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So, my second full season of AFL is almost upon us. After a ponderous start, I attended seven live games (six at the G after the flat atmosphere of our debut at the Dome) last year and ended up a Pies fan. To keep the fingers ticking over – and to offer an outsider’s view – I’ve decided to add a new page to G’day, G’day in which I, Bruce, will write about footy.

Here goes…

*  *  *

aflImagine this: at the start of the 2009/10 English Premier League season Tottenham Hotspur are drawn to play Newcastle United in the first game of the season: two of the country’s biggest underachievers – no league title in decades, regular flirtations with the lower reaches of the table – yet both still clinging to past glories and able to attract the odd star player.

Then imagine them being asked to play the game at Wembley – and attracting a sellout crowd of more than 90,000 people, with the tickets going three weeks before the game despite the match being shown on free-to-air television.

Sound implausible? Impossible, perhaps.

Well, in less than two hours, a sellout crowd of more than 90,000 people will gather at one of the world’s greatest sporting stadia to watch the first game of this year’s AFL season between teams – Richmond Tigers and Carlton – that finished in the bottom half of the table last year and who haven’t come close to winning a title in years.

Both still cling to past glories and can attract the odd star yet play a sport that is only played professionally in one country in the world – Australia – and has only a tiny percentage of the worldwide pull of football. In fact, the sport is only really popular in two of that country’s eight states (including ACT), coming a distant third or worse in the most populous state (New South Wales).

It’s remarkable by any standards, even more so when one considers that the two teams represent two suburbs of the same city, suburbs only separated from each other by a couple of kilometres; in this respect it’s more akin to Aston Villa vs Birmingham City, perhaps. Again, can you imagine 90,000 turning up to watch them play the first league game of the season?

It’s down to one thing: an obsession – media-driven, but in the blood of most footy-loving Australians anyway – with the return of Ben Cousins: once the greatest player in the game, then a junkie who got caught, now on the road to redemption (the fans of Richmond Tigers hope, at least). Admittedly he is up against the man with whom he once dominated the sport while at the West Coast Eagles, Chris Judd, who will captain Carlton, but it remains incredible that the sport and stories such as this can have such a pull on Australians or, more specifically, Victorians and a few others.

For me, only one story from the many rehashed over the past months needs retelling. It was the day Cousins arrived in Melbourne after being told he could play again after a (very brief) one year ban. No team appeared willing to touch him; even Collingwood, so long a home for the waifs, strays and fallen idols of the game, turned him down, their president Eddie McGuire later claiming footage of an as yet unseen documentary on the player’s destructive lifestyle prevented them from making the expected move.

As part of his readmittance into the game that made him, it was announced that he would undergo an unprecedented number of urine samples (dozens throughout the season) and could even be tested through a hair sample up to three times a year. For this – the most effective way to test for drugs – to take place, a hair sample must be at least 2cm long.

The moment when Cousins walked through Melbourne airport, hair freshly shorn to a number two crew cut (6mm) and, we later learnt, with his body freshly waxed all over was priceless.

“Come test me then, fuckers,” he seemed to be saying. “Oh, you can’t. Ha!”

So, while most experts are tipping another titanic battle between last year’s finalists Geelong and Hawthorn (cheers for the $23 profit in the Grand Final, chaps) for the flag (they were fresh out of trophies when this all started out so had to make do with a flag), the intrigue into whether a raging cokehead really has cleaned up his act could prove just as enthralling.

As for me, much as I’d love to see Collingwood challenge for the title as they’ve boasted they will, I can’t see it. I stand by my comments made after the Pies – Crows match at the G in the second half of the season that, on their day, they have enough star players to beat anyone. Sadly, their day is never often enough. For what it’s worth, I think they’ll finish third.

While we find out, I’ll try and learn the rest of the terms I didn’t pick up last year, hope to work out what is meant by various tactics and, with any luck, pen some wry observations on the game from someone who wasn’t born into the game but, quite unexpectedly, was won over by it in just one season.

My forecast?

Geelong

Hawthorn

Collingwood

Western Bulldogs

Carlton

St Kilda

North Melbourne

Richmond

Adelaide

Brisbane Lions

Essendon

Sydney

Port Adelaide

Fremantle

West Coast

Melbourne

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Moving house is really no excuse for a total lack of activity here for the past two weeks. However, it’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

But, while Bruce attempts to eat into the G’day, G’day backlog, here’s something he got involved with in an attempt to understand his new home…

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Go Pies!

What’s not to love?

Three games into our fledgling career as Aussie Rules fans (enough for a red scout badge) and our knowledge is still pretty sketchy. Goals and behinds we get, but why when the ball goes off the side is it sometimes thrown in by one of the camp guys in bright-coloured shirts and at other times given to one of the teams?

However, it didn’t take a seasoned pro to appreciate the skill from Collingwood’s Dale Thomas at the weekend. His team already in the ascendancy, the long-haired Pie took the ball out wide on the left, snuck infield and, against all expectations, dinked a wee grubber kick through the posts from the tightest of angles for an outrageous goal.

Not quite Daniel Craig

Not quite Daniel Craig, is he?

Reminiscent of Lee Sharpe against Barcelona in 1994, Shane Warne’s first ball in test cricket, or this in its display of pure, audacious skill, it was the ultimate middle finger salute to the battered Geelong. The majority of the 78,000 Friday night MCG crowd shot to their feet in an eruption of unbridled, gutteral joy and high fives left palms stinging with that most pleasurable of pains. Even the neanderthal racist sat behind – who had earlier been threatened with a trip to the mental hospital by her not particularly evolved partner for calling one of her own players an “indigenous monkey” – rose above her innate hatred with a smile.

Our host at the match, proudly wearing his Crows jersey (nope, not switching Channel Islands for you Aussies with your strange terminology*), forgot himself and was on his feet yelling inanely. Hours earlier, when Bruce had declared a soft spot for Collingwood, the Crow had told him:

“Maaaaaate! Everyone hates Collingwood. I support the Crows first and anyone playing Collingwood second.” But here he was, swooning at the twinkling toes of Dale Thomas et al.

It was that kind of night, a rare moment when men transcend their mortal bounds and become gods. Dave, the pork pie hat-wearing lifelong Collingwood fan alongside the Crow, was gushing, barely able to speak.

“This is the most fun I’ve had in years,” he managed between blubs.

Ah bless

“You’ve found your team!” yelled the Crow as the hooter sounded to end the match – an 86-point against the odds smashing, the kind that deserves a commemorative DVD and mug set.

Indeed I had. Like my love for Man Utd in England, my flag is now well and truly nailed to the mast of the most reviled team in the AFL. After all, you get to shout: “GO PIES!” while eating pies. What’s not to like?

My lack of allegiance, apparently. Due to our first home in Australia being in St Kilda, Fran and I had chosen to follow the Saints, only for our first visit to one of their games at the Telstra Dome to leave me feeling bereft of love for the club and in search for one deserving of my heart and soul.

“You can’t just go changing teams like that,” said Fran, bringing me back down to earth with the sombre acceptance one would expect of a lifelong Charlton FC supporter. “I’m staying loyal to St Kilda,” she added as we crossed the park outside the MCG to a backdrop of hundreds of singing fans high on the ecstacy of a Pie-induced endorphin boost.

“GO PIES!” I replied.

a

* What is this “guernsey” nonsense all about?

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