Rules? What rules?

 

I didn’t see my first game of footy until just before my twenty-first. No wonder. There wasn’t a lot of it about in Greater Auckland.

With cartilage falling off the inside of my knees in great chunks, the quack had said “No more contact sport for you, son,” which seemed to rule out any more rugby, league or soccer. And a mate had said, “I’m playing Rules on Sunday. D’you wanna come out and take a look.” The idea of something involving ‘rules’ didn’t sound too appealing to a bloke whose idea of a good night out was pogoing to loud punk bands. But that was how the game was known in Greater Auckland.

So I went, and I laughed.

I laughed like all hell. I laughed at the leaping boundary maggots chucking the ball in backwards over their heads, and the short-shorted field maggots sprinting absurdly back to the centre after every goal; at the white-coated goal umpires playing fast draw and waving flags of surrender for no apparent reason, and the coaches delivering half-time sprays of Aussie invective to huddled masses mostly on their knees, nodding sagely while savagely clutching gaspers.

And I thought about the marks and fists and free-flowing end-to-end stuff without the maggots stopping any of it and I thought about what the quack had said and I thought, “Hmmm, well, there’s not much contact…”  And for fifteen footy-playing years thereafter, my knees were never better – and even as I hobble now I never regretted the decision to play.  Not even a few years later when a heavy ruck contact broke both my cheekbone and my university year. Never regretted it.

My very first game I was told to stand in something called a goal square.  That was as far as the coaching went. So someone kicked me the footy and I wondered what happened next. (What sort of fricking game has four bloody sticks to kick at to confuse a new bloke?).Turned out I was in luck. The goal umpire was one of ours. “Kick it at me,” he yelled. And with that, I kicked my first goal with my first ever touch of a Sherrin.

Nice game, I thought. I could grow to like this.

I grew to take over the ruck. I liked it. I liked practising running up walls to improve my jump (and my pogoing).  I liked the rovers and centremen relying on my tap (and we liked devising systems to call out a tap direction). I liked beating another fella and sending my team onto attack (‘cos it turned out I wasn’t bad at this caper).  I liked the contact (“not much contact, Doc”), and I liked the winning. I really liked the winning.

Winning seemed easy then. A fella could take it for granted.

Mind you, the ruck caper had started badly. Callow youth (me) up against wisdom, experience and raw-boned brutality (my opponent) took his first ruck and his first size eleven in the groin as his ballbag was used for his opponent’s stepladder.

I can still only write about it now in the third person. And I immediately learned to lead with a protective leg up.

Turned out once I started that the game felt familiar. Turned out I had played this game before.

I’d played it on my own in my backyard at home when, as a six-year-old imaginary All Black kicking the backyard footy to myself and running end to end to score, I got sick of all the standing around and heavy breathing I was pretending to do to emulate my heroes, and I forgot about forward passes and scrums and knock-ons and just let loose.  It was great!  (And you never knew when an All Back selector might happen past.)

And I’d played it in school when, whichever shape ball was being played with or whichever game was started, within ten minutes the ball was being kicked and carried and was the locus of a hundred fights wherever it landed on the way to whatever was marking out somewhere to score that day. There were no offsides, no scrums, and barely any rules at all. (Truth be told, I’m still not sure there were any.) We called it Maori soccer. Or Maori rugby. The precise name seemed to depend on whether the ball that day was pointy or round, and which particular bunch of poor saps had lost it to the mob that lunchtime.

I loved it.  Mind you, no-one ever took a mark in Maori rugby. Or Maori soccer. I liked taking marks. My first speccie happened by accident. It happened in a final, which is a very good place for this kind of happy accident to happen, over a protesting opponent who’d never had one happen over him before either. Mind you, in Wellington “rules” — where I was playing then — speccies didn’t happen often. This one just happened when I put my knee up to take a leap and it found someone underneath as I jumped. If only someone had a camera.

I’d played ten years before I saw my first game of actual live footy – something other than our own shambolic Kiwi footy, that is.  That was at the Oval in London, and my West London footy team and I had drunken so much there seemed more than one ball being kicked around, so I’m still not sure it counts.

Before that, the only real footy we could see in New Zealand–by which, according to my mentors back then, could only be meant VFL—was on the box. One game a year. The VFL Grand Final! But back then it wasn’t as simple as just switching on the sports channel to watch The Hallowed Occasion– to watch it in EnZed in those days meant weeks before The Great Day scouring hotels and motels to determine a) if they had a large satellite dish (which very few did), and b) if we could fool them into booking a room that would be inhabited for three hours or so by thirty or so pissed up fools to watch the most important game of the year on an 18-inch screen.

My memories of those grand finals is accordingly only very sketchy. (And to this day I wonder what hotel owners had thought thirty or so blokes were doing together locked in a small room for a few hours of a late afternoon.) But the finals seemed to feature an Ablett bloke, and several Maddens, and some prick called Brereton. And even on a small screen it was thrilling to watch.

That was what were supposed to be doing out on our paddocks, it turned out!

Skill levels in New Zealand footy back then however were mixed. Still are. Given the small player numbers, every team — of which there are still pathetically few — contained the whole range from champions to churls. This made a sport you could play on any level you wanted, even in the same team. (And often on the same day.)

I played in three sides that won finals, one that never did or could, and rep sides that played visiting clubs (Elizabeth from South Australia the most memorable, mostly because I still have the jersey), visiting ADF academies, and (on one occasion in Wellington) the crew of a visiting Australian submarine. Our best chance against these teams was to tackle bloody hard. That was one part of the game at least they weren’t used to. Mind you, it didn’t work out too sell with the ADF team. They were too bloody fast to be able to tackle, and the buggers all knew more about self-defence than we did.

I did playing, coaching, bottle-washing, and ended up as a club president who put such a long-standing curse on our ground it still exists sixteen years later. (Wherein lies a whole other story.)

I’ve never played the game in Australia, and never saw a live game there at all until the new century started when, strangely enough, I discovered on my first visit to Kardinia Park that it felt like home (and therein lies yet another whole story, for which Matthew Scarlett, South Warnambool, Counties Rugby and the West London Wildcats bear a lot of responsibility).  But I did play in London (where I really did discover how hard it is to win a grand final), and I did play for both New Zealand and Great Britain and (even more strangely) for a London Australian selection.

This footy too was a whole ocean of fun, and nowhere near as grand as it sounds. I remember the night before a GB game against Canada discovering our Canadian hosts had all dropped us in the middle of the Toronto nightlife before quietly departing – but not without failing to a man to give us the addresses for our billets. (I’d like to say they paid for it on the field next day. I’d like to say it, but it’s not true.)  I remember too the Times senior sports reporter expressing in his regular Monday column his surprise at what he discovered upon showing up to watch Great Britain play Hong Kong at a Wormwood Scrubs park. After wryly noting the singular appropriateness of the location for a game invented by convicts, he reported that he had gone along expecting to see two teams of Australian Rules players, but discovered early on he was watching two teams of people who played Australian Rules football.

Those were the blokes I mostly learned to play football with.  Blokes who played Australian Rules football. However late it started, I’m bloody glad I discovered them, because through them I discovered the greatest game in the world – and the  most libertarian sport on the planet. (In the words of Dean Richards, “Rules? What rules?”)

About Peter Cresswell

Saw the game for the first time in 1984, and laughed so hard I had to play it myself. Played in NZ and the UK. Never in Australia. Never stopped laughing.

Comments

  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Bonus points Peter if your Elizabeth Eagles jumper was worn by a Platten.

    Almanac goes international, tremendous tale.

  2. daniel flesch says

    Fabulously entertaining piece , Peter , except for calling Dermie a prick. Five Premierships , a Hawtrhorn b. & f. , one All Australian selection. Several suspensions , but universally acknowledged as one who could take it as well as dishing it out. And a good analyst of the game both when playing and since retirement. None of which is prick material. Harrumph.

  3. Love it Peter.

  4. Peter Fuller says

    Peter,
    I empathise with your sense of loss at a non Australian Rules childhood. I thank whatever Deity was responsible for my being born in southern Australia. However, you should probably understand that memory can be treacherous. I suspect that we unconciously edit our memories so that the recollection is better than the lived version. Playing had few highlights for me because I wasn’t very good, and while I delight in dredging from my memory bank some bits and pieces of seeing the game played – at varying skill levels, truth be told, my attention levels prior to my teenage years weren’t all that good.

  5. Luke Reynolds says

    Great stuff Peter. Would be very interested to hear about the Australian Rules competition(s) currently in NZ.

  6. Thank you sirs. Really appreciating your enjoyment.

    @Luke: Competitions are played over summer here, so starting again in September, maybe I could offer some summer footy reports? Local interest here now centres on the International Cup in Melbourne in August, You can follow that on World Footy News — or maybe some of you jokers could file a few international match reports … ?
    But, genuinely, what sort of info would you like to hear about?

    @Peter F.: I must confess, and no offence intended here, but I bear no ill will against any deity for not making me South Australian. But I would like to have discovered the game earlier. And you’re right. My memory is that I played terrifically well. And as long as no-one drags out those old Grand Final videos, I’m sound on that.

    @JTH: Thank you sir.

    @Daniel: I can only report my crystal clear memories (ahem) of sights and sounds and feedback, watching across a series of very smoke-filled rooms. Of course, it’s possible I was influenced against your man by having a South Warnambool-loving Cats fan in my ear for however many Cats-Hawthorn finals there were. ‘Prick’ would have been one of the kinder words used. Think of it as a tribute.

    @Mark: Hmmm, it was some time ago, and more than just names escape me. There were a bunch of brothers as I recall, who were pretty damn good. Mind you that was in comparison to us, who weren’t. Pretty sure my jersey would have come from the opposing ruck, whoever that would been. Does that give me any bragging rights?

  7. Have played with and against a few kiwi players in Asia and the Middle East. Diana Kangaroos had a very handy ruck who despite being about 5″ shorter than myself could get his hand about 6″ higher than me in the contests. Good blokes to have a beer with after a game too…

  8. Simon Dix-Draper says

    Great read.

  9. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Fantastic read Peter really enjoyed your aussie rules journey !

  10. Ripper yarn Peter. I really enjoyed it.

  11. Peter Fuller says

    New Zealand missed out on two opportunities (or dodged two bullets, from a contrary perspective) 100-120 years ago. NZ was included some of the preliminary negotiations which led to the federation of the Australian colonies, and the Shaky Isles participated in the inaugural interstate Australian Rules carnival (1908). What might have been

  12. Great story Peter. Would love to hear more about your South Warrnambool connection.

  13. Love it. And long live a code of football amongst the ‘football family’ that does NOT employ off-side and does – generally – require the kicker to actually get the ball themselves!!! This is an important aspect of the game that was avoided about 150 years ago – Tom Wills did push for a designated kicker (‘cos he was best or 2nd best kicker in the colony) but to today the distinction remains – none of those soft ‘specialist kickers’ of the other codes.

  14. &Michael: Yep, I like a game without needless rules. And I was struck when I started playing and training just how many skills each player needs. I remember once running a ‘have-a-go-day’ to promote footy, amongst a bunch of other sports. We were a bunch of no-name. Next door to us were the Warriors league team, full of stars. But the only ‘skill’ they had them doing was hooking heavy weights onto a chain around their waist, and having them run up the field. Kids were queuing up at our stand, and the Warriors themselves kept wanting to come over and show they knew how to kick too. They didn’t.

    @Litsa: Bloke who taught me to play, who now represents one-third of the Auckland Geelong Supporters Club, was a South Warnambool man, who emigrated here in the mid-70s. If I had a beer for every time I’d been told a story about South Warnambool, I’d be onto my third liver.

    @Peter Fuller. Yep, I’d love to know more about that 1980 interstate carnival, held in NSW I think — and I think NZ did pretty well. By all accounts, the First World War saw footy buried here, and rugby taking over.

    @Malcolm, Simon, Peter_B: Thank you, sirs.

    @Gus: Best ruckman I played against was a bloke playing for Balmain. An inch shorter than me (and I’m at the low end of the ruck scale) but he was aggressively good. Wasn’t bad with a beer, either.

  15. Hi Peter,

    Are you still in Auckland and involved? We’re always interested at World Footy News in getting previews and reviews of seasons in leagues around the world. Our NZ writer lives back in Oz now so he can do big picture stuff but stills needs sources on the ground or is normally happy to have other people write their own articles so long as he knows not to double up. So we’d be delighted to have someone contribute the occasional article on the Auckland league.

    Weekly match reports is probably too much to expect much readership, but as I said, season preview, mid-season updates, reviews, GF write ups, all very welcome. And we have a sharing agreement with the Almanac too for any articles they might want. Let us know if you’re interested.

    Personally I’m always interested in stories that discuss/research the connection between things like Kiwikick (Auskick), the Hawks Cup and what is needed to bring those kids through to senior level and see the number of Auckland sides expand so you’ve got one day say 8 clubs each fielding teams in 2 or 3 divisions and an U18s. Then you’ve got real stability and ability for real gems to emerge, rather than kids be identified from other sports and be shipped off to Australia to have any chance.

    I’m thinking the Kiwis might be just off the pace of Ireland and PNG again this year, I’ve probably got them 3rd, until some more of those Hawks Cup kids come through to senior level. Any local knowledge giving you more confidence.

    Cheers,
    Brett
    Chief Editor and co-founder, worldfootynews.com

  16. Hi Brett: I’ve sent you an email.

  17. Cresser- you undersell yourself. Though you were old and tired by the time you played for NZ at Arafura – you certainly did play in Australia! I blame playing for the Wildcats against the Sussex Swans and for Auckland against Wellington for your tired state! And as Brett said I’d love a hand with NZ stuff on wfn! Yours Gummy!

  18. Rod: Good to hear from you. And please don’t feel left out. The story of how you lost your teeth down a Darwin casino dunny is only missing here because I’m saving it up as the centrepiece of the next ripping yarn. Something to look forward to, eh.

    Not just old and tired, however. Old and tired and crocked and crippled, as it turned out. And since none of you managed to kick it past halfway for the half I was on, I figured it barely even counted as an appearance, let alone enough to say I played.

    It was earlier in early years. We only ever needed to get up to a jog against Sussex.

  19. Well Pete- some things are best forgotten! Obviously you have forgotten the vast talents of the Swans on and off the field!

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