Aussie Rules: Oz dogs have their day

The Oval was invaded and different rules applied.
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The Independent Online
AT WATERLOO, the sullen faces painted red and white were heading north towards Wembley. The cheerful ones saying "g'day" and calling everybody "mate" gravitated in the direction of the Foster's Oval and the annual celebration of Aussie Rules, a sport entirely incomprehensible to Poms and other aliens.

Not that there were many of those in yesterday's crowd of 12,000. "I don't think there is anybody here who is not from south of the Equator," a distinguished Australian journalist informed his office. Just as well, or alarm bells would have been ringing in the cop shops of south London as the spectators came swarming on to the field at the end of each 25- minute quarter. Oval pitch invasion shock horror.

Not really, mate. Just a few hundred friendly wannabes who had brought their balls with them, so to speak, for a friendly punt-about on the sacred turf during intervals which are supposed to be for two minutes, but which stretched to 15 thanks to the impromptu entertainment. While they were thus engaged, the sheilas, who know their place even in London, were weaving their way around the boundaries carrying three-stacks of beer for their fellas.

The "invasions" started as early as the first goal, when a punter cavorted on to the playing area, armed with two white flags, to ape the official goal judge in that unique, part- flamenco, part-semaphoring action by the men wearing butcher-shop coats and trilbies which signals a score. Later, there were a couple of streakers, one sporting sunglasses. Male, of course, this being a blokeish occasion. They were eventually ushered behind the barriers and requested to put their trousers back on. Then five sheilas ran on in formation, waving gaily but wearing bras. "That's enough of that," admonished the broadcaster. "Now back to the footie."

It seemed a bit sacrilegious to that section of sacred turf on which Len Hutton once made 364 and Don Bradman was bowled for a duck on his Test farewell. But if the players were allowed to run over the wicket area, the crowds were persuaded not to.

The teams were Western Bulldogs and St Kilda, two of the ten sides from Melbourne which make up the 16-team Australian Football League. Very much a one-city sport, this. Both have a great tradition, matched only by a long history of non-achievement. The Bulldogs, from the working-class suburb of Footscray and known as the Doggies or Scraggies, won their only Premiership title in 1954. Footscray, according to your correspondent's Australian mole, is "Merv Hughes country".

St Kilda, a south Melbourne suburb which is half flash and half red-light district, is, in cricketing terms, Shane Warne country - the famous spinner once played for St Kilda's second team. "The Saints have experienced limited success on the field," said the handout. One title in 1966.

Aussie Rules evolved from Gaelic football, played by immigrants and convicts, and given official status, this being Australia, at a meeting in a pub in 1858. The game is rugged. It stops for nothing. "If a player is hurt they play around him," said my mole. "If he is dead they still play around him."

Having originated on cricket fields and parks in Australia, sometimes being played without benefit of boundaries, the game was quite at home at the Oval. Patrolling the boundary was the biggest drawcard of the afternoon, a former star called Roberto Dipierdomenica, who is known as Dipper and whose role, between fighting off autograph seekers, was to act as "Boundary Rider" for Australian Channel 7 TV.

One of the most eye- catching things about this game is that throw-ins are taken over the shoulder, blind. The explanation? That way they can't be accused of favouritism.

Today there is another feast of footie in Dublin when an All-Australia team takes on an All-Ireland one in a mixed-rules game. But it won't be more entertaining than this session.

Oh yes, the result. The Bulldogs won by 95 points to 72. No chance of a no-score draw here, mate.