Australian Rules Football: McCartney realises his goal at end of long and painful road

Letter from Australia
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There is little room for sentiment in the cut-throat world of Australian Rules football and, after 14 seasons, Jason McCartney was destined for the scrapheap.

Then came last October's bombing of two Bali nightclubs, which left McCartney so badly burned that his father, Ian, did not recognise him. He spent 10 days in intensive care and, weeks later, could barely climb a flight of stairs. Unbowed, he declared that he had two goals: to marry his fiancée, Nerissa Vanderheyden, and to play for his beloved team, the Kangaroos, once again.

Just before Christmas, McCartney walked down the aisle with Vanderheyden, and on Friday night he walked on to the pitch at Melbourne's Docklands Stadium wearing a pressure suit to protect his ravaged body and a jersey with the figures 88 and 202 on the front. Eighty-eight Australians died in Bali; 202 people were killed overall.

It had been a long and painful road to recovery and, for many, the mere fact of McCartney's presence was achievement enough. But, fittingly, he scored one of the goals that gave the Kangaroos a three-point victory over their rival Melbourne team, the Richmond Tigers. Then, drenched in sweat, he stood in the middle of the pitch and told the crowd that he planned to hang up his boots.

"I think I've used up every inch of my determination and my fitness and my mental effort," he said. "I'll go out on a great note. It's been a tough time, and that's enough for me, mate."

One veteran television commentator, Brett Clancy, reported that many fans were in tears. He himself admitted: "I had a lump in my throat. It's a night I'll never forget." McCartney's comeback, less than eight months after he suffered life-threatening injuries, was remarkable. But he had also come to symbolise Australia's struggle to recover from the wounds inflicted by the worst peacetime catastrophe in the nation's history.

Like many of his fellow victims, McCartney was a decent, down-to-earth Aussie letting his hair down in Bali at the end of the football season. The 29-year-old was was drinking in Paddy's Bar with a former Kangaroos team-mate, Mick Martyn, when acar bomb exploded outside the Sari nightclub, across the street.

McCartney suffered terrible burns to his legs, face, arms and chest. But, rather than allow Martyn to take him to hospital, he went back into the bar and rescued two young sisters, Samantha and Leanne Woodgate. He then refused a seat on the first Royal Australian Air Force plane that was ferrying the wounded home, on the grounds that others were in worse shape.

The Kangaroos had been on the verge of ditching McCartney before Bali. Now, as he lay in Melbourne's Alfred Hospital with 50 per cent burns, the club offered him another one-year contract. Was it a spectacular leap of faith, or a cynical recognition that to do otherwise would be a public relations disaster? Whatever the answer, McCartney sprang to the challenge. He underwent a gruelling regime to regain his fitness and last March began playing with the Kangaroos' feeder club, Port Melbourne. It was ability and not compassion that earned him a place in the 22 on Friday night.

The Woodgate sisters were among those who cheered and wept for him at Docklands Stadium. The three have become friends since they staggered out of Paddy's Bar. Also in the crowd was Thomas Kossman, the Alfred Hospital's head of trauma services, who has described McCartney's feat in returning to élite competition as phenomenal.

In a speech to the crowd, the Kangaroos president, Alan Aylett, described McCartney as "one of the faces of the Bali tragedy and a symbol of the determination of so many to rebuild their lives". He also gave a hint of how difficult his journey had been. Demoralised by a calf injury, Aylett revealed, McCartney had telephoned his mother, Jan, three weeks earlier and told her that he planned to give up.

His mother would have none of it. "Jan strongly reminded Jason that she and he had not travelled hundreds of kilometres to play the game he loved just to give up now because of a muscle injury caused by the Bali bombers," Aylett said. "That fleeting moment of self-doubt soon gave way to a new desire to fight back and now, less than a month later, he has reached his goal."