Summer Love

Ah, the triangular arrangement for the opening round of the NAB Cup. It’s like the old Streets Three- In-One ice cream from the sixties. Tonight we get to take a peek at Richmond, Hawthorn and North Melbourne. The Hawks are warm favourites to win the NAB Cup and are expected to press for premiership honours in the season proper. The Roos are desperate to jump at least one place from consecutive ninth finishes on the shoulders of some promising up and comers and a fresh leadership group. They’ll want to make a statement. The Tigers? They usually set the tone for the coming season by losing most of their summer games.

A new season draws in the supporters in t-shirts and shorts on a balmy Melbourne night. Etihad Stadium looks different. The crowd wends its way from Southern Cross through a tunnel that wasn’t there when I last ventured here in September of last year. The tunnel is formed by the scaffolding around a mysterious new building. I take a closer look as I stand in line for tickets for myself, my teenage son and his mate. The building resembles the prow of a huge black battleship surging through the waves. It is separated from the stadium by only a few metres. I am reminded of English soccer club Leyton Orient, which managed to survive by selling off the four corners of its small stadium to developers, who constructed high rise apartments. Prime London real estate for stockbrokers and financial analysts who might like to watch a game of soccer from their balconies. Residents of apartment blocks flanking Etihad Stadium stand on their own balconies and gaze down upon thousands of fans milling around on the concourse. It’s like the old days of grounds where you used to enter the turnstiles from the footpaths of suburban streets; places where nineteenth century terrace houses peeped over the concrete walls of the outer. Only this time the digs are a little more sophisticated and I doubt whether the inhabitants can see the action on the field.

This is the opportunity to see the kids who were drafted in November competing against the old hands. It is a dream come true for them, and a source of wonder for their friends and families. The trades from other clubs sport the colours of their new employers. Some of the rookies get a run as well, even though they may never manage to play a senior game in the regular home and away season. Barrackers get to watch one game as neutrals. There’s plenty of mixing and matching, experimentation and novel match ups. Stars are allowed to play part of one game before putting their feet up for the second. As long as you don’t get blown away, and if there is some damage it is limited to two 20-minute halves, nobody gets too upset.

Richmond and North Melbourne open proceedings, taking up from where they left off in the final round of the 2011 season. Ivan Maric suggests he might go some way toward alleviating the Tigers’ chronic ruck woes. West Adelaide recruit Steve Morris dons the number 38 of his father Kevin, a dual premiership star and best and fairest winner from the club’s golden era in the seventies. He’s hard at the ball and looks like he’s ready for promotion. Harvey scoots around for the Kangaroos and sets the tone for his band of successors in Swallow, Greenwood and Ziebell .

The Tigers and Roos are evenly matched in terms of ability. Richmond leads for most of the bout before late goals to Petrie and Tarrant swing the match their way. They win it by three points.

Hawthorn appears in its predominately white guernsey. While the supporters of the other seventeen clubs would concur with the stylists who have universally condemned any combination of brown and gold, it’s still preferable to their insipid summer outfit. They should wear their distinctive stripes with pride, and hang the fashion police.

The Hawks are out to stamp their mark on the competition. Puopolo boots two goals in the opening minute. Brad Sewell roosts the longest goal of his career when he lands a nine pointer. They lead by 38 to nil with Buddy Franklin playing in the midfield with rookie Sam Gibson as his opponent. Mitchell displays an uncanny sixth sense in the way in which he is able to discern what’s coming and fire out the handball to teammates in the clear. I fear what the Hawks will do to the Tigers a bit later in proceedings.

The Northeners add some respectability to the scoreboard before eventually going down by 25.

The jump in class is painfully evident when Richmond takes on Hawthorn in the final match. Just like they did to the Roos, the Hawks congest the play in their defensive zone, brutalise their young opponents in the clinches and commandeer the ball for their own purposes. Franklin is sent into attack and is too strong for Rance.

But Shane Tuck is just as aggressive in the packs. The Tigers have a dip and the Hawks are unable to break away. They are nine points up late in the match when Jackson earns himself a free kick by courageously lunging at the ball and being pummelled by two defenders. He calmly slots the goal to reduce the margin to three points. Draftee Todd Elton spins out of the pack after a marking contest and handballs it in front of the running Matthew White. He snaps truly and puts the Tiges in front with a couple of minutes to go.

Richmond hangs on to win, much to the delight of their fans, whose celebrations are a little over the top, seeing as we are still in the month of February. But when you’ve been down for as long as we have, what’s wrong with taking the opportunity to kick up the heels a little?

Cleaners are dusting the desks in the offices of one of the buildings next to the stadium. The crane drivers from the construction crews on the surrounding developments have locked up for the night. All three teams had a win tonight, so everybody’s happy and looking forward to the weekend.

My son mucks around with his mate on the train home, extending jokes beyond all reason as  teenage boys tend to do. They gain great mileage out of the fact that Angus Graham hails from King Island, where there are lots of dairy farmers. They also link him to the McDonalds Angry Angus burger. I ignore them as much as possible. After all, I guess I annoyed fellow train travellers coming home from the footy with my teenage mates with our endless Bon Scott impersonations.

The carriage is full of friendly chatter. Three different footy tribes, a couple of lone Melbourne Heart fans and an Indian girl determinedly reading her paperback.

Just a couple of weeks now to autumn, when the year really begins.

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