Aussie Rules at The Oval

Port Adelaide 88 Western Bulldogs 87 (3rd Nov 2012)

Six days after the NFL swaggered into town, amid publicity of selling out Wembley again, and talk of a London “franchise”, the almost apologetically low-key AFL put on their own overseas exhibition game, almost as if a public service to stranded ex-pats and curious locals.

Perhaps surprisingly, this was actually the 16th exhibition game held at the The Oval since interest was piqued by Channel 4’s mid 1980s coverage of the old VFL. Now the Australian rather the the Victorian Football League, the game has changed hugely, although to most among the English, the biggest difference will be the loss of men umpiring in butchers’ coats. Not only have the coats gone, but one of those umpiring men is now a woman – biologically rather through surgery I hasten to add. Mind you, with Chelsea Roffey wrapped up against the elements in her cap, tracksuit and puffy cold-weather goal umpire jacket, only those with the keenest eyesight would notice.

Also new since then are the two names playing this fixture. Western Bulldogs were called Footscray in the Channel 4 days, while Adelaide, now home to two AFL clubs, didn’t even have one back then, with Port Adelaide joining the AFL in 1997.

Rather older is The Oval, dating back to 1845, being one of the world’s most historic venues. As well as its cricket heritage, being famous as the home of the original “ashes” test 130 years ago, it was also home to 20 of the first 21 FA Cup Finals. Nothing from those days exists inside the ground, with even the pavilion being six years younger, although the gasometer the looms over one side of the pitch has been there since the 1850s. Perhaps only Goodison Park, with a church tucking into one corner, has an external building so synonymous with the ground itself.

The pavilion is the classic distinguished large English pavilion of the type that exists at English crickets grounds and almost nowhere else, all balconies, gables and tiled roofs. You almost imagine the club members within having to be sedated when told that another sport, played by Australians at that, will take place on their pitch.

Four stands flank either side of the pavilion, angling round the pitch, providing extra seating and executive boxes, just about managing to avoid looking like ugly step-sisters next to a more attractive sibling.

Opposite is the newest part of the stadium. Curving elegantly round the Vauxhall End, the four-tier OCS Stand shows that even in the conservative world of cricket grounds, there’s room for modern design. In truth three rows of executive boxes hint at the driving force behind the stand, but the modern concourse with flat-screen TVs (not to mention the fish & chip stall) has improved the lot of the average guy as well.

It’s summer sport brief meant the curved roof possibly didn’t offer too much protection to those on the exposed 4th tier, London Eye visible behind in the distance, while the curving facade to the rear now sprouts a liberal shock of ivy, as if being reclaimed by the wild.

Bringing the gap between these stands is a single tier of open seats at either side, enclosed nicely by tall Victorian terraces, not to mention the landmark of the gasometer just over the street from the boundary wall.

On a cold and blustery, but mercifully dry afternoon, the crowd was at first almost as thin as the 16 page match programme, which sellers tried to pass of as “the Record”, the traditional league-produced match programme of the the AFL. As the game got going though, the number swelled to somewhere approaching the 10,000 figure released – well short of the 19,000 record, but for a game featuring two of the AFL lesser supported teams (the single game between the two in the 2012 season only drew 16000 itself) it wasn’t bad.

Two things quickly became apparent. Firstly, many of the English fans really had no idea what was going on, either tactically, or in the scoring. Secondly, as big as the pitch might look to English eyes, used to 110 yard long football pitches, the pitch at The Oval is actually too small for Aussie Rules football. The 50m arcs from each goal were virtually overlapping the centre square, and a few expressed doubts as to whether they were actually 50m either. This made for quite a congested game, with both sides opting to kick long rather than run with the ball too much. The number of times the ball was bounced on the run could probably be counted on one hand, although it did draw appreciative comments from the English fans behind me. Also impressing were a few pretty decent marks, with one or two high catches drawing appreciative cheers from the crowd.

With so many neutrals in the crowd, even among the ex-pats, it was never going to be the most intense atmosphere at a sporting event, and the early stages did at times feel like the pre-season friendly that is was. As darkness fell, and the beers started to do their job, it started to feel more like a contest.

The Western Bulldogs, on the other hand, seemed determined to not make it one. Seeming to have the edge among the support among the crowd, including some locals (hearing Alf Garnett sound-a-likes shouting “Come on bulldogs!” is certainly unusual) they looked to be overrunning Port Adelaide for most of the match. Early in the 3rd period they were six goals ahead, and it looked all over bar the shouting, Cockney or otherwise.

Port Adelaide, who’d kicked a meagre three goals all night, suddenly went mental, crashing in the next nine goals without reply, to take the lead in the 4th quarter. The cynic in me could suggest they came back a little too easily, but after watching my own football team lose after being 4-0 up a few days earlier, I wasn’t taking big leads for granted.

The shock of going behind spurred the Bulldogs into life, and they re-establish command, going two goals and eleven points ahead fairly late in the game. How late was hard to tell as the countdown clock had ceased to work after the first quarter, but Port wasted little time pulling one back to set up a tense finish – five points behind, knowing a goal would probably win the game. With time running out, probably, they got a chance to kick the winner, taking a mark by the boundary near the 50(ish) metre line. From this tight angle they kicked their 11th consecutive successful goal attempt to take the one point lead they kept until the final siren around 30 seconds later.

After a five year absence, a period of time which coincided exactly with me getting into the sport, I could at last walk out of a ground having seen a decent game of “footy”, without having to be on the other side of the world to do so. So yes, the NFL might well steal the thunder over the overseas sports exhibitions, with their £150 tickets, cheerleaders and in-your-face razzmatazz, but give me a corner of London with fans in knitted bar scarves, pies, beer, pay on the gate admission and players who seem to love playing the game, and I’ll be happy. I just hope I don’t have to wait another five years for the next one.

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