Old footballers don’t die, they play AFL Masters

By Andrew Nathan

It’s another steamy night in Cairns. I’m in the Vic Metro team that is about to play its first match in the annual AFL Masters tournament. I’ve played in two previous carnivals, in Maroochydore in 2006 and Darwin in ’08, and I’m 43 years of age—but I still get nervous before pulling on the big V jumper. Age doesn’t diminish the pride you feel when you represent your state.

We meet at the ground, Cazalys Stadium (what a surface!), at 7pm to allow for pre-match address and official team photo. Former Footscray coach Danny Del-re is our coach. His instructions are to own the corridor and move the ball quickly into our forward line. His enthusiasm for the contest is infectious and we run onto the ground to rapturous applause (at least it seems to be rapturous!). A positive start sees us leading by four goals.

A couple of late goals in the second quarter give Tassie some hope at half-time, but in the second half we have too much run though the midfield and eventually run away with the game, winning by a substantial 12 goals – enough to see us shoot to the top of the table.

It’s a quick shower after the game and then home to change before meeting at the agreed bar for celebratory drinks that go well into the next morning. We meet the next morning for a run and a swim and the pleasing news is that all have got through the game unscathed – it appears that more are sore from the post-game activities that the game itself!

Footy for over-35s started out as Superules (or Superfools, to the uninitiated) and is now incorporated under the AFL banner as AFL Masters. In metro Melbourne there is a competition that has 30 teams across three divisions in an over-35s competition (Supers), 30 teams in the over-40s (Masters), and 16 in an over-47s competition.

Similar leagues exist across the country, and each year the states come together for a national carnival. This year’s carnival, held in Cairns in early October with almost 1,000 registered players, was the biggest and best yet (yes, it’s a claim made by each Olympic city, but it’s a fair reflection on out footy tournament this year.)

The carnival is played in a round-robin format with seeded divisions of four teams across all age groups. You play each team in your division once, meaning three games in seven days with the subsequent ladder leader of each division being crowned national champions.

In the over 35s Division 1, Vic Metro played Tasmania, WA and Queensland and were looking to win our fourth title in a row. Although a large proportion of our team is getting “old” (ie over 40),  we approach the carnival with confidence.

My own club – Essendon – had a large contingent at this year’s carnival, with the over-35s team containing 11 Essendon players. All up we had 22 players in the tournament. With partners and children also on the trip, the club had in excess of 60 people at the carnival – a contributing factor to an active social calendar for the duration of our stay!

The carnival commences on a Thursday evening with an “opening ceremony” at Cazaly’s. The ceremony itself is nothing flash – essentially each state marches on to the field, there’s a couple of speeches, and then the obligatory singing of the national anthem.

The action then starts with an over-40s game between “arch rivals” North Queensland and Queensland. The game holds some interest, but our team is more interested in the following game, which is an over-35s contest between two of our rivals for the national title – WA and Queensland.

The word is that both teams are very confident about their chances during the week. We knew that WA were very keen as they are staying at the same hotel as the Vic Metro team and the previous evening had a long (and it appeared very serious) team meeting around the hotel pool.

WA start quickly and dominate play and at quarter-time the consensus is that WA have the game in hand – they move the ball quickly and have plenty of run all over the ground. Surprisingly, though, Queensland gradually narrow the gap – their midfield starts to take control and their big-marking target up forward is grabbing everything and converting.

Into the last quarter and the game is anyone’s. Queensland are generally smaller over the ground and we don’t think they will be able to hold our big forwards when we meet them in Game 2. WA are steadier at the finish and a couple of late goals see them win by 14 points and they are now the team to beat for the title.

Our first game against Tassie is the following evening at 8.20pm – geez, it’s a long time to wait to play! We have a light run and kick in the morning and then set about relaxing for the rest of day and ensuring our fluid intake is maintained (water that is).

Part of the day is filled in by visiting the venues and supporting the other Vic teams that are playing. We have a couple of guys from Essendon playing in the over-50s so we go along to support and our kids are out there running the water and getting involved. They have an easy win so it is back to pool for a swim and relax before the big game.

We have two days to relax before our next game, against Queensland on the Monday afternoon at 4pm. Saturday sees the group together again at Cazaly’s for a few more beers while trying to back a winner at the races and Sunday is filled in with a leisurely round of golf at the picturesque Half Moon Bay course.

Monday arrives and we are keen to take on Queensland and consolidate our place at the top of our division. Rumours are circulating that Queensland have flown in ex-AFL player Adrian Fletcher to strengthen their team for the game against the Vics – this doesn’t concern us as on our form on the Friday against Tassie suggests we won’t have too many difficulties against Queensland.

This game is held at the second carnival venue, Watsons Oval, which is large ground. The weather is warm and we are getting changed in temporary tents – not an ideal preparation. Coach Del-re picks up on the lack of intensity and warns us that we need to be on our game.

Queensland start at breakneck speed – although smaller than us, their run through the midfield is causing major concerns. Adrian Fletcher demonstrates why he played almost 250 games at the elite level. He consistently wins clearances and fires out those trademark handballs to wider runners who enable them to get quick entries into their forward 50.

Down by three goals at half-time, we know we have to lift our work rate to get back into the game. Unfortunately we pick up some injuries during the second half, with key backman Mario Toderov rupturing his Achilles, our captain Thommo breaking his hand and yours truly pinging a hamstring (I used to be able to run that quick!). In the end we go down to Queensland by 26 points – a very unconvincing display and we know we have to turn it around quickly against the strong WA team if we are to defend our title.

The day’s result is put aside that evening as the Vic Metro team has their traditional karaoke night. The kids start off the evening and set a “high” standard –then followed by the regular attention seekers strutting their stuff to plenty of ’80s and ’90s classics – a great night in the end for the entire squad.

If I were to play again in the last game in three days’ time, I need to have some “magic” done on my leg – Todders has had had no such luck after a visit to Cairns hospital that leaves him in a cast from his foot to above his knee. Someone suggests that the maintenance worker at the hotel used to be a trainer at Geelong so I chase him down to check out the leg

He confirms that I have a small tear but most of the problem soreness is associated with other knots in the hamstring. He gives me a good working over and after that I feel much better and give myself a chance to play in the final game against WA.

We spend the Tuesday in Palm Cove with the kids doing a bungy jump on the way (they’re mad!). A nice lunch and a swim (the sea water must help my hammy) completes a relaxing day before the Essendon attendees go out for a group dinner. The next day is a round of golf at Sea Temple before getting ready for the final game of the carnival, against WA on Thursday at 1pm at Cazalys.

All players other than Todders make themselves available for the final game. Tassie and Queensland are playing at the same time as our game at Watsons, so if we are able to beat WA then it depends on the result of the other game as to who wins the overall title.

We spend the morning supporting the other Vic teams going for national titles. The over-55s win their final game easily to capture the title, as do the over-45s. The over 50s lose the last game in a thriller where, after regaining the lead against Tassie with less than a minute to play, they allow Tassie to score a goal in the final 30 seconds. Despite losing this game, they’re still announced national champions with a greater percentage than Tassie – meaning that the Vic Metro team has won the 45s, 50s and 55s. It’s now up to us to see if we can grab the over-35s title.

A large crowd gathers at Cazalys for what promises to be a cracking game. WA start impressively and it appears that we have not learned our lessons from the previous game against Queensland. They have all the play in the first quarter and are able to go in at quarter-time with a four-goal to one lead.

Coach Del-re is not alarmed. He senses that our work rate has lifted towards the end of the quarter and implores us to continue in that vein. The second quarter sees us continue to work into the game – we’re starting to control possession, although it’s not reflected on the scoreboard as we’re still down by two goals at half-time.

More of the same in the third and it’s clear that it’s game on. Unfortunately favouring one leg eventually costs me as I ping my other hammy and that’s it for me for the rest of the game. The last quarter is all Vic Metro and our control of general play is eventually reflected on the scoreboard. We kick four goals for the quarter to run out winners by 15 points.

Everyone is elated with the win and in particular the strength of character shown to come from behind and win. The Vic theme song is sung with gusto in the middle of the ground by players and supporters alike. (The great EJ would have loved it!)

We now have to wait to hear the result from the other ground to see if the win over WA is enough for us to win the title. Eventually word comes through that Queensland have defeated Tassie, but only by 20 points – meaning that Vic Metro has a better percentage than Queensland and WA (all teams finished on two wins)

Richard Champion (ex Brisbane) presents players with their medallions. WA are fantastic in defeat and invite us into their rooms to share a few beers – fantastic to meet and chat with guys from the other side of the country that have the same love and passion for footy.

All that is left then is to celebrate the victory and a great carnival for the Vic Metro squad – national champions in four of the five divisions. A soothing swim and a few beers are enjoyed back at the hotel prior to “frocking up” for the final night dinner at Cairns Convention Centre.

The night sees 1400 players and supporters gathering to hear the announcements of the winning teams, best and fairest awards and all Australian teams in each age group and then party on long into the evening with teammates and opponents alike.

The venue for next year’s carnival is announced as Canberra – fair to say that it was greeted with muted applause at best. Although playing conditions are tougher in the north, the warmer climates provide a great opportunity to incorporate a family holiday with other like minded footy enthusiasts ….

No matter – another carnival attended and a great time had by all. You don’t stop playing football when you get old, you get old when you stop playing football …..


  1. Andrew – great report. Made me want to pull on the boots again. I really felt for you reading about your hamstring “pings”. They are what effectively stopped me running (or walking) around for Diamond Vally up until last year. I say soft tissue injuries, the boys just called me soft.

    Go the big V.

  2. What’s it feel like pinging a hammy?

    Great story too, go the Vics

  3. Great Article Andrew I must say though im a girl I would of love to be you and Hearing the croud go wild for you and a automatic smile went on my face. Your hammy must of been sore but if you were tuff enough to play the final you must be a Superstar. Congratulations On your Fantastic Win!

    Go the Mighty Vics!

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