playing surface, the colossal enormity of the whole structure and the sheer number of seagulls.

We hear the whisper (“No Stevie J”) and are all a bit disappointed. You like to see the best. But as I am reminded many times “Motlop is the one to watch. He’s a Darwin boy.”  Somehow most of the crowd arrive and take their seats between 7:35pm and 7:40pm and then it’s on. Luke Ball, first game back, has leather poisoning in the first 15 minutes. Some blokes just know where it’s going to go.  Pendles is like the conjurer. He’s baulking three Geelong blokes while standing still. And I’m giving it full voice. Salt and vinegar chip particles are flying (“Dave, if you get hungry later, there’s a bit of yer chip on my knee”).

The Woods are up. They’re up and about and not giving the Cats any room. We see two torpedo punts attempted in a single quarter. We see a mighty Geelong resurgence that has them take the open spaces, take the centre square and also take the three-quarter time lead. Motlop, in a total absence of surprise, does the very special. But then Harry O loses his equanimity. Something is shifting. And then we see Andrew Krakouer don his cloak of invisibility. He’s doing the things Stevie J often does, which are the things Peter Daicos often did, which are the things we’d all love to think we could do.  You can see him thinking differently. Thinking these outrageous ideas (“Oh no, he’s not going to, is he?! He IS!!”)  My, oh my.

After a couple of Good Old Collingwood’s Forever, I’m standing there with the Darwin lads watching the MCG empty. It’s interesting enough to behold, but I figure they’ve forgotten the part of the evening where you actually leave. “Come on fellas, show’s over.” Silence. And then: “What, and shuffle against the crowd on the concourse? Nah, let’s just wait here a bit.”  It’s not much, but enough for me to again admire the Top Enders. Thinking just that little bit differently.

I unhitch the 2-wheeled steed and zigzag up Jolimont Terrace. It’s bumper-to-bumper past the Fitzroy Gardens, of course; magpie scarfs out the passenger windows still visible through the exhaust plumes. I’m buzzing along the fresh urban tranquillity of Napier Street. I barely see the brush-tail possum in the gloom of the Edinburgh Gardens; subsequently clip its hindquarters but carry on miraculously without falling off, throat raw and nose running.

As I step through the back door, CJ (“Who is the captain these days? Not Buckley, is it?”) surprises me yet again: “I actually watched the last quarter. It was amazing.”

Collingwood 15.12.102

Geelong 14.12. 96

About David Wilson

David Wilson is a hydrologist, climate reporter and writer of fiction & observational stories. He writes under the name “E.regnans” at The Footy Almanac and has stories in several books. One of his stories was judged as a finalist in the Tasmanian Writers’ Prize 2021. He shares the care of two daughters and likes to walk around feeling generally amazed. Favourite tree: Eucalyptus regnans.


  1. Stephen Cooke says

    David, your blokes chose the right man to watch on the G – Motlop. If neutral supporters aren’t heading to Geelong games just to watch him, they soon will be. Pace, skill, footy nous, work ethic – he has it all.

    Terrific representation of the Darwin mindset – love the job interview.

  2. haiku bob says

    enjoyed this a lot Dave.

  3. David Wilson says

    Thanks for this.
    Received word just now that the Darwin lads made it home.
    Following the pies-cats extravaganza on the Saturday night, they buttered up like Gavin Brown to participate in not one, but two Sunday games (Carlton-Port at docklands, train ride, Tigers-Dees at the G).
    And the steak knives was the Rugby League (storm-manly?) on the Monday night.
    That’s stamina.

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