A Game Where Anything Goes

Australian Rules Football is a mix of soccer, basketball, rugby - and a free-for-all

AN official bounces the football 30 feet in the air. Eight opposing players converge on the "opening bounce," trying to hit the ball with their closed fists to their teammates.

Another Australian Rules Football game has started.

For the next 100 minutes the Magpies of Collingwood and the Blues of Carlton slug it out in their 100th anniversary game before 83,000 fans.

Almost any aggressive action is legal in the country's only major indigenous sport, a combination of soccer, basketball, Gaelic football, rugby, and a free-for-all.

This melee has become a significant part of the culture, especially in Victoria, where the game originated. Most Victorians can sing or hum the folk song "Up There Cazaly," which captures the working-class appeal of the sport. The chorus runs: "Up There Cazaly! In there and fight, Out there and at 'em, Show 'em ya might. Up There Cazaly! Show 'em your hide, Fight like the devil, The crowd's on your side."

There are plays and movies about the sport. One of the country's most successful playwrights, David Williamson, has written a play called "The Club" about the politics within a football club. "In this club no one plays by the rules," says the description on the video made from the movie adaptation.

Sounds a little bit like politics? Listen to Prime Minister Paul Keating, now a keen fan, pledging his loyalty to Collingwood: "So the fact is, I know this is a fiercely tribal place, and tribal loyalty matters, and the notion that the team is bigger than the individual and the Club is bigger than the team.

"That applies also in politics, where the government is bigger than the individual, and the party is bigger than the government."

When such mythology starts to reach cosmic heights, the popular "Cuddabeen Champions" radio program finds a way to bring it back down to earth. "We make fun of a serious activity called football.... I specialize in asking embarrassing questions about players' on-and-off-the-field behavior," says Julian Ross, one of the announcers on the show, which is aired on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation channel.

Because it differs from American football so much, some Americans have a tough time appreciating the sport. Peter Ruehl, a columnist for the Australian Financial Review and a former Baltimore Evening Sun reporter, claims "It's like watching a bunch of ballerinas try to play [American] football." Mr. Ruehl recalls attending a game in Perth and "wondering, 'When is this going to be over?' "

The sport was originally conceived in 1858 as a winter pursuit for cricketers to keep fit, since there is lots of running, leaping, and jumping. Fitness and speed would decide the victor.

As the Saturday Argus wrote in 1877, "It is not the sport of the lazy, or of the effeminate, or of the self-indulgent. The character of a nation is reflected in its sports; and a race which finds such passionate delight in the conflicts of the football field must have a very robust strain of manliness running through it."

Not much has changed.

Take the Collingwood-Carlton match. The players are trying to catch a ball which has been kicked 50 or 60 yards. They jostle and even climb on top of each other to get the ball. If the ball is not caught on the fly, the player who picks up the ball may be tackled. Even if one catches the ball for a "mark," or free kick, it does not seem to stop the aggressive, nonstop play.

After catching a kick, a Carlton player turns around to find a Magpie trying to give him a bear hug. He responds by throwing the other player to the ground by his shirt.

HE crowd is expecting a physical game, since both teams have disliked each other for decades. "I think it will be a no-man-left-standing game," says Tom Benjamin, an official of the Collingwood club and an official timekeeper. (Mr. Benjamin is a second-generation timekeeper; his son Ray is a third-generation Collingwood timekeeper.)

Since Collingwood is a blue-collar area and Carlton is affluent, the match is considered something of a class struggle. "You either love Collingwood or hate it," says Tom McCullough, the director of the Australian Gallery of Sports, which has mounted an exhibit on the club. With 22,000 members, it is one of the largest in the country.

Although aggressive behavior is encouraged, the Australian Football League, the governing body for professional players, reviews videotapes of the games. Since players wear no protective clothing or headgear, high tackles can result in fines or suspension for a prescribed number of games.

Players are allowed to grab other players by the clothing. So many players used to lose their shorts in the middle of the field that the contestants today wear very tight spandex bottoms.

When players are not defending themselves, they are running up and down the oval-shaped field, which can be up to 170 yards wide and 200 yards long. "I don't think any other sport in the world demands so much. You run the equivalent of a half a marathon during the game," says David Parkin, coach of Carlton.

Training for the game is arduous. "We do lots of swimming - we have our own swim coach - do running in the water, just like the San Francisco 49ers, and work on speed, endurance, and strength," says Mr. Parkin.

The game is also demanding because it has a high degree of unpredictability.

"There is none of the military discipline of American football. We have few set plays," says Mr. Parkin. "It's totally up to the players." Most of the players are on the field for the sport, not for the pay, which averages about A$35,000-40,000 (US$26,340-$30,100) per season. "Remuneration is not up to most professional sports," says Jon Dorotich, a Carlton player.

However, for the Carlton players it is all worth it tonight. They outlast Collingwood, which loses by 33 points.

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