Round 15 – GWS v Geelong: Game End (Far from a match report – this raises a number of timely issues)


Geelong and the Giants played a ripper draw on Saturday night. Both clubs have exquisite foot skills. Not a lot of the beautiful kamikazi of the Bulldogs or St Kilda. There was heaps of chipping it about. There was a dramatic free kick, a shot after the siren. Tom Hawkins shanked every kid’s dream. After the bell, one point down, he  sprayed a behind to suffer the heartbreak of not winning it for his club. I really felt for him. The teams gathered in the middle, shook hands and all that. Like they do every week.


And, like every week, a fair swag of them were grinning, laughing, being chummy chums. Dangerfield and Stevie J, big personalities, champions, extroverts, super happy chappies with each other, a rib and a cackle.


It’s there every week I watch. Mortal enemies, combatants, in a game they’ve built their lives around, lingering in the middle, chatting, trading funnies, patting bums, the second the siren’s over.


They obviously all know each other, and know of each other. Opposing players probably spent three or four years as teammates in the junior system, went to the same draft camps, played in the same rep teams, and now go to the same nightclubs, share the same managers, accountants, do the same clinics, media, have shares in the same pubs, hang at the same cafes. Outside footy, maybe they’re just as likely to be mates based on AFL status as club loyalty. I dunno. I’m not behind that curtain.


And, more than that, I suspect they share the rigor and disciplines, the gruelling dedication and relentless spotlight of being AFL players. Maybe that’s it, they have a bond that’s instant.


Hawkins looked real – shattered. I like him, I think he has a real energy and genuine love of Geelong – heart on sleave. And I like his football; a big man playing strong. The cameras barely left him. He was the only one I saw with his head lowered. A few of his teammates were even grinning, all chirpy as they came up to give him a consolatory pat.


Watching Geelong and the Giants smile and chew the fat so soon after a draw confused me. I used to like Micky O’s reaction to losing – he loathed it! If Sydney lost, there was no – Well done Bruz, and quick chitty chat full of relaxed body language. If they were mates he’d call them in a day or two. I loved the passion of him, gutted, shaking hands with good eye contact, then walking straight off, nothing more than a grunt to anyone.


You could feel the flame in him.


I’m glad that the modern mob are so instantly happy, I’d never tell anyone how to express themselves, I’m just trying to figure it. I wonder, does any one team hate another like they used to? Hawthorn and Essendon sure did. Different people, different coaches, different ways of doing and seeing things, different club cultures. That was real. Collingwood and Carlton before them. And so on. Adelaide and the Power players used to walk the other way when they saw each other in the street, lest it lead to a fight. Their Showdowns radiated it. Each mob would not mix with the others socially. It gave their games feeling, we, as a crowd could feel. Two big bulls in the one small town. Champagne versus beer. Hollywood against refineries. There was ideology, not just team colours.


Before the 90s, after their shower, both competing AFL clubs would share a beer in the home team’s clubrooms. Unless the home team was Collingwood, and they lost. Then their would a be a sign on the door telling the winners to rack off! Carlton did it once or twice, too. Word is Bobby Rose, a great man, would say that was not on, and take the opposition players to the public bar and shout them a few from his own pocket.


All the old school players I spoke to for the book hugely lamented passing of those post game gatherings. They said it made the other team human, the umpires human. As Terry Daniher said, booming voice, all smiles; “Crack a lid! Leave it on the oval! Do battle next time.”


Win or lose, happy or blue, I always shake the other player’s hands, tell the better ones I think (for what little that’s worth) they played great, the kids who played well how grouse they were, that they had a real dip, and an opponent I respect, “You hanging around? Let’s share a beer later.” And thank the umps.


But it’s all in passing.


I believe in the tribalism of football.


The beer with your opponent afterwards is golden. A big part of what you play for. Two tribes in the one room, their partners, kids running around, presidents giving ordinary speeches. The good murmur of the unwinding and unwound.


But only after the coach’s chat and stretching and showers. With that distance that comes with taking off your armour.


First I have to get off the oval.


Once I’m over it, or at least the edge of the loss has been absorbed by hot flowing water and a few tinnies, I’ve been known to simply keep drinking at an opposition clubrooms, have even kicked on at one or two of their functions. Just for the fun of it. At the right clubs. Bush footy clubs are dominated by the character of those running them, and their physical environment.


I loved the night or two we hung around Simpson after the game, their pub rocking. They were my club Otway’s fiercest rivals. It meant everything to beat them, and we tried, with all our grist, to do so. Gave. It. Everything! If only because we were so similar. They were dairy and spud farmers, and it showed. We were loggers and dairy farmers. The things that made us clash so hard made them great blokes to share a drink with. Respect, work and football.


The game never leaves me on the bell, though.


I discussed it with two former teammates, both mad lovers of footy at AFL and bush levels. Both from dairy backgrounds, with quality football perspective.


Tom sees and hates the banter.


“Sometimes I almost find it disrespectful to your teammates, supporters and clubs,” he told me. “There’s a question of passion, honour and loyalty. As a teammate, I’d question why there isn’t an immediate feeling of anger, frustration and pain. Sure, socialise after reflecting on it. Learn from it and be a good sport and don’t throw your toys, but, especially after a draw, we want to see emotion that it meant something.”


Then, ironically, before I’d had a chance to process what Tom had told me I spoke to Rory.


“With process and structures, I’m not sure they can afford to play with any extra hatred or passion now. For teams or players,” he told me.


It was a great point. Jade Rawlings told me much the same thing. He said most supporters would be underwhelmed at how clinical the pre-game and quarter time speeches are these days. That the fire-filled rev-up was pretty much gone. That it’s all about implementing what they have so rigorously practiced, and knowing the plan for the opposition.


Then Rory added; “But if that’s the case, why did Geelong keep beating Hawthorn?”


Speaking for the book, Sean Dempster said to me, “Of course there’s still passion. You can’t play at this level without it. It’s often what separates those who do and don’t make it.”


I worship Sean Dempster! He is so damn genuine.


We talked about his early Sydney days, and West Coast’s Andrew Embley getting the Norm Smith on him in the 2006 Grand Final. Sean went through the day clinically, what made Embley a great of the game, he spoke about his feelings, and how he played that game wrong (and never once offered an excuse even though he was young, and the game tactics suited the West Coast player). All good, but then, when he talked about letting his teammates down, he choked up. A decade later. That’s passion!


I bet he didn’t stop and have a happy at-length chin wiggle with Embers.


Back when, the VFL was everything we did in suburban and country ovals, just bigger. Bigger personalities, egos. Or maybe simply bigger spotlights. Lord knows I’ve played with some personalities! Either way, the blokes of the AFL were plumbers by day, stockbrokers, garbos, coppers, dentists, accountants – of us. We could see ourselves in Paul Van der Haar, in Peter Foster, Ken Fraser, Rugged Ronnie, Norm Brown, Wayne Harmes. Today’s AFL player is a bit more removed, groomed since early teens. I’m not judging – hell, I’m as jealous as! – I just don’t know them.


Maybe now they’re not allowed, as clubs, to share that drink after the game, lingering on the oval is their one chance to show respect, savour who and where they are, how lucky they are – Men in love with playing AFL football.


Who knows? I’m genuinely glad to see the human side, people happy. In this case, I just don’t quite get it.


  1. Dave Brown says

    Yeah, it’s a funny one Matt, I’m not sure. Coaching junior footy this year (7-9 year olds most of whom are playing their first season of any sort of organised footy) I’m trying to teach them two basic attitudinal attributes: have fun; and hate losing, not your opponent. The second one is much harder, not just for them but their parents on the sidelines. I sometimes get a real sense of insularity within local footy clubs; that community extends only to those within this club – as if the club you play for is not just some accident of residence or family/friend connections. At the elite level I think we see the product of the system, there is no sense of tribalism for the players because they fully understand they are at their club almost by random. For them, it can be just a different flavour of ice cream. The tribalism now only exists in the fans – perhaps why you’re more likely to see a fight in the stands at a showdown than on the field and why much social media footy talk is unreadably slack jawed. People living two very different realities. Cheers

  2. Matt I struggle with the smiling loser. Watching Dangerfield et al giggling after the siren against the Giants didn’t sit well with me. It’s all a bit cosy. That doesn’t mean that they should leave the ground in tears either, but a bit of perspective wouldn’t hurt. Geelong lost a game it should have won. What’s to laugh about?

  3. Terrific stuff. I think you do “get it”, but you prefer to suggest than assert.
    “Today’s AFL player is a bit more removed, groomed since early teens.” “Maybe now they’re not allowed, as clubs, to share that drink after the game, lingering on the oval is their one chance to show respect, savour who and where they are, how lucky they are.” Terrific insights. Like DB I suspect that after the first couple of years it becomes a career as much as a game for modern players, and the club is an employer not a calling or a commitment. You reap what you sow.
    “Two tribes in the one room, their partners, kids running around, presidents giving ordinary speeches. The good murmur of the unwinding and unwound.” Great writing. I could smell it.
    Thanks Matt.

  4. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says

    I agree with PB Matt, your writing is full of sensation, and suggestion. This piece is a really great exploration of drive and process. It’s nuanced and tender and full of questions rather than answers – just the way I like it. And I loved the double entendre in ‘the good murmur of the unwinding and unwound’ – esp the ‘unwound’ – in relation to the level of hurt that we need to know, to feel, to share, to demonstrate, what it means to embody passion and care.

    … and I love just about everything about Micky O. Still my all time favourite player. I suspect he always will be.

  5. I reckon it’s a job for a lot of them. We go to work and get paid, they went to work and got paid whether they won or lost or drew. Next year they might be in different colours playing against the team that paid them this year. Money takes the emotion away.

  6. Rulebook says

    Old Dog I am with you all the way can’t stand the lovey dovey bullshit immediately on the ground agree totally some on the own and your own side reflections 1st and then catch up.I agree re above it being there job and also re the structure side of it.Stevie J a classic in that regard it seems like part of the reason he was moved on from the Cats was not obeying structure and team rules at all times.
    Great article Old Dog plenty of food for thought

  7. Matt Zurbo says

    Thanks all. Stoked.

    Dave, you great man, I hear you, but that’s what I meant by; ‘Depending on the club.’ Some are hugely inviting, others up themselves. The good ones are gold. Like people I guess. Haha! If the Almanac was a footy team – Rullbook, Mathilde, Dips, Peter, Noel, to name a few – it would surely be one of the good clubs.

  8. Michael Viljoen says

    What is there ‘to get’? The match is over. The players are showing their human side. They’re people first, combatants second. It’s sportsmanship, 1st class.

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