Tuesday 18 October 2011

Failed competition entries corner

So, I had a crack at entering this competition in an attempt to scab a free trip to America and failed miserably.

The gimmick was that you had to write about the 2022 AFL World Cup, which was improbably being defender by Japan who had rolled Australia in the previous final. Fat chance but I'll do anything for free flights. There were a bunch of other things you had to include but obviously didn't throw enough fanciful futuristic gimmicks to make the top three.

Therefore I post it here for posterity, and just in case the absolutely farcical scenario in which

Please also note that a) it was supposed to be this long and wasn't just me waffling again and b) it was written before $cully had totally dicked us and become a hated figure so I was at least nice enough to give him the chance to come back to Melbourne after he'd finished rolling around in cash a'la Scrooge McDuck. I was going to change all references to him in this to Trengove for posting here but that killed one of the key gimmicks so stuff it, just imagine a big dollar sign whenever his scabby name comes up.

Anyway, ready? I think I rolled myself by writing like a news story instead of a first person wankfest. Come on I even took the obligatory cheap shot at soccer that they were dying for.

Standing in the centre square of the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the first time Casey Martin, the captain of the Team Canada Wolfpack, admits that he's got a major concern about Saturday's World Rules opening match against Australia - and it's not the prospect of playing in front of more than 90,000 locals.

"You guys don’t worry me" he says, "Nothing an Australian crowd can bring will match The Game".

In Canada the match which the Toronto Vipers midfielder and his teammates won through to their first World Rules is destined to always be known simply as "The Game". Five goals behind the heavily favoured Argentina during the last quarter of February’s match the brilliant midfielder played a last quarter for the ages, racking up fifteen possessions and kicking three goals including the one that gave his side the lead deep into the last quarter.

"The noise was incredible" says Martin, "when I went back to take my kick you couldn't even hear yourself think". It didn’t matter, the ball flew through post high and the surprise packet quarter finalists of the inaugural 2018 World Rules were out. Canada had booked a ticket to Australia along with their fellow North/South American Zone qualifiers the United States and Brazil.

So if the prospect of lining up in front of 90,000 people in the opening match of one of the biggest sporting events in the world isn’t concerning Casey Martin then what is troubling the man who has just led his side to the North American Football League premiership?

"Tom Scully" he says half smiling, half wincing. "I've never played against anybody like him before". The Canadian captain is concerned, and not without some justification because at 2.10pm tomorrow afternoon he might be standing shoulder to shoulder with the three time premiership captain and dual Brownlow Medallist in the centre of the game’s most famous venue.

"[Canadian coach John Paul] Lafitte hasn’t told me where I’ll be playing yet, but they’ve got so many stars he’s only one of 22 worries for us” Martin says.

Scully might be one man of 22 in the Australian starting line-up tomorrow but he is the best and will prove the hardest for the Canadians to stop. The professional game in North America has come a long way in the last decade but even the greatest teams in their league would be lucky to have the combined talent of one Tom Scully.

Casey Martin could be called the Tom Scully of the American league. Both men were voted the best player in their competition last year, and both ended the season holding a premiership cup above their heads.

Scully’s triumph came near the same spot where Martin stands today, his third since returning to the Demons from Greater Western Sydney. His best on ground performance just days after being named Brownlow Medallist for the second time stamped him as the dominant player of the modern era.

Named captain of Australia for the first time during this year’s mid-season series against New Zealand and South Africa, Scully is desperate to atone for his performance in the 2018 World Rules Final where he managed just six touches after half time of Australia’s shock 15.10.100 to 14.14.98 loss to Japan. It remains the greatest upset in the history of international football.

While it was Jack Riewoldt who missed the goal after the siren to hand the Samurais the inaugural championship Scully was uncharacteristically quiet, blanketed by the ace Japanese stopper Taro Tsjumoto who was snapped up by the Fremantle Dockers immediately afterwards.

One of the earliest converts to the international expansion of the game when it began in earnest in 2013, the Japanese have gone from strength to strength since then and now have nine players plying their trade with AFL sides. 2021 Brownlow Medal runner-up Tsjumoto is the most high profile, but the mosquito fleet of running players developed in Japan during the four years before their shock triumph in front of 101,200 fans four years ago, are primed for the fight of their life to defend the cup.

The reaction in Australia to the loss was a united grief never before seen in the 160 years since the first game of what would ultimately become one of the world’s most popular sports.

International expansion of the sport had been slow during the 150 years after Melbourne Grammar and Scotch College first clashed on the grounds outside where the MCG now stands. New Zealand fielded a team in the first interstate carnival, but the game soon dropped away across the Tasman and it took until 1963 for Melbourne and Geelong to travel to North America and play exhibition matches for a US audience. Two matches drew just 5000 fans between them and it was another quarter of a century before Australian Football was played in North America again. A short lived international series in the 80’s failed to capture the imagination of overseas fans and the game returned to being a purely domestic pursuit.

The game’s international profile was given an unexpected boost at the end of the 2011 season when American ruckman Shae McNamara was axed by Collingwood. Unable to break into their dual premiership sides he was thrown a lifeline by Gold Coast and within a year had established himself as one of the biggest stars of the competition. He will coach the American side in this year’s cup.

American cable television picked up on McNamara’s incredible story, and within a year their league which had spent 20 years on the very outer fringes of US sports was thriving. The competition, which until that point had been strictly amateur, was suddenly enjoying high rating TV coverage in the absence of major sports which were undergoing lengthy player lockouts.

The money which flowed into the international game after the success of the North American Football League’s first full televised season saw the game explode in popularity across Europe and gave the AFL a chance to invest heavily into the Pacific region and Africa. Ongoing scandals in the world of soccer gave the game a further boost in countries where the original ‘world game’ was so popular just a few years ago.

Casey Martin remembers the first time he ever saw a game. “I grew up in Hamilton, Ontario” he says, “I was 13-years-old when the game really exploded in North America. Half way through watching my first TV game I was online trying to find a team in my area to play this magnificent new game with. Hamilton is a big hockey and Canadian Football town so there were no existing teams. Luckily for me I wasn’t the only guy at my school who wanted to play so we started a team and hooked up some matches against kids from Toronto”.

The teenagers would alternate between playing games in the neighbouring cities and Martin’s big break came when his future international teammate Alex Franks was signed to play for the Vipers youth team two years later. Asked if he could recommend any other young Canadians for the team Franks’ first suggestion was Martin and the rest is history. The two broke into Toronto’s senior squad within a year and were appearing regularly on international television before their 18th birthdays.

Longtime teammates both domestically and in the international side, Martin and Franks were among the players who suffered an upset loss to Mexico in the first qualifying stage of the North/South America Zone for the 2018 event. A win would probably have seen them on their way to Australia, but the defeat meant that the powerhouse United States were instead joined by Argentina, who defeated Mexico in the final round of qualifiers, and Brazil.

Denied the chance to showcase their skills in front of the world in the 2018 tournament the Canadians missed an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Tsjumoto and American Ricky Sanderson in winning an AFL contract.

Both Martin and Franks have had their chances to become the first Canadian to play in the AFL since rugby convert Mike Pyke appeared with Sydney more than a decade ago, but with league sides sniffing around at the end of last year the two made a pact to stay together until Toronto finally won a league championship.

A loss to the Las Vegas Power in the 2021 Preliminary Final ended their campaign one game short of a Grand Final but both men stuck fast on the deal. They were rewarded when the Vipers ran out easy winners against the Boston Demons in front of 45,000 people in the last month’s nationally televised championship game. Now if as expected they’re both drafted the two will be split up for the first time since they were 15-year-olds, so World Rules gives the friends a last chance to play together in the same club side before starting next year as enemies.

Seeded 15th in the tournament, the Canadians join Germany as the newcomers to the World Rules Finals. The Germans won the last spot in the Europe/Africa zone with a thumping victory over Nigeria in Dusseldorf just days before Martin and his side played their match against Argentina. Germany’s bottom seeding and subsequent match up against the Japanese in Group A might be seen by some as a blessing but the Canadians aren’t so concerned about facing up against the Aussies.

“Realistically we’re aiming for second in the group” says Lafitte, who recently won an extension to his contract with the Montreal Scorpions, “so I’m happy to be matched up against the side we know is the best in the world, not just the one that got lucky last time”. Laffite’s plan for the Wolfpack is for his troops to put in a confidence boosting performance against the Australians and set themselves up for the remaining group games.

The home side, despite their horror showing in the last final, will prove the toughest test of all. With Australian players featuring prominently in all the major leagues around the world the AFL side has the luxury of selecting from over 2000 professional players around the globe. John Paul Laffitte has just 150 players in the North American league and another 100 across Europe and Asia to choose from.

Still, that’s 250 more pros than anyone could have imagined them being able to field a decade ago. With a thriving junior system in Canada the numbers will only increase in years to come.

The Wolfpack have three matches to earn a place in the Quarter Finals but as Martin admits the chances of his side returning to the MCG in the World Rules Final on November 20 are slim so he intends to make the most of his first trip to the stadium. If as expected he is selected by the Magpies with the first selection in January’s International Draft, he’ll make many more appearances at the home of football.

“We’re going into this group as enormous underdogs” says the Canadian captain, “but if we can put in a four quarter effort against the Aussies then we go to Canberra six days later (against Papua New Guinea) knowing that we can match it against higher ranked sides”.

As we walk off the ground, down the race that leads deep into the Barassi (formerly Olympic) Stand, the greatest player that the Canadian game has ever seen asks us to pass on a message to one of the finest Australians to have ever pulled on the boots.
“Tell Tom I’ll see him on Saturday” he says “And tell him that the Wolfpack don’t back down from anybody”.

His coach slaps him on the back and laughs heartily. Confidence is not in short supply in the Canadian camp.

Canada play their remaining Group B games against Papua New Guinea in Canberra on Friday 21 October and India at Kardinia Park on Thursday 27 October.