The man who scored a try against the All Blacks, then won an AFL Flag.

On Friday afternoon a cryptic photo appeared on my Twitter feed. The picture was of an emptied locker of the Sydney Swans dressing rooms deep under the Brewongle Stand, with a pair of boots left dangling by their laces. It took me a moment to figure it out, and then I smiled.

We live in a world which has recently become obsessed with professional sportsmen changing into new careers. From Jarryd Hayne’s move from rugby league to the San Francisco 49er’s in the NFL, Anthony Mundine abandoning rugby league to become a boxer, Israel Folau from league to AFL and now rugby union.

The rugby codes have a long history of code hoppers beginning with Dally Messenger through to the Thornett brothers and modern day names as Ray Price, Michael O’Connor, Ricky Stuart and Scott Gourley to name a few.

All of these conversions were headline making affairs, driven as a “win” for the various codes who happened to be the beneficiary of the move.

Enter the six foot, seven inch tall Mike Pyke.

Typical of a Canadian growing up on the Pacific coast he played ice-hockey and basketball. Introduced to rugby union at university he took up the game and in 2004 was the top point scorer in the British Columbia Premier League from his preferred position as fullback. He was offered a professional contract in Edinburgh and played his first Test for Canada against Japan at the age of 20.

A regular in the Test team for the next few years the most memorable highlight came from the Canadian tour of New Zealand in preparation for the 2007 World Cup in France. Lining up on the right wing he anticipated a long pass from the All Black’s legend Dan Carter and upon making the intercept, sprinted 80 metres to score a rare try in a test against New Zealand. The All Blacks won 64 to 13.

He played 17 tests, scoring 30 points for his country. Injuries were slowing him down and he knew his time as a fullback or winger was limited. Someone suggested to him that strange game in Australia, you know the one where the ref’s wear those silly hats and point their fingers when a goal is scored, would be perfect for a 200 centimetre, 100 kilo man with a big heart.

So a DVD show reel was put together and sent to various player agents in Melbourne. Coincidently the AFL had a new draft rule in place which was aimed to encourage athletes outside of Australia to a professional AFL career.

The Sydney Swans, having worked a lot with local rugby league and union coaches over the years to improve their tackling and recognise home grown talent better suited to aussie rules football, were in a position to see the potential before them. He was picked up in the 4th round of the 2008 draft as the 57th overall pick to be in the ruck behind Darren Jolley and Jesse White.

Commentators and scribes described him as nothing more than an exotic experiment through to the most infamous statements of it being a “joke” and the worst player to ever play in the AFL.

From the man himself, there were no grandiose statements of how good he is. Just a promise to work hard and to learn how to play this unique game.

His first game of aussie rules was against Port Adelaide in the NAB Challenge, but the first five weeks of the regular season he played in the reserves who were playing in the ACT league at the time.

Senior debut was against StKilda in round six. At the end of the 2010 season he was offered a new 2 year contract to continue with the Swans.

His 2011 season was restricted to just 2 games due to injury. By 2012 he was a regular starter in a team on its way to a premiership. When Shane Mumford was subbed out of the Grand Final early in the final quarter, it was up to Pyke to dominate the ruck. Sixteen disposals and three contested marks in the final quarter was instrumental to the Swans victory. The first non-Irish international to win a Premiership.

In recent years, new players to the club have received their induction to becoming a “Blood Brother” from Mike Pyke.

Off the field, he has earned a Master’s Degree in Commerce from Sydney University and has a young family.

The manner in which he announced his retirement from the game was a reflection of how he arrived into the game and the manner in which he played the game. Each of his 46 senior goals were celebrated with little more than a clench of the fist as he turned to the centre square to get ready for the bounce.

The boots may have been hung up, but his roots are firmly planted in the city of Sydney.

Read more excellent sports writing at www.footyalmanac.com.au

About Wayne Ball

Tragic fan of the Australian and NSW cricket teams (for those of you outside NSW, there is a difference, despite what David Hookes said). Not a fan of T20. Penrith Panthers are the only club of decency and all which is good in Rugby League, the Waratah's were once the national team of Rugby Union, the first non Victorian team in the VFL/AFL is the Sydney Swans, and they all enjoy my passionate support. Sings for Wanderers. Internationally, I have been to see the Oakland Athletics and Green Bay Packers play. One day, I'll see Norwich City play for the FA Cup at Wembley.

Comments

  1. Nice work Wayne.
    It really is one of the top stories to come out of the AFL in recent time. Mike made himself an in-depth student of the game, to the point that there were jokes about him explaining the rules to the umps. He was pretty quick for such a big frame, became the strongest in the gym at the Swans and his tap work and overhead marking were of a very high (no pun intended) standard. As you point out, his final quarter in the 2012 GF was a monster, amazing figures.

  2. Peter Fuller says:

    Great tribute Wayne, I’m in awe of these fellows who come to the game so late and achieve on the scale that Pyke, Sean Wight, Jim Stynes and Tadgh Kennelly have managed. Obviously there is an element of skill transferability, yet there is so much about Aussie Rules which requires such a range of competencies, as well as the need to conform to particular team strategies. Well done M. Pyke.

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