Aussie Rules still rules Down Under

Letter from Melbourne

Australians can scarcely contain their excitement as they count down the days to the biggest event of the sporting calendar. No, not the Olympic Games; the Australian Rules grand final.

Australians can scarcely contain their excitement as they count down the days to the biggest event of the sporting calendar. No, not the Olympic Games; the Australian Rules grand final.

Next Saturday's showdown between Essendon and Melbourne, two of the oldest clubs in the Australian Football League, will be the thrilling climax of a competition that arouses passions unrivalled in any other sport. Forget cricket, forget rugby, union or league; across vast swathes of this sports-mad continent, the only game that matters is Aussie Rules.

At the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the spiritual home of Australian sport, a rapt crowd of 85,000 watched Essendon crush Carlton 125-80 in last Saturday's preliminary final. With the Blues missing star players Anthony Koutoufides and Steve Silvagni, the Bombers triumphed with a brave defensive display.

It was sweet revenge for a team whom Carlton beat by just one point in last year's corresponding fixture. The Bombers - having lost just one of their 24 matches - are now red hot favourites to win the championship.

Melbourne, the birthplace of Aussie Rules, will come to a halt for the grand final, with the MCG packed to its 90,000 capacity and ticketless fans glued to their televisions. "It's big, really big," says John Ferguson, a journalist with the city's Herald-Sun newspaper. "It's embedded in the culture."

It's beyond religion. Aussie Rules was first played at the MCG in 1858, barely two decades after the city was settled, and the Victorian Football League, forerunner to the AFL, was founded in 1897 - one year after the first modern Olympiad was staged in Athens.

Victoria still dominates the game, contributing ten of the 16 teams in the league, but Adelaide and Perth are also fanatical about "the footie". Even in New South Wales and Queensland, where rugby league is the principal code, the Sydney Swans and Brisbane Lions command strong followings.

It is fast and furious, tough and skilful, demanding a high degree of fitness, courage and versatility. Players can run the equivalent of a half-marathon during the 100-minute match. Fans love the breakneck pace, the high scoring, the unpredictability of the oval-shaped ball and, above all, the fearsomely athletic "high marks", where players leap high into the air to catch the ball and even use their opponents' backs as stepladders.

"It's the best sport in the world," says Murray White, an Adelaide-born photographer. Playing, he says, is "incredibly exciting... you just die for the ball to come near you".

Newcomers are struck by the relative lack of rules; a perennial joke is that the game should be called Aussie No Rules. There is no offside, and body contact is encouraged.

Based on Gaelic Football, it is by far the most popular sport in Australia, with more than six million tickets sold each season - equivalent to one-third of the population. Although the game has working-class roots, its appeal cuts across social barriers. At last Saturday's match, the great and good of Melbourne society congregated in the members' reserve.

There were also plenty of female faces among the oceans of red and black (Essendon) and navy blue (Carlton); the AFL, which has successfully marketed the game to women, estimates that they make up 30 to 40 per cent of crowds.

One attraction is the kit: skin-tight shorts and sleeveless tops that revealingly show off the players' lean, muscular frames. "Sex wrapped up in sport, all in one," observes one female fan.

More Aboriginal players participate in Aussie Rules than in any other sport. And, despite the on-pitch aggression, there is rarely any crowd trouble, perhaps because of the family atmosphere. A fortnight ago 10,000 fans peacefully invaded the MCG pitch when the young Essendon full-forward Matthew Lloyd scored his 100th goal of the season.

When the Lions forward Daniel Bradshaw withdrew from last week's semi-final against Carlton, after his wife went into labour, most pundits praised his priorities.

John Elliott, the Carlton president, is, thankfully, a rare breed; he was recently reprimanded by the AFL for allegedly pinching women's bottoms at a black-tie dinner.

The Bombers, guided by Kevin Sheedy, their coach for the past 19 years, seem unstoppable in their pursuit of a 16th championship.

But Melbourne, who thrashed the once-mighty Kangaroos (North Melbourne) to reach the grand final, are confident too. The Demons, owned by an orthodox rabbi, Joseph Gutnick, are a young team with fewer expectations upon them. "Never mind the Olympics," says one Demons fan. "This is where the real action will be. This is the ultimate Australian cultural experience."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave long-running series
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Arts and Entertainment
Gregory Porter learnt about his father’s voice at his funeral
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Life and Style
Children at the Leytonstone branch of the Homeless Children's Aid and Adoption Society tuck into their harvest festival gifts, in October 1936
food + drinkThe harvest festival is back, but forget cans of tuna and packets of instant mash
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

KS1 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Supply Teacher re...

KS2 Teaching Supply Wakefield

£140 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Primary Teachers Needed for Supply in Wakefield

£140 - £160 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1&2 Supply Te...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam