A group of Samoans in borrowed football jumpers perform their version of a haka amidst the sounds of morning traffic, on a next-to-deserted suburban footy oval.
Humble though it may be, the 50-odd spectators are witnessing the opening ceremony for an international sporting event – the inaugural International Cup, featuring 11 countries from destinations as far-flung as Denmark and Japan. An event which (who knows?) could one day attract the same prestige as the Rugby World Cup.
Admittedly, at Sandringham Oval that morning, such grandiose ideas might have seemed a little far-fetched. There were no fireworks, no intricately choreographed schools of children forming breathtaking patterns on the field and letting off footy-shaped balloons containing messages of peace and love. Just a worn outer-metro footy oval with a couple of suburban -standard sides slogging it out. Only, if you were there, you had to pinch yourself every time the play came your way – one team calling for the ball in thick American accents, the other without a skerrick of English between them.
Despite most of Melbourne’s football public ignoring it in favour of a fresh Wayne Carey soap-opera episode, a truly historic event took place over the next ten sun-washed August days. The idea initially sprang from visionary Northern Territorian Darryl Window at the 1995 Arafura Games in Darwin, blossoming into a blueprint for an International Aussie Rules tournament to be held in football’s 150th anniversary year (2008). But with the rise of so many small overseas AFL competitions in recent years, there was impetus to move it forward to 2002, and so the International Australian Football Council was formed, and with that Samoan war-dance, the first International Cup bounced into action.
Ten days later at the MCG in front of a slowly arriving Friday night Kangaroos v Hawthorn crowd, Ireland upset the highly rated Papua New Guinea Mosquitoes to hold aloft the first ever International Cup. The spirited rise of the Irish team, who had earlier claimed the scalp of New Zealand – possibly the most talented team on show in the tournament – was an uplifting and inspirational story, but it was only one of many intriguing yarns that unfolded. For some of the 11 competing countries, even getting here was pre-game motivational stuff in itself, not the least being the story of the South African team.
If any team embodied the pioneering sense of adventure this tournament brought to Melbourne, it was surely the South African Buffaloes, who stepped out on that same Sandringham Oval after the Samoans and Americans to endure a ferocious walloping at the hands of the big, bad, black-clad New Zealanders. Before the first bounce, the all-Caucasian Kiwi side performed a haka, every bit as loud, spirited and intimidating as their All-Black compatriots in a Bledisloe Cup. The South Africans responded by applauding. From there, the incongruity of South Africa’s presence in the match did not dissipate. Comprising an all-black team from a couple of small, impoverished townships, and having only played the code for 12 months, the South Africans were, to a man, slight-framed, skinny-legged, and on average a foot shorter than their hulking, muscular opponents.
New Zealand’s game plan was very simple: kick the ball long, and whether you were in front or behind, simply pick the ball off the grasping fingertips of the vertically-challenged South African pack. It worked, to the tune of 25.13 to one point.
At one stage, a New Zealander sat a South African firmly down on the turf with a wincing off-the-ball shepherd, but instantly, whether due to the sporting joie de vivre of the tournament or out of sheer pity for the South African bugger, stopped to pick him up. The South African waved him off angrily, gathered himself up and kept running. If that didn’t make you a little chokey watching from the sidelines, you weren’t human.
Ron Barassi, card-carrying legend and supposed innovator of the handball game, had addressed the Buffaloes prior to the game, and there were plenty of less qualified experts yelling vainly, “Use more handball!” throughout the match. But it was more telling to hear a South African coach giving his runner a more basic message: “Tell Benji to smother it with his hands, not his feet!”
In reality, football fundamentals were still relevant to a team that hadn’t yet been playing the code for a full year. The man with the foot-smothering tip was former ACT footballer and coach Dale Alsford. In July 2001, Alsford had been sent by the AFL and Australian Volunteers International, armed with little more than a bag of footballs and a road map, into the heart of South Africa’s Northwest Province, as the AFL’s first development officer for South Africa. He settled in the tiny township of Lomanyaneng, learnt the language, lived with the people, gradually earned their respect, and, incredibly, launched a whole new code. And with it, a lifestyle.
“It took a little time to convince them that not all whites are like South African whites,” Alsford says. “I covered a 320km radius of mostly rural land, where people were slow to shrug off apartheid. But we made this sport available to all colours, all walks of life, and it hasreally taken off. For a lot of kids over there now it’s an alternative to crime, drugs and life on the street. A lot of the adults were saying they wished they were 40 years younger.”
But clearly, getting a team prepared for a tournament half a world away was not without its obstacles.
“Most of these kids don’t own shoes,” says Alsford. “They learned to play on rocky patches of dust. Playing on a proper, grassy oval was strange enough, let alone the fact that it was the first time they’d been allowed to run on a field with white people. They weren’t even used to so many white people treating them nicely. But their morale stayed high, they learnt a lot, and their African culture shone through and really turned heads.”
Regardless of South Africa’s results on paper, their very presence in the tournament was a heroic tale, echoed in many of the other ten competing nations’ histories, all of them with heroes like Dale Alsford somewhere quietly in the background.
Denmark’s footy story famously began under a tree in Copenhagen after an expatriate Aussie advertised in the local paper for a kick-to-kick buddy. In the US, modified nine-a-side rules had to be adopted in many areas where there simply weren’t fields large enough to accommodate the full 18. The Samoan squad drove a bus down from Sydney and bunked-up in a four-bedroom house in Melbourne’s outer suburbs, just so they could afford to be there.
The Irish can now claim to be the first international power. Whilst this mightn’t come as a shock to local fans who’ve seen Irish imports from Jim Stynes to Tadhg Kennelly make the grade in AFL, the Irish squad, despite including Stynes’ younger brother David, were far from pre-tournament favourites. Their success was built, like all great Aussie Rules dynasties, on solid defence; they were able to keep the slick-moving Papua New Guinea Mosquitoes scoreless for three quarters in the Final. After five games in seven days, they looked much fresher than the Mozzies and were first to every contest. Both teams’ precision suffered under pressure, but the sheer endurance and work-rate of the Irish got them to the loose ball more often.
They’d come a long way from their opening match when, during the quarter-time address, coach Darren Fitzpatrick gave them a good old-fashioned Aussie Rules “spray.” Fitzpatrick ended his rant by suggesting he might’ve been better served bringing out the Irish netball team, to which one Irish player responded by asking: “Can you just leave us alone for a couple of minutes?”
It was a colourful, inspirational ten days. And it was all happening on our doorstep. Although the press coverage was fleeting at best, the interest factor largely a novelty to a Melbourne football public in fully-fledged finals frenzy, the seeds had been sown. Those present at the matches will attest to the excitement in the air at being a part – however humble – of history. It may seem fanciful now, but who would’ve thought the same kind of World Cup would grow out of a game named after a toffee English public school?
Have faith, and tell your children the story of how it all started.