When I was a kid, I tried to play Australian rules footy. It is too hard a game for kids – either form of rugby or soccer is much easier for kids to play. If you look at kids trying to play our footy, you will see about three of them who know where the ball is, and the others just make up the numbers. I was one of the ‘others’.
But I could follow an instruction that people would move up one position from the forward pocket or the back pocket to the half forward flank or halfback flank who would then move to the wing depending on whether the ball had gone into attack or defence. I could follow that; it seemed a good and simple plan; but it was probably academic for me because of what I have just mentioned about only three boys getting near where the action really was.
Is it pure arrogance on my part to think that other people may have difficulty in implementing more involved plans? I don’t think so. I wouldn’t try something more clever on with lawyers. It has long seemed to me that commentators try to read far too much into games of our footy. I have long suspected that all this talk about structures and game-plans and the like is mainly bullshit. As are the convoluted stats. They are as reliable as economists.
Although I spend at least as much time watching two of the other codes as I do watching the AFL, my suspicion about the role of bullshit in AFL footy has firmed up with the sharp decline of three or four sides in the games played so far this year. I refer in particular to the collapse – because that is what it has been – of Fremantle and Port Adelaide, and particularly Fremantle. I find it hard to understand what the Fremantle coach is saying at the best of times, but it did appear to me the other night that he was saying that he has devised a game-plan that his players are not capable of implementing. I think that may well be true.
In my view, playing footy comes down to other things that we try in life, like being a chef, writing a book, or running a murder case. You take a certain amount of ability for granted, and the rest is character. When you look at a bunch of players that form a footy team, what matters is the way in which that given ability is brought out in each player and then encouraged as part of that team. Students of war tell us that people don’t die for the flag or the nation but for those near them. It is the same, I think, with footy players. The object of those running the team is therefore to get the players to develop a warranted faith in each other and an assured endeavour to trust and look after each other.
You see that happen in clubs that have the right character or fibre in themselves. For the last decade or so, those AFL clubs have been Hawthorn, Geelong, and Sydney. You can just about see that character or fibre in the way their players come out on the field – and certainly in the way they carry themselves in the heat of battle. The fibre is transmitted on field by established leaders who command both respect and subscription. Our politicians have something to wonder at. And the good clubs have a ruthless policy of ‘no dickheads’. Something else for our politicians to consider.
What I suspect has happened at sides like Fremantle and Port Adelaide is that the clubs have forgotten the need to develop character in the players and in the club as a whole. Instead of locking in the basics, they and their coaches have got carried away with stratagems. They have lost the plot. They have whipped the cream before baking the cake. Footy was after all supposed to be a bloody game.
Of the three Melbourne teams I take an interest in, Melbourne Storm has shown fibre for years, and has the best leaders on the field in the competition; there is for the first time in about thirty years a chance that the Demons might find a warranted faith in each other, and that their club may recover some fibre; the Rebels do not look like it doing it yet.
As to the coaches, the main ingredient in character that is required is honesty.
If you want to know what fibre means in footy teams, compare a New Zealand rugby team to one of ours.
Poet of the month: Auden
Trying to understand the words
Uttered on all sides by birds,
I recognize in what I hear
Noises that betoken fear.
Though some of them, I’m certain, must
Stand for rage, bravado, lust,
All other notes that birds employ
Sound like synonyms for joy.