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."

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