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Australian for Football
It’s always a g’day for footy on Staten Island.
By Michael Malone

ONE CAN'T HELP BUT wonder, what was going through the Aussies' minds, as they envisioned their Australian Rules Football match in New York City, only to find themselves sitting amidst the perpetual renovation of the Staten Island ferry terminal on Sunday morning.

The newsstand guy did brisk business selling Tums, breath mints and Aleve two-packs to local folk decked out in the night before's duds and washing away the night before's merriment with napkins and Poland Spring water.

After the John Kennedy lands on Staten Island, it's cab rides for the Aussies, passing dubiously-titled streets like Oder Avenue and W. Fingerboard Road before pulling up to Miller Field, a huge abandoned airfield dotted with athletic fields—the tips of the Verrazano poking through the clouds in the distance.

Why Staten Island for the match between the Sydney touring squad, known as Balmain Tigers, and the U.S. national Australian Rules team? Because Rules requires a field big as a Manhattan neighborhood, shaped like a fat football and measuring between 135 and 185 meters long, 110 and 155 meters wide. Unless you're Dave Matthews, you're just not going to get that kind of space in Central Park.

To prepare for the match, U.S. coach Scott Nicholas ran his squad—all of whom are American-born and selected from the 30-plus Aussie Rules teams across the U.S.—through a workout Saturday in Central Park on a small god-forsaken dirt patch east of the North Meadow.

That practice got the cobwebs off after Friday's social at Park Avenue Country Club in Manhattan, attended by some 600 players, fans and, of course, the Foster's Girls.

There are about 50 people in attendance for the match, most of them players from the day's undercard: the New York Magpies versus the U.S. B team that ended in a draw. Each team fields 18 players in brightly colored muscle shirts, playing positions like ruck rover and back pocket and trying to move the ball forward either by kicking, running or punch-passing it to one another.

A kick through the middle two of four goal posts is a goal, good for six points, and a kick through the outer posts is a behind, good for a point. Whereas the goal judges wear something like white lab coats in the matches found on Fox Sports World after the tractor-pulls (but before the infomercials starring Randy Johnson plugging the Body Blade), the judges in this game are young Australian boys in sweats.

The U.S. Revolution, better known as Revo's, comes out strong—getting hard-nosed play from a Phoenix man they call Fingers to get two quick goals and go up 12-6. But the Aussies storm back, and at the end of the 20-minute period, Balmain's got four goals and two behinds to the U.S.'s two and three. In American parlance, that's 26-15.

"Make 'em chase us when we have the ball!" Coach Nicholas, an Aussie, yells to his troops. "Let's keep possession and kick it in the G-spot."

Kicks to the G-spot and knocks to other regions down under go largely unwhistled. One felled Tiger on the sideline grimaces as a team manager discusses the injury with a female supporter—a Sheila, in Aussie parlance.

"He'll be fine," the man says. "It's either a Grade 2 or Grade 3 AC separation. He's just got to suck it up."

The U.S. starts the second quarter with a nifty goal from Dan Sarbacker out of St. Louis, but the momentum quickly shifts. Fittingly, nasty black clouds move in and the breeze picks up, and spectators find shirts to cover their Aussie Rules tans—bronzed arms and pasty torsos. The game at times looks a bit like Globetrotters/Colonials, as the Tigers play keepaway and extend their lead to 65-21 at the break.

"We let 'em kick two soft goals," says Nicholas to his players. "Are they harder than us?"

"No!" goes the chorus.

"Are their skills better?"


But in fact, Balmain's are. They've played the game since childhood, whereas every Yank has a different story about finding the sport later in life. Like the guy whose roommate did a semester in Melbourne, and came back with a fat, funny football. And the beefy Edward Norton look-alike, black eye and all, who got recruited when a local club visited his Cal-Poly Pomona campus and signed him up.

Balmain coach Troy Luff delivers a much less intense speech. "Don't mess around with pissy little kicks that just aren't on," he says as his players nod. If the match isn't their top priority, it's understandable—they're flying to L.A. in a few hours, Vegas after that.

The rain picks up as the second half starts. Revo's bag two goals, compliments of Brad Pope and George Lakomy, as the U.S. sideline buzzes. A clattering pickup stops nearby, as two National Parks service guys in drab gray uniforms get out. Both are middle-aged, with cigarettes in their mouths. One is black, the other Hispanic.

"What's the name of this game?" the black man asks a sub. "Is it rugby?"

"Australian football," the sub answers. They watch for about a minute before returning to their truck, shaking their heads.

Balmain has extended its lead to 87-57 at the end of the third, and Luff lets his subs have a runaround. As a Balmain guy attempts a free kick at goal, an American yells out "You've got chewy on your boot!" The Balmain sideline erupts in laughter. Chewy is bubble gum, an Aussie explains to me. It's a line they used as boys, something like "Your mother" or, of course, "Noonan!" Revo's are a few decades behind Balmain, in every aspect of the game.

Ol' Chewy Boot hits his kick, and the final score is 94 (14 goals, 10 behinds) for Balmain, 64 (10 and 4) for the U.S. Both teams do three hip-hip-hooray's for the other, then Luff comes over with Balmain patches and a few words of encouragement for Revo's.

"It was a very competitive game," says Luff, a former star with Sydney Swans in Australia's premier league. "Things are looking very good for the future of U.S. footy."

Then he and his boys pile into gypsy cabs, and head for the Verrazano and the airport.

- Michaal Malone

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