Sydney 118 Port Adelaide 87 (AFL)

Sydney 118 Port Adelaide 87 (20/05/07)

A week after my three game introduction to the AFL in Melbourne & Geelong, I was in Sydney. Having just got used to the sports sections of the newspapers being wall to wall with AFL news and analysis, I suddenly had to adjust to the AFL being relegated to the inner pages in a part of the country where the NRL, rugby league, was king.

Australia’s two main cities do have something of a rivalry, and the press of both cities do seem to enjoy having a friendly dig at anything they can trump “that other lot” over. One Sydney paper, while I was there, devoted the whole front page to that fact David Beckham’s LA Galaxy would be playing a friendly in the city. Of course, the spin on this wasn’t so much that there’d be a friendly later in the year, but that the friendly was being playing in Sydney, and not in Melbourne.

It would be a very one-eyed resident of Melbourne who would not grudgingly admit that Sydney is a nicer city to look at. As much as Melbourne tries to tart up the docklands area as a destination for an evening, it’s never going to complete with Sydney Harbour. There can’t be many cities that can offer not one but two world famous landmarks on their waterfront. They draw your focus so much that you virtually fail to notice a very ugly double-decker railway station at the quayside.

I was very sold on Sydney, but the elevated status of rugby was a bit of a black mark against it. Despite that, when planning the trip I’d decided to give rugby a chance. There was an NRL game at more or less the same time as an AFL game at the SCG. Thinking that three games of AFL would be more than ample, I plumped for the NRL game instead.

That was, at least, until I wandered over the the Sydney Cricket Ground a day or two before the game. Thinking I may never get another chance, I realised I wanted to see one more game of AFL far more than I wanted to give rugby league a chance.

I did visit a virtually deserted Olympic stadium, set up to host the NRL game, on a stadium tour with just two other people. It might not have seemed all that more atmospheric on game day. Despite the NRL being a religion in Sydney, only 12,500 rattled around the Olympic Stadium for the game I missed – exactly half the number who’d watch the Sydney Swans take on Port Adelaide with me on the same day.

Before going into the ground, I popped directly next door to have a look inside the Sydney Football (meaning rugby) Stadium. It actually reminded me of a smaller version of the Olympic Stadium, with large tiers of seats at the sides, more seats in the middle than at the edges, and low behind both goals. All covered in a curving sloping roof. I liked it. If only they’d put the NRL on there instead, I could have made both games.

I’d splashed out and bought a $72 (about £30 then) seat in the modern looking Brewongle Stand – one of those names that could only come out of Australia. I can’t say I knew too much about the SCG, but one thing I had heard of was “The Hill”, the section of seating with a terrace like atmosphere, where the most raucous cricket fans went. So it was something of a susprise to find this quarter of the ground no longer existed, and an empty expanse of bare earth was there instead. The plan was to carry on the very smart two-tier reconstruction round this part of the stadium too.

Once complete, only two small old stands would stand in the way of the new design sweeping round the whole stadium. And I hope that’s the way it stays, as those two small stands must be among the most pictuesque stands anywhere in the sporting world. Although no doubt refurbished since, these two stands were built in the Victorian era, with the main pavillion in 1878 and the larger “Ladies Stand” in 1896. Both are heritage listed, which should ensure their survival, and the difficulty for the general public to get in either means the public probably get the best deal. The new stands probably offer a better view, as well as being able to enjoy the view of the stands themselves, particularly striking when being able to view the city skyline behind over the pavillion.

Other than the new stand to replace the Hill, which is now complete, the rest of the ground dates from the early 1980s, unusually decked out, pavillions apart, with turquiose seats which contrast quite well with Sydney’s red. The pavillions have seats in a rich victorian maroon, but roofs in the same turquiose.

The previous week at Geelong I’d seen the league leaders knocked off their perch. The team that replaced them, Port Adelaide, were the visitors to Sydney this day, to face the hosts whose credentials were being questioned after losing four of the first seven games.

One of the traditions of the game is that when teams enter the field they run through a banner. This is a large sheet of material, about 15m x 5m, designed to fall to pieces when the players run through. The banner generally has a slogan on it relating to the opponents. Sydney’s read “The Power or the Passion”, with “the Power” being the nickname of Port Adelaide. In a league where some nicknames are just nicknames like in English football, and some where the nickname is part of the official club name, like in American sports, Port Adelaide Power is in the latter category. The club itself is incredibly old, being formed in 1870, but played in the South Australia state league until being admitted to the expanding AFL in 1996. With Collingwood already playing in their colours and having the same nickname of the magpies, Port Adelaide had a mid 90s makeover, acquiring the very 90s “teal” into their colour scheme as well as the awkward “Power” nickname.

One other tradition is that every club had a club song. Typically these make “Blue is the Colour” sound like an experimental work by Jean-Michel Jarre, so entrenched in “tradition” are they. Most are well-liked, even if they sound like they should be sung by a barbershop quarter, or at very least a male voice choir. But again, Port Adelaide suffered from their mid 90s birth, being lumbered with a shocking sub-disco number called “the power to win”. It’s the sort of song Carlisle might have brought out to celebrate an appearance at Wembley in a 1990s Autoglass Trophy Final. Home or away, the song of the winning team is always played over the PA system after the final siren. Even if I hadn’t been nominally supporting Sydney beforehand, the sheer horror of having to hear that song again meant I was firmly committed to a home victory.

Maybe it was because unlike the previous game, I wasn’t in the heartland of the game, there wasn’t quite the same passion is the stands that I’d seen at the MCG and at Geelong. Saying that, there was still more than enough to give the place some atmosphere, missing corner excepted. More likely is that the game didn’t have quite the same drama. It was a good game, but Sydney had a blistering first quarter, kicking 6 goals. Typically there are about 25 goals in a game, so it put them in a strong position. Port kicked 3 themselves in the opening quarter, but they had the look of a good side who didn’t quite fancy it. Sydney looked a very hard-working team, in contrast, and that was enough to keep Port Adelaide at arm’s length throughout, even if was alway close enough to be interesting. By the end of the 3rd quarter though, Sydney had pulled out a big enough lead to require something extra special from Port to rescue themselves, but that never seriously looked on the cards. As a result I was able to relax and enjoy the game as it played out on another glorious warm blue-skied “winter” afternoon.

Post game there was another kick-to-kick session on the field, and I took the chance to wander on, dodging the flying footballs, taking in the stadium as it appears to the players.  It was a fine way to end my last afternoon in Australia, and I was so glad I’d come here rather than to the rugby. I was definitely sold on the game. Football will always be my true love, but I’d undoubtedly found myself a mistress.

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