THE woman in the ticket office looked at me with polite astonishment. “Did you come all the way out here just for this game?” she asked. “No,” I replied, “I’m on my way home from the Rugby World Cup.” She seemed relieved, and asked with a flustered air: “What did you say it was called again?”
That was my introduction to the International Rules. ‘Footie’, as they call Aussie Rules here, clearly isn’t very big in Canberra, where I parted with AU$35 (€26) for a ticket.
Mind you, coverage of the game wasn’t exactly overwhelming in Melbourne – which hosted last Friday’s first test. ‘The Age’, the city’s main broadsheet newspaper, ran a graphic on the morning of the game which erroneously informed readers that the match was the following day.
I was in the Irish section of the Etihad Stadium, but the couple to my left had divided loyalties – he was supporting Ireland, she was backing Australia. A man nearby produced a bodhrán at intervals. The beer flowed freely, and from the start, Irish fans had plenty to cheer about.
Still, the atmosphere was lacking something – and it wasn’t just Rugby World Cup veterans who noticed it. “It’s not Croke Park, is it?” said the man beside me. “I dunno – it’s a bit sterile.”
Sterile was the word. I learned on a tour of the Melbourne Cricket Ground that the urinal in the old committee room used to face the field, so committee members could continue to view the action while answering nature’s call. Yet on Friday, many of the fans were only half-watching the game. Why? Well, as one Michael D Higgins backer said afterwards: “The International Rules is like the Irish presidency … you want your lad to win, but ultimately, it doesn’t really mean anything.”
The man beside me was mystified by some of the rules, particularly when it came to dispossessing an opponent. “So let me get this straight,” he mused. “It’s okay to nearly decapitate someone, but a shoulder is obviously seen as severe!”
Ironically, a message telling patrons how they could report anti-social behaviour had just flashed up on the big screen when a rumpus broke out on the field. For the first time, the crowd seemed engaged. “Come on Ireland – heave!” roared one man who has just spent a month in New Zealand. The seats began to shake as supporters sang “Olé Olé Olé Olé”. We love a good row. A burst forward by the superb Pearse Hanley (described as “an under-rated defender” by ‘The Age’) drew approval soon after.
Before the fourth quarter began, a beach ball appeared in the crowd, prompting huge cheers. One man managed to punch the inflatable object into the upper tier and got the biggest roar of the night. Boos quickly followed when the ball was dispatched onto the field, thus ending the fun. Truly, we are an easily amused race.
At 59-26 ahead with 20 minutes left, even the most pessimistic away supporters were satisfied that Ireland were on their way to victory. Leighton Glynn’s goal was the signal for party time to begin, which meant I and a few dozen others were drenched in beer thrown by one over-exuberant Mexican Wave participant.
As the clock wound down, we swapped stories. “You might as well stay out now that you’re this far,” the Irishman next door said. Maybe Qantas heard him. At the time of writing, all the Australian national airline’s flights are grounded and I’m going nowhere. I wonder if ‘The Age’ need a Gaelic football correspondent … or someone to tell them what day it is.