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Letters from Downunder

Aussie Rules, OK?

Submitted by Lindsay Coker, Melbourne Australia

Australia is one of the greatest sporting nations on earth. Per head of population there is more sport played than in any other country, with virtually every sport known to man having a following. Well, perhaps not too many follow gridiron, and ice hockey is down due to global warming, but you get the drift. About 80% of the population follows their favorite game or games, state legislatures put in cash, venues, and the odd sports institute; TV ‘news’ often puts sport first, and nearly everyone seems to have a good time.

The very first was sport was probably cock-fighting or bare-knuckle bouts, closely followed by the more gentlemanly sport of horseracing. Then there was that that strangely fascinating game called cricket, which is not for the fainthearted or the easily bored. The English also had to play rugby, of course, and the ‘forced colonists’ (convicts) had to play it too. A lot of the convicts were Irish and would have no truck with anything of the hated Brits, so they began to play their own version, Irish football. Being of a somewhat excitable nature this had none of the finesse and skill of Rugby, but was a rough and tumble game with about 15 per side trying to kick a ball between two posts. With no holds barred, it didn’t seem to matter if what went through the posts was a ball or a head, provided a goal was scored. It proved to be a great diversion from the misery of an open prison from which you could not escape and live – although a very few did just that – harsh punishments and a weird countryside full of dark skinned natives that might spear you or give you succor.

But that, ladies and gentlemen, is the origin of the best game in the world, Australian Rules football. Over the 200 years or so since those beginnings many changes have been made; heads, for instance, are not allowed to be removed, nor any other limb, (forcibly, that is), and melees bring heavy fines. Seriously, though, to play  Aussie Rules these days you have to be able to run an Olympic marathon, win the high jump, kick or punch a one pound leather ball shaped like an egg, 720x 550 mm in circumferences (28x21”), think on your feet, remember how the rules have been changed this week, refrain from damaging one of the two umpires, tackle the opposition out of the game, mark a spinning, slippery wet ball, and kick it dead straight through two white posts about 20’ apart from a distance between zero and 70 yards, often while running full tilt. It’s a high scoring game, even so. Easy? No. Complex? Only to the dedicated. Exciting? You bet! No marching girls, no hoopla, no bands, maybe a charitable appeal at half time (there are four 25 minute quarters). Each team of 18 (plus three interchange) guarantees a high standard spectacle, with the odd bit of blood, wrenched knees, and concussions thrown in. And lots of money.

There are now 22 senior teams nationwide who play once a week from April to the end of August, attracting crowds between 20 and 110 thousand. As I write this the four week final series is about to get under way – my team is fourth – and are at this moment playing the top team. Wow! They’ve just hit the lead. They’re killing them! Half the population is rabid about their team, and many a fight has broken out over an almost innocent remark – but that’s sport, that’s people. 

And where there’s a sport there’s a bet. The bookie (bookmaker) has given way to two organizations that between them control about 90% of all the bets placed, turning over several billion dollars a year. The other 10 % is mostly unavailable to them because it’s about betting on which of two flies crawling up the wall will fly off first, or something. Yep, we’ll bet on anything. We’re sports mad. Maybe we’re just mad. But we sure enjoy it. So would you, if you came.

Then there’s the odd percent who can’t stand it, prefer mind games, don’t bet, and are probably artistic, or are over 50.

Yes, you’re right. I’m one of them.

From the goalposts,


Read Past Downunder Columns by Lindsay Coker