top of page

Rd 6 - Pies v Bombers

Sport and peace

When not pencilling sprawling pieces for ‘The Almanac’, I moonlight as a substitute schoolteacher. As a prelude to a small but impressive ‘Anzac Day’ service this morning, I asked grade fives whether any had already been to such a thing the day before. Crickets. Taking a different tact, I then asked if any were at the football yesterday (or Monday) and it was here I began to get some recognition. There are dangers in holding this all-boys class as representative, or in equating the AFL’s ANZAC round preludes with longer ceremonies, but at least it’s proof of the extent to which football has muscled-in on the date. For me, there isn’t a reliable sense of what the public holiday might have looked like before Collingwood and Essendon were perennials. This isn’t to say that ANZAC Day has been infected by football, so much as it’s now difficult to picture it without the famous match as the afternoon’s entertainment. Is it fair, though, to speculate that ANZAC Day would miss the match if the partnership were ever severed? Of the 95,000 at the game yesterday, how many would have gone to a proper memorial had they not been in the stands? A crowd half the size were reportedly around the Shrine of Remembrance at dawn, although this would imply several hundred thousand early risers nationwide. What’s inescapable is that football’s primacy in Melbourne culture, for many, causes it to lead horses to water and – at least passively, in the interests of self-preservation – to make them respectfully drink.


And yet the ANZAC mythology, in turn, must also be doing much of the work. Unless Collingwood and Essendon maintain lofty ladders positions, they’ll be lucky for two-thirds of that crowd come their later fixture this season. It would perhaps, then, be more precise to adjudge the relationship symbiotic. The event teaches us less about ANZAC Day and the AFL independently as that it’s significant there can be such a coupling at all. Collingwood captain Moore’s near-perfect speech after the match would have done much to convince cynics that the players, clubs, league are aware of the honour bestowed. In my favourite phrase, he acknowledged that there are still many servicemen and -women serving Australia’s ‘interests’ overseas – employing language that flexed his oft-referenced university degree as subconsciously as he did any arm muscle.


War, like life, defies an appropriate mode of comparison, but nevertheless it’s so remote to many of us that we leap to vectors to understand it. Nationalism, the age of combatants, a certain ‘red-bloodedness’ might be the only elements that the ‘ANZAC legend’ and Australian Rules definitively share. Most punters rightly feel queasy if adamant comparisons are ever made. The early-millennium coaches of Collingwood and Essendon who gee’d their players up for the famous fixture with analogous battlefield tales, giving the game heft, are now popularly considered to have overshot. But rather than decrying poor taste, perhaps a legitimate alternative is to savour the silliness, the fact that what seems to most naturally complement the themes of war, in peacetime Melbourne, is a sport whose current points of contention include bone-jarring shoulder charges and dump tackles on a course to be outlawed by our own Geneva Convention. Permit me being preposterously naïve, permit a lack of the kind of insights you get from a Master of International Relations, permit starry-eyed pacifism, but maybe one of the great benefits of the ANZAC Day/AFL relationship is its exemplar of what our grandest form of conflict ought to be instead – the at-times artful pursuit of an opposition through sport. What’s actually disgusting when the two are taken as analogous is the way our histories suggest us doomed to far more stupid forms violence, even if most parties will claim their involvement was in some way retaliatory. Comparing with our oldest generations, it can seem a source of great luxury that among the most certain theatres of injury for present-day young people are football grounds. A period of cowardice/conscientious objection that still occasionally rankles was my decision, years ago, to quit football, largely due to a fixation with the disproportionate consequences of an imagined serious injury. To be clear, I’d come out of retirement to plug the Carlton backline, but I can’t be so unequivocal about the defence of Australia – although the right scenario (West Australian secession, say) might twist my arm.


The Mick Malthouse military history lessons may be what moved a muddled, less-eloquent Collingwood captain to famously remark to an interviewer, after a draw, that he’d never before seen 40 men ‘go to war like that’. The only circumstances in which he could’ve been correct were if he meant to be numerically pedantic and/or he’s one few Australians who weren’t made to watch Peter Weir’s ‘Gallipoli’ circa year 10. But I say go lightly on that captain who, having just busted his gut floating around as a loose man for two hours, could then imagine no greater type of combat. Raise a glass to his unabashed idealism, his rose-tinted view. One of many reasons to be grateful to pivotal servicemen and -women is that, by sacrifice, they have contributed to a society, a state of play, where such befuddlement is even possible, where the MCG (once a WWII depot) can masquerade, for some, as a legitimate battlefield. So long may such faux pas, such markers of comfort, continue.


A final suggestion: If a medal forged with a keen respect for the ANZAC legend is to be presented post-match, then how’s about we do a better job of marrying-up the recipient with the values MC Hamish McLachlan rattles off in his spiel? Nick Daicos may be the best second year player since Patrick Cripps and he can be justly matched with ‘skilful’, but ‘courage’ was Archie Perkins burning Jake Stringer for a set shot, ‘fair play’ the conduct of McGrath or Moore, ‘teamwork’ the relentless McCreery, and ‘self-sacrifice’ the humble Tom Mitchell, who’s this year starving his own stats sheet for the sake of upstarts like Daicos who haven’t even won a Brownlow. Call the medal ‘best afield’, otherwise rise to the challenge and dig for the actual values being mentioned!

bottom of page