A touch of Down Under in the Lakes Region
Australian Rules Football comes to Wolfeboro's Brewster Academy
|AUSTRALIAN RULES FOOTBALL can be a painful experience (check out where the defenderís foot is) for everyone involved. Joshua Spaulding. (click for larger version)|
July 28, 2009WOLFEBORO — A visitor to Brewster Academy on Saturday afternoon, July 25, might have thought he took a wrong turn and ended up in the Land Down Under.
But alas, there were no kangaroos and there was no Sydney Opera House.
What there was however, was a fierce Australian Rules Football battle on a makeshift field outside Brewster Academy's Smith Center on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee.
And, for good measure, there were plenty of Australian accents filling the afternoon air as well.
Brewster athletic director Doug Algate, a native of Australia, has been bringing Australian Rules Football to Wolfeboro for about 10 years, inviting members of the Boston Demons squad north from the city to play a game or two at his place of employment and spend the night at his house, making for a social weekend for the football players.
The contest played on Brewster's Fry Field wasn't an official USAFL (United States Australian Football Leage) game, but instead was a Metro Football contest, which is basically a game where newer players get the chance to learn the game, while giving others a chance to get more playing time and practice for when the USAFL games hit the field.
And for anyone who has never seen an Australian Rules Football game, it is truly a sight to behold, making its American counterpart look like a game of badminton, or maybe croquet.
Australian Rules Football is played on a field that is at least 200 yards long, with many fields reaching up to 220 yards. The field is oval and is about 160 yards wide at its widest point.
At each end of the field there are four posts. The posts on the makeshift Brewster field (which was much smaller than a regulation field), weren't terribly high, but in the professional league in Australia, the posts tower over the field.
"The idea is to get down the field as fast as you can," Algate said, explaining the basic points of the game in an interview prior to Saturday's contest. "If you get it down quickly, they can't block it."
The ball is moved down the field in a couple of different ways. It can be kicked or hit down the field. The hit looks a lot like an underhand volleyball serve. Players can run with the ball, but if they choose to do that, they have to bounce the ball every 15 yards. And the ball is not round, like a basketball or volleyball, but instead is much like an American football, but with rounder edges, a lot like a ball used in rugby.
If a player catches the ball (a mark), he gets a free kick and his guard has to stand off. If a ball fall loose to the ground at any point, it's up for grabs and players will tackle, pull, stumble and do just about anything to get the ball back for their team.
The players then have to kick the ball through the upright posts. If the ball is booted between the two inner posts, it's a goal and is worth six points. If the ball goes between the outside post and the inside post on either side, it's worth one point. The ball does not have to go through the goal posts in the air, but can be bounced through. The professional players in the Australian league have become adept at curling the ball through the uprights from seemingly impossible angles.
A professional Australian Rules Football game features 18 players per side, with the teams starting in a man-on-man format, meaning each player shadows someone from the other team. The games played at Brewster on Saturday featured smaller teams on the field, with 11 playing per side, due in part to the smaller size of the field and to the number of players available to make the trip from Boston.
Down Under, the game is played on the same field as cricket and is incredibly popular.
"It is the most popular sport in Australia, by far," said Algate. There are 16 professional teams in Australia, and the players are much different than the specialized players American are used to seeing on the field.
For the most part, Australian Rules Football players are leaner than their American football counterparts, with many of them built like American wide receivers.
Every player can kick and catch the ball and they are all incredibly aerobically fit, which is necessary to play more than an hour and a half of football over the course of four quarters.
The Grand Final of the Australian Football League is played in front of 100,000 people at the stadium used for the 1964 Olympics in Melbourne.
"The game is much more non-stop," said Algate, comparing it to American football.
And the game has made its way to the United States and continues to grow in popularity.
There are currently more than 40 teams in cities from Boston to Seattle and Philadelphia to Phoenix. Each year all the teams get together for the national tournament, being held this year outside Cincinnati in October. And there is also a women's competition beginning as well.
The USAFL also puts together a National Team, which heads to Australia every other year with all other non-Australian teams for a big competition between the best players from around the world.
Algate, who played semi-professionally when he was back in Australia, is now a certified umpire, and has umpired at nationals in a game between the US and Canada in Houston. He has also remained associated with the Demons, which allows him to put together the Wolfeboro competition every year.
He looks at the national tournament as a great way to meet other umpires and learn from what they have to say.
Additionally, Algate's wife, Jen Fraser, became the first woman outside Australia to be certified as a boundary umpire and a goal umpire. Algate does a lot of his work as field umpire.
"You do a lot of running," he noted. That was evident even on the smaller field at Brewster Academy on Saturday.
The yearly sojourn to Wolfeboro has become a unique event for the Boston players and has even allowed some locals to get in on the action, as former Brewster student Zack Ross took to the field for Saturday's contest between the Boston Kremes and the All-Stars, a team forged out of players from two separate Metro teams. Originally three teams were slated to play, but travel obligations forced two of those teams to mold into one for the afternoon.
"It's become a social event too," Algate noted. "It lets them get out of town for a while."
The competition on the Brewster field was pretty intense, as the two teams battled back and forth for every loose ball, crawling across the ground, all the while the waters of Lake Winnipesaukee and the Great Waters tent kept watch.
While the surroundings screamed New Hampshire, the football screamed Australia and on one beautiful afternoon in the middle of New England, the two came together for a while. And anyone who happened to catch a few minutes of the action certainly saw that when it comes to football, Americans aren't nearly as tough as the Aussies.