Thursday, May 19, 2011

Walking in the footsteps of Giants

As an Australian living abroad playing and spreading the word on Aussie Rules, I’ve often pondered what it would take to make our wonderful game part of the local landscape of my newly adopted city. The trials and tribulations of the dedicated few that man the ‘new frontiers’ around the world are more often than not the same: recruiting “converts”, finding fields and equipment, financing the whole project and simply spreading the word are all core to establishing our wonderful – yet hard to describe to the uninitiated – game of football. Many conversations at La Quebecoise pub in Montréal centred on the what if? What if we could run programs in schools and develop juniors? What if we had exposure in the media? They were the pipedreams of Aussie Rules pioneers thousands of miles from home.
But what if money wasn’t a problem? If fields were magically starting to appear, grassroots programs were put into place and the media took an interest so the ‘word’ was getting out – could it actually work?

We’re about to find out – thanks to the Greater Western Sydney Giants.

Now before the Hardcore rugby loving public of NSW tears my heart out, it’s important to know that “sport” is a choice on the menu, fans are the dining public and you can’t be “force fed” something you don’t like. It’s all about choice, and having an extra choice on the menu is not a bad thing. Footy is a great spectator sport, and when offering it up, makes a great side dish to the prospective fan’s other first love be it ice hockey, soccer or rugby. That said the Giants have a rather large PRO and an even larger CON that most ex-pat weekend warriors don’t experience in the Montréal’s, Toronto’s, Boston’s and London’s of international footy.

The PRO is footy already exists in Sydney. It’s far from being the number one sport but it’s definitely a known entity. The Sydney Swans have reached the pinnacle of the AFL in the harbour city, and although sporting success in any city will lead to fleeting popularity for a brief moment in time -the standard overseas conversation of “I play Aussie Rules Football” and response: “Oh, you mean Rugby (or Soccer)” does not apply. That’s a huge head start.

The CON is that there is direct (and in some cases loathing) opposition – Rugby League doesn’t want the big bad wolf lurking in their backyard. It’s been dubbed by some as a ‘Code War’. The NRL even went as far as rescheduling one of their marquee match-ups to coincide with the Suns big night in hopes to take the shine off the Gold Coast v Brisbane Lions first “Q-Clash” derby. It didn’t work, the Suns v Lions game was a roaring success. But perhaps the AFL should wear that slap in the face for poaching Hunt and Folau, two of the NRL’s finest. We’ll call it even – for now.

Like the very real prospect of every international Aussie Rules club: the Giants might fail. There’s no guarantees in this venture except that the AFL are planning to stick it out long-term. Now long-term doesn’t mean forever, but it certainly means that if the Giants don’t make it, it won’t be because they never had a chance. So what is the measure of success aside from simply surviving? Far from the “every kid gives rugby away and converts to AFL” Armageddon scenario in the back of the minds of some doomsayers, a sustainable team where local footy is played on weekends by plenty of kids, good crowds at Giants games and some Aussie Rules banter at water coolers in Sydney’s West on a Monday morning should suffice. There’s plenty of room for AFL and NRL in good ole Sydney town.

The path the Giants are carving is one many of us in the international community dream of. The fact they have amongst their playing stocks a rugby league convert also has to warm the hearts of the world footy community – we’ve all played in games where the rugby convert with huge potential invariably gets into open space and instinctively tucks the ball under his arm and darts away to the mild amusement of his/her teammates. Israel Folau has been much maligned but is far more advanced than those raw first gamers. Like Hunt, he has backed himself to be able to make the switch and has opened himself up to immense ridicule if he fails. The greatest basketballer in the world did that once too, although for different reasons I might add. Folau doesn’t expect to fail. Respect that, and judge him fairly, he’s not making a million dollars because he’s as good as Judd and Ablett, his inflated salary is all about getting the ‘word’ out. And it is money that seems to be well spent. He’s a first year player who has never played the game before just like Mike Pyke was when he started at Sydney three years ago. Pyke’s stock is on the rise, but realize it was not an overnight success.

Unlike the Gold Coast Suns who are tipped to be a force in only a few years (despite the fickle football public diving off the bandwagon after the round 2 loss to Carlton and hypocritically sneaking back on after the Q-Clash victory) the Giants are supreme underdogs. Nobody outside the Giant's inner sanctum envisions success, only doom and gloom. We’ve all heard the talk - no one will want to play there, they’ve got no chance of securing a big name, they’ll be the easy beats and blight on the competition – they’ll be located in Tasmania in less than ten years. Even their name and colours have been ridiculed by the very football public that they belong to. Not me, I’ve enjoyed the Suns making their grand entrance, the team born with a silver spoon in their mouth as they were described. Although I didn’t love the name or colours at first I’ve also warmed to the Giants, their effort to stand out, be noticed and fight what many describe as an unwinnable battle resonates with me and my time in Montréal with the Québec Saints. I understand what they’re doing, and I hope they succeed.

And that’s why I am now a GWS Giants foundation member. Although they’ll never displace my passion for my beloved Navy Bluebaggers – I’m in for the long haul (Although I might be somewhat miffed if they pinch Marc Murphy!).

There will be a plethora of international Aussie Rules rookies this year from New York to Mumbai kicking a footy for the very first time. Inevitably they’ll be faced with a decision on which AFL team to support. Their Aussie friends will be doing their best to recruit them into the fold of their dear and beloved teams. But here is an idea - make your team the Giants. They should be installed as the World Footy community’s adopted team – like Ben Lee said, we’re all in this together. They are the group that are, in a sense, standing in the trenches alongside us – the international footy community – fighting the good fight. After all, thanks to the Giants in twenty years time, the players of the Québec Saints who are knocking back a Labatt’s Bleu at La Quebecoise in Montréal will have an answer to the very question that bounced off the gritty walls of the team’s beloved watering hole not too long ago – what if...