I grew up on a five-acre block in Beaconsfield, a parcel of inherited land that was inconveniently lumpy and swampy, but gave us plenty of space. There, my brother and I began to take our lanky shapes. I have lately wondered if our bodies didn’t grow rangy to accommodate the landscape.
Inevitably we were introduced to Aussie Rules; it was a version of footy that fitted our paddocks perfectly. Even when we moved to a house on the edge of suburbia, the first thing we did was test out the backyard for our one-on-one matches. It had a 45-degree slope; it was nevertheless adequate for our needs, given that all we required was room to run and grass on which to hurl each other.
We played for the South Launceston Bulldogs. The ovals were flat and green, although given that the opening bounce for our games occurred at 8:15a.m. on Sunday mornings, they were frequently silver with frost. And in fact, since it was winter, they were often brown with mud too.
Bright red was another important colour – have you ever had your little schnozz hit with a leather ball when the temperature’s zero degrees celsius? I had countless blood noses.
At one point during my teenage years I started to push footy away. It was at that stage of life when a young man starts pushing all sorts of things away. Footy came back to me, though, and now, when adulthood and its associated behaviour is supposed to have me in its vice-like grip, I am entirely enamoured with the game. I like the ball’s thud, its wobble and its spin, the way it bounces as if by its own volition. I like my body’s arrangements, the poise of my muscles, the silent measurement of my eye and its communication through the brain to my bent leg.
I have been fortunate to mark the Tasmanian map with countless improvised matches of markings-up or kick-to-kick. Maria Island, Taroona, Liffey, Quamby Estate: all have formed the surrounds of occasions of footballing exploits. Few people I’ve met cannot know that I’ve played a couple of times on the gravel oval at Queenstown – I’ll have shown them the scars. My next dream is to play on the old Daisy Dell Oval, known also as “the Shinbark”, on the Cradle Mountain Road, the site of some amateur matches aeons ago.
Perhaps I prefer the odd surfaces. As a child I imagined a large-scale sport like footy that took place in eucalyptus forest, in which players had to adapt to the landscape as much as competitors.
Research suggests that Aussie Rules was invented after whitefellas observed an Aboriginal sport in action. It’s a theory I tend to believe. This sport occupies space. It favours the flexible, and the foreseers. It is a game for those who follow symbols, of totemic proportions.
It is won by devotion to the invisible.
That’s what I’ve taken from growing up with it anyway. I kicked the ball as high and hard as I could, and I saw the blossoming wattles shake, and my body felt as if it had full to the brim with magic. On some days, bushwalking gives me the exact same sense.
Of course, this year has been hard for playing or watching any sport. But I recently returned to watching the winter game at Deloraine, on a field surrounded by the usual raucous birds (native hens, black cockatoos, plovers) as well as a small cohort of devout supporters. I sat right on the rail and watched eagerly as the ball skipped and swivelled beyond the hands of the players, racing around the green paddock under a wash of cold sunlight.