The practice match – Footy is life

They were old for footballers.  Bald or balding, grey or dyed, solid, thin and heavy.  Someone said it was a great day to play footy.  Someone said every day is a great day to play footy.  Some were in various stages of undress, laughing and joking.  Others were ready and edgy, grim-faced and steely-eyed.
It ain’t no fun waiting round to play footy.  It was cool and overcast.  A gentle breeze.  Perfect for footy.  Let’s get it on…


Greensborough is about 17 kilometres north-east of Melbourne.  Big houses and bushland.  Not semi-rural but it was once.  It’s a place where people would feed birds and catch glimpses of rabbits and foxes.


Anthony Beale Reserve consists of two ovals, a junior and senior oval with shared clubrooms and facilities.  It’s a good set-up for a suburban club still in the process of renovation.


The Superules teams were scheduled to play on the junior oval.  I took a walk on the ground.  The astro-turfed cricket pitch was covered by small rubber shavings.  It was slippery in runners.  In stops it would feel like running on wet concrete.


The oval was on a slope.  I guessed it was about two meters from the northern goals to the southern goals.  It was in reasonable shape, a lot of bare patches and clumps of short grass, a fast track.  Thankfully it wasn’t wet or there’d be plenty of mud.


I stood at the fifty meter arc and figured I could make the distance, which meant I wasn’t fifty metres out from goal.  The arc was a ruse.


Back in the rooms


I was handed the valuables bag.  Men I’ve never met entrusted me with their keys, wallets and money.


‘Thanks fellas,’ I said.  ‘I’m just going to the TAB.’ I emptied the blue shopping bag and crammed the contents into a small medical bag among the bandages, pads and Band-Aids.


Tappers rubbed legs and backs.  He’s a club stalwart, short, squat and old, the object of friendly jokes.  He’s also worth talking to.  Without pride he’ll tell you his career in footy and athletics has been remarkable.  He played more than 700 games in the VFA and local leagues.  He coached plenty of juniors who played VFL or AFL.  He also coached track and field stars in athletics.


Football clubs need people like Tappers and their dedication.


The president of the club, Paul Turner, was getting a rub.  The masseuse, a woman called Sarah, tried to get some life into his legs.


‘He likes it when you punch him on the back,’ I said.


She punched his back.  The sound bounced around the room.  Turner’s oof made everyone laugh.

She rubbed the spot then dug her knuckles into his hamstrings.  When Turner got up, a man with an expansive black beard lay down.  Sarah went to work.


Turner wandered the room, geeing people up.  A red mark stood out on his back.  Sarah had really whacked him.


When they players ran out, the warm up lap was ragged, a core group and stragglers.  They passed a few balls.  Encouragement could be heard from the boundary.


Each club, Coburg, Greensborough and Plenty Valley would play five 15 minute quarters across three hours.  It was going to sort out those who hadn’t trained.


In the opening game between Plenty Valley and Greensborough, a player lasted one kick, a shot at goal that tore his hamstring.  Across the boundary, he sought solace in his wife and children.  A man patted him on the back.


‘Took it in,’ the player said.  ‘Didn’t think it was bad enough to tear.’


No matter how old men are, they still play with injury.  We’ve all done it.  It could set that player back a month.


The action on the field was entertaining


It was footy played hard by men older than 40.  Tackles stuck, others were slipped.  There was skills, clangers and moments of trepidation and comedy.


Some ran on legs that couldn’t or wouldn’t bend at the knee.  Others ran to one contest and didn’t get to the next one.  Marks stuck and were dropped.  Handpasses hit the tit, others hit the ankle.


It was beautiful to watch.


Coburg lost their first quarter.  In the rooms, the coach, Adam Bruni, wasn’t happy with his flankers and pockets.


‘Don’t get in the way of the full forward,’ Bruni said.  ‘I’ve said this to every full forward in every team I’ve coached.’  His voice was a warning.  ‘If you’re playing full forward in my team and a teammate gets in the way, go through him.  He won’t do it again.’


He eyeballed the offenders.  ‘You’re not there to go for marks.  Get the crumbs.’


Bruni drew them together.  ‘Okay, all I have to say about that quarter is we won it but not on the scoreboard.  We had more of the ball than they did but we missed targets and opportunities.’


He didn’t yell.  He was measured yet firm.


‘We had opportunities.  That’s the important thing.  We got it, we just need to use it better.  And use your voice.  I can barely hear you.  If I can’t hear you, your teammates can’t, so talk it up.’


The players yelled encouragement.


When they went back out, some looked tired after five minutes but they kept pressing on.  The fittest started finding space and getting the ball.  Those with skills could be relied upon.  Those without skills used experience and determination.  It was footy played in slow motion, with all the dedication and endeavour they could muster.


It was desperate, brutal football.  It was calamity.  It was football most people never see.


I felt privileged.  This was grass roots footy, keeping the dream alive.  When the siren went the combatants separated and the squawks of encouragement, great mark, awesome shepherd, getting it a lot, keep doing what you’re doing, sounded out across the field.


They players were weary


Bruni called them in.  I was right there, clutching the valuables bag and living these aged dreams.


‘You’ve got to keep your feet,’ he said.  ‘You’re nothing on the ground.  In a one on one, when you go to ground your opponent gets a fifty metre advantage.  He gets the ball and kicks it down field, so if you’re in a contest keep your feet.’


Everyone listened


Bruni looked at his notes.  ‘I’m seeing good team work.  You’re finding your teammates but we’ve got too many fumbles.  If can’t pick up that ball keep it in front of you.  That way you’ve got a chance.  And listen to the voice.  I’ve seen us with the ball on the backline and there’s loose men on the wing and we’re kicking to a contest so listen for the voice.’


He started coughing and palmed his chest.  ‘When you’ve got it take the first option.  Don’t go back into trouble.  Look up and move it on.  If you’re under pressure kick it forty meters up the field instead of turning into trouble and giving up a free kick.’


Bruni took a deep breath.  ‘I don’t want anyone hanging off a teammate in trouble.  Get to the contest and help.’


He looked at his notes.  ‘Okay, I’m going to swing it around.’


Every defender became a forward and vice-versa.  The midfield stayed the same, along with the rucks.


Coburg were better through the third quarter.  They kicked with the slope.  Though scores weren’t being kept, they kicked more goals.


An incident, though, where the two pockets ran behind a marking contest twenty metres out angered Bruni.


‘Everyone wants easy kicks in this game,’ he said.  ‘Small forwards don’t run behind the pack looking for cheap kicks.  If you do that you’re not going to play.’


He pointed to the reserves coach, Jamie Arnold.  ‘Write that down.’  Bruni looked around.  ‘Where’s the runner?’


The runner, Vinnie, was dressed to play but wore a fluoro vest over his jumper.  He was chatting to someone over the fence.  He was going to play the last quarter because it would help with his fitness.


Vinnie wasn’t watching the game but heard his name.


‘Here I am,’ he said and ran onto the field.


Bruni watched him run then called him back.  People were laughing as Vinnie ran back.


‘Don’t you want to know the message I want you to deliver?’ Bruni said.


‘I guess so.’  Vinnie was nodding.


‘Tell the pockets not to run behind the packs looking for easy kicks.’


Vinnie ran to the pockets and relayed the message then turned around and trotted off.  It was the only time he ran onto the field to deliver a message for the whole day.


A Coburg forward took a strong mark but he pushed his opponent in the back.  The umpire paid a free kick.  The player was mystified, like he’d just learned the hands in the back rule.


Two possessions later, he had it back again and kicked a goal.  Hero to villain.  That’s footy.


Back in the rooms


A few players got a rubdown.  No one was injured.  Players on the other teams were.


‘They don’t train and wonder why they get injured,’ Turner said.


Bruni walked into the room.  Everyone went quiet.  He stood in the centre.


‘There’s no talk when a player is free, so get your voice going.  And when you’ve got the ball from a mark or kick, look inside.  There’s free men but they’re not talking.  So look inside and talk.’


Sarah, who had finished a massage, stuck her left foot out and tried to trip a player as he walked past the bench.


He ignored it despite the slight stumble.  I looked at her.


‘Are you trying to create work for yourself?’


She shrugged.


I looked at Mark Gillman.  He’d been lying on the floor ever since he got into the rooms, ice packs inside his shorts chilling his groin muscles.  He was sweating despite the cool, red-face, eyes closed, looking worn out.


‘When you’ve got a mark or a free kick, take your time,’ Bruni said. ‘Don’t kick off a step.  No one can kick off a step.  You’ll turn it over every time.’  He smiled.  ‘Okay, let’s go.’

The players came together, shouting encouragement.  Gillman pulled the ice packs from his shorts and got up.  He walked like he was in a sack.


I clutched the medical bag and followed the players outside.  Tappers found me at the fence.


‘Are you a trainer today,’ he asked, pointing at the medical bag.


‘I’m holding the valuables,’ I said.  ‘No one’s going to rob a man holding a bag with a red cross on it.’


Tappers grinned.  ‘Good thinking.’


I smiled.  ‘It’s supposed to be warm isn’t it?’


‘This is warm.’


We laughed.  I had my North Melbourne hoodie on.  Tappers was wearing a t-shirt.


The fifth quarter


The fittest dominated.  Gillman, despite aching groins, was the standout.  Turner, Jarrod and Ryan got plenty of it.  Late in the quarter, players were down on haunches, others walking on the spot.  They were all fighting for air, when will this quarter end?


An opposition player went down.  Sarah ran onto the field to administer relief.  When she got back, she said he’d taken an errant forearm, a glancing blow, to the jaw.  He was fine, no blood or wide eyes.


A few minutes later, she ran onto the main oval after witnessing an A-grade another player take a head knock.  She was panting when she got back.


‘You’ve run a long way,’ I said.


‘He shrugged me off,’ she said.  ‘He’s okay.’


I liked her commitment, trying to help the opposition and a player on another oval.


I watched Coburg.  The ball was hard to get.  It was tough.  The old umpires defended their decisions to those on the boundary.  The banter was basic, he’s got a neck, I didn’t see it, he got a handpass away, I didn’t see it, it was touched, I didn’t hear it.


When the quarter finished they gathered on the field.  Arnold looked at his clipboard.


‘That was the best quarter,’ he said.  ‘Bruni isn’t going to say anything negative, not after a quarter like that.’


They cheered each other.  Some were slumped on the ground, exhausted.  Others stood heaving breath.  No one had anything left.  A few moved through the group, patting teammates on the shoulder or hunkering down and offering encouragement.


Bruni stepped into the centre.


‘Well done,’ he said.  ‘That’s what I’m looking for.  Commitment for the ball.’


I stood in the background, holding the bag.  Football requires commitment.  No one can play without it.  I’d seen it all day.


‘Just a couple of things,’ Bruni said.  ‘We need to kick more goals from the possessions we get.  So we’ll work on that.  We don’t want to miss goals from 20 out so we’ll work on that too.’


He looked at the notes Arnold had taken.


‘One more thing, and I said it earlier today, we took the wrong option at times but that’s what I was saying about talk and we can fix that too.’


Bruni offered praise and rebukes without yelling or swearing.


Turner piped up.  ‘Come on fellas, get to training on Tuesday.  It’s one night a week.  We can all do that.’


In the rooms the last time


The banter flowed, about goals, bad bounces, setting up a teammate and Pete Cummins who made several unnecessary blind-turns without being chased before bouncing through a goal from the pocket.


It was the highlight of the day.  Apparently he’d ignored 14 teammates while twirling and they were all in better position.


‘I’m just glad I kicked the fucking thing,’ he said.


As they undressed and changed into walk-around clothes, I opened the medical bag.  ‘Come and get your stuff,’ I said.  ‘I’ve taken your money, credit cards and sold your cars.  Our horse didn’t come in.’


Sarah rubbed a few men down.  She’d earned her money.  Those old men appreciate what she does.  She’s part of the team.


When the massages were over, she scrunched up small portions of adhesive tape and dropped the sticky balls it into the hood of Arnold’s hoody.


I shook my head.  She held a finger to her lips and put more into the hood.  It might take him months to find it.


Superules is footy played by passionate men.  I’d seen the brilliance.  Age is irrelevant when you want to play footy.



About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…


  1. I spent four seasons with Melbourne in the Vic Metro Superrules Div 2.

    Four of the best years on the sports field that I’ve ever had, but I’m paying for it now – crook back, crook knees and ankles.

    Change the names and the location but the plot is exactly the same at every Supers club, I reckon. great stuff Matt!

  2. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Terrific write-up Matt,
    As the ‘keeper of the keys’ you capture the passion, teamwork and frustration of not being able to do what you once could beautifully. Adam Bruni was on Collingwood’s list in 1990-91. Watched him play some excellent reserves games. Was stiff not to play senior footy at the Pies.
    Great meeting and chatting with you and Rob last week. Must do it again soon. Cheers

  3. Steve,
    Watching them play I figured I could too.
    But I’ve had injuries associated with running and my back is dicey.
    Still, I’d like to do it again, just one more season…
    Thanks for the info on Bruni. I didn’t know that. I didn’t get a chance to talk to him.
    Wish I did. I think I will.
    Great chatting to you too.
    That function got me thinking about moving back to Melbourne, or at least coming down for a few functions…

  4. Michael Christiansen says

    Ironically – after 4 years with Melbourne Superules (including the premiership in 2012….great highlight esp at this age and sharing with family and kids) – I’ve moved to Plenty Valley and this day was my first hit out with my new club (much closer to home). The field sloping upwards and trying to associate names and faces still – at least now with the aid of numbered tops.

    Mid June now and we had snuck into 2nd – dropped 2 games by less than a kick. We’re perhaps better than we might have hoped. Alas Melbourne are struggling.

    This week the Melb lads faced up to Corey McGrath, Joe Misiti and Chris Johnson and got spanked. We (PV) took on and overcame Marcellin even with their star studded line up of Paul Hudson, Mark Graham, Dean Rice, Kris Barlow, Richard Taylor and Stuart Anderson.

    I never thought I’d beat one of these sides – 2 years ago for Melbourne we got done by a Marcellin line up including Vandenberg, Joel Smith, Harford and for his only game Paul Salmon (who I got to play on for a while).

    These are the latter career highlights for guys who perhaps played bruise free footy during the years when old school coaches didn’t quite understand zone defence or that I was better off standing 5m in front of my stronger opponent than standing side by side for him to push me aside all too easily.

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