Some well crafted words
Senior sports writer for The Age newspaper Martin Flanagan, wrote a lovely piece about the tournament and the Irish Warriors in Saturday’s paper on final day. Martin is Tasmanian born but of Roscommon descent. He meet the team on Friday to deliver the piece.
This week, for the first time in my life, I saw France play Australian football. I admire the way the French play soccer and rugby union. It would have to be said their version of Australian football is at a rudimentary stage, but after a spirited encounter they bettered the Peace Team by a single goal.
What I liked best about the French was their uniforms. They looked like footballers from the 1860s with their vertical blue and white striped tops, long, white shorts and red socks. And they invested the game with such joie de vivre. Having honoured the Peace Team with applause and a guard of honour and then further applause like a bunch of waiters in appreciation of a chef, they sat on the grass like a rowing crew of 20-odd men and began passing the front man backwards over the heads of the rest like a giant circus act.
The game that followed was a much more serious matter. The Irish have come to win the International Cup as they did in 2002. Maybe you have to understand Irish pride to know when they are serious but I see it in how they are coached, how they are organised, how they are playing with unity and purpose.
There was a time when Australians thought their footballers were tougher than Irish footballers. People slipping into that assumption forgot that Jimmy Stynes was an Irish footballer and Dermott Brereton, possibly the most feared player of the modern era, had a fiercely held connection to Irish culture, and that a list of players with Irish surnames in the history of the AFL would include characters such as Jack Dyer and Darren Millane.
I had assumed the collapse of the Irish economy would have cruelled their chances but, no, it has actually worked in their favour. Ireland has 50 per cent unemployment in places. Its young people are emigrating like they did in previous centuries. A lot of young Irishmen are out here playing football with Australian clubs.
The footy the Irish play is a sphere beyond the footy played by France. They have a kid on the half-back line who’s been signed by Richmond, called John Heslin. He plays in a free-flowing, upright way so that the whole field is constantly in his vision. They have an old-fashioned centre half-back in Mick Finn who marks everything that comes his way. A man watching Ireland play told me Mick plays with Heidelberg. ”That means he’s tough,” he added. Yes, Mick looks tough.
The Irish play tough footy but they play smart footy, too. They’re always seeking to make the play because making the play is what the Gaelic games are all about. No off-side rules there. They also have a black-haired, bearded half-back flanker named Roch Hanmore who is like a fellow clansman of Geelong’s Max Rooke, playing in the same totally fearless, unemotive way. They have lots of smart midfielders so they can attack from anywhere. One of them is Stynes’s youngest brother, David. Jimmy’s five siblings all followed him to Australia. David, who captain-coaches Moorabbin in a southern league, played Gaelic football for Dublin – ”just a couple of games” – before coming to Australia.
Jimmy, as you will recall, was an elastic big man with long legs. If Jimmy was built like a thoroughbred, David is built like a quarterhorse but, as a footballer, he is worth watching. He’s like a slower version of Dane Swan. He reads the play so well he ends up playing everywhere.
Ireland meets Papua New Guinea in the final. PNG was once part of Australian football’s domain but it was taken for granted and not nurtured. Then television came to PNG and brought with it endless telecasts of rugby league until today state of origin is the state religion in PNG. But the Australian game hung on here and there and now vigorous steps are being taken to re-animate it.
The Irish want to win because our game is partly their game. An Irishman, Scotch College classics master Red Smith, was the only non-cricketer on the original rules committee in 1858. Australian football, no less than democracy, was a product of the gold rush.
The spirit that appears at the Eureka Stockade, a largely Irish rebellion, is part of the rumbustious popular mood that was the incubator in which football achieved its early growth. I see Irish culture in the game in its tempo, its temper and its tribal heartlands.
As for the Papua New Guineans, the game is, well, like second nature to them. It’s got this indigenous something about it which no one can define but almost everyone can feel.
The AFL International Cup is our festival of football. Its climax today, Ireland v Papua New Guinea, starts at 11am at the MCG. Carn footy!