IF YOU live in Melbourne for any length of time, you will invariably end up at an Australian rules football match. That is if you have any degree of curiosity – I know people who have lived here for 40+ years and not bothered.
But as a journalist, one often feels that one should explore aspects of one’s living environment that wield a fairly powerful spell on people and it was that that drove me to accept an invitation from a close friend to attend a game between North Melbourne and Geelong a few days ago.
The AFL is played as a league of 22 rounds until the end of August; after that in September the teams which have finished one to eight on the ladder play finals, resulting in the champion emerging on the last Saturday in September. It is a massive occasion for the city, hosted at the grand old Melbourne Cricket Ground, a ground that can accommodate 100,000 people.
But the stadium which I went to is smaller, holding about 45,000 when full. It has a roof that is closed due to the cold and this made the game more watchable. But the game itself… well, read what follows.
An AFL game has four quarters of 20 minutes actual playing time each. This means the actual time on the clock is closer to 30 minutes. There are two breaks of 10 minutes each and one of 20 minutes. This year, Geelong is assured of playing in the finals in September; not so North Melbourne unless it wins all its remaining games from now on and other circumstances turn out right.
I have watched many games on TV but what one sees live is quite different. There were several aspects that caught my attention. One, the number of non-players who are on the ground while play is going on. At one stage I counted six. Some of these worthies are there to provide water and/or supplements to players. Others are there to provide instructions from one or the other coach.
The fact that they are allowed to remain within the playing area while the game is on makes it look very untidy. I have not seen this happen in any other game; indeed, in many other games a team that has more than the regulation number on-field is penalised.
And then the instructions. Do players need to be told every five minutes or so what to do? Isn’t there a captain on the field who communicates with the rest? Again, in no other game have I seen the need for so many instructions to be sent to players – after all, every 30 minutes, the coach can meet the players and tell them what to do. And they are surely mature enough to stick to the script for half an hour? Soccer runs for 45 minutes a half, rugby union for 40. I have never seen people wandering on to the field to convey instructions. Not even in cricket where a session runs for two hours. This adds to the lack of professionalism and untidiness.
The supporters, again, are worth seeing. My seat was among a crowd which was quite obviously behind Geelong. I noticed a gentleman sitting to the right of me and behind. He looked like your average working man, a decent hard-working bloke. But the type of invective that emanated from his lips every time the umpires did something that was deemed to be against Geelong had to be heard to be believed. Two seats away from me was an old couple, who looked to be on the wrong side of 70. Every time Geelong scored a goal, the old lady would go into the most extraordinary contortions. Anything good done by North Melbourne only resulted in loud boos.
The stadium food stalls rip people off in style. I bought a chicken burger and a small container of fish and chips and paid a little more than $25 for it. My friend had a glass or two of beer — about 200 ml each — and paid $7 per glass, roughly twice the price outside.
But the sidelights were minor considered with the lukewarm nature of the game. It was slow and the physicality that I have witnessed in soccer and rugby games was missing. There were six umpires on the field, all of whom seemed to be oblivious to the fact that players from both sides regularly held back their rivals from getting to the ball. This is supposed to be penalised with a free kick but it never happened. But there were several cases where a player touched a rival in the back – a very light touch, mind you – but conceded a free kick.
In the end, North Melbourne won by a margin of 10 points. Given that they have made a habit this season of grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory, this was greeted with howls of joy by their supporters. Geelong’s backers were not that bothered; they will play in the finals anyway.
And it marks my first and last visit to an AFL game. Educative in some aspects, disappointing in others. I just wonder how people watch this spectacle live, week in and week out.