All about heart and hate – the bedrock of any AFL rivalry worth its salt | Craig Little

Craig Little
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Travis Boak of the Power and Riley Knight of the Crows push each other during the round three match at Adelaide Oval.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Morne de Klerk/Getty Images</span>
Travis Boak of the Power and Riley Knight of the Crows push each other during the round three match at Adelaide Oval. Photograph: Morne de Klerk/Getty Images

It is AFL football’s rivalries that do the heavy lifting in providing the game its passion and its heritage, having at their origin a sense of place – that sense of belonging that keeps us turning up week after week, loss after loss.

On Saturday night, 53,698 people – a record AFL crowd at the Adelaide Oval – turned out for “Showdown XLII”. Twenty years ago, it was a local brewery that gave the contest its “Showdown” moniker, and too much beer at the Ramsgate Hotel five years after that fermented the rivalry in football folklore.

Despite the Ramsgate fight at Henley Beach being a relatively tame affair with only a few players throwing punches, the hotel’s place in the collective consciousness of South Australian football fans become an epic akin to Enter the Dragon. Instead of Mark Ricciuto’s Lee impaling the sinister Josh Carr on his own spear, he had him spread-eagled over the bonnet of a patron’s Mercedes-Benz, while others hid under tables in the beer garden.

Recalling the fight on The Crows Show on Sunday, Ricciuto said he never threw a punch at Carr but let him know that he wasn’t happy with his tagging tactics earlier that day. “I was just annoyed, I’d had a few drinks and it shouldn’t have happened.”

You sense he only means that in retrospect, as if it happened the Saturday night just gone, Adelaide and Port Adelaide players would be touring South Australia on a statewide apology tour. But 15 years ago, the brawl was a publicist’s dream. The Ramsgate had to direct all media traffic to an official spokesman specifically put in place as a result of the incident, and several Crows players donned boxing gloves at the Ramsgate less than four months later to yack it up for a Fox Footy segment. The publicity resulted in consecutive Showdown crowds of 50,000 at Football Park. Ten years on a media conference was held at the Ramsgate prior to Showdown XXXIII.

But the rivalry is deeper even than the on-field battles, barroom brawls and an ill-disciplined, behind-the-play blow by Paddy Ryder on Adelaide’s Riley Knight. It is something that Sean Gorman and David Whish-Wilson capture in their introduction to their book, Derby, on another great rivalry, the Western derby between West Coast and Fremantle.

…the importance of a strongly felt sense of place, and of belonging, based around the suburbs and schools and landmarks of our city and state, and in turn how that sense of place and loyalty is purified by competitive feelings towards the perceived arrogance and dismissiveness encapsulated in the word ‘Victorian’.

But there would be few Victorians who aren’t envious of the sense of occasion and drama attached to the Showdown (or the Western derby), and fewer still that would dismiss it. Adelaide continues to shape itself as the competition’s most attractive team to watch, and the unpredictable resurgence of Port Adelaide’s has hit the town in the first two rounds like Sam Powell-Pepper’s brass band. The game was high stakes even for neutrals.

And for the most part it lived up to its billing with Port getting to within a goal early in a brutal last quarter, only to succumb to their own mistakes and the heroics of Crows’ captain Taylor Walker, with two booming, telling goals to break the Power and level the Showdowns at 21 apiece.

The following day at the MCG where a grey, wet and wretched afternoon squeezed out any little bit of autumn that may have slipped into Jolimont, you needed gumboots just to wade through the animosity.

Nobody hates Carlton more than Essendon fans, and nobody hates Essendon more than Carlton fans. But there is more than enough hate to go around. To the rest of the league, both teams have recently gone from being loathsome to being contemptible – Carlton by agency of systematic salary-cap cheating and Essendon through “a disturbing picture of a pharmacologically experimental environment never adequately controlled or challenged or documented within the club”.

On paper, Essendon had the upper hand having started the season impressively with consecutive wins. Carlton, despite their all-dark kit, had looked about as intimidating as a villain in a John Hughes movie. But paper counts for nought when Old Testament hatred collides with Old Testament weather. Or indeed at any time when these two teams meet.

The whole mad enterprise was an exercise in the Bauhaus school – or Ross Lyon school – of football aesthetics, where there is an almost puritanical aversion for adornment and anything extravagant is a crime. Marc Murphy’s extraordinary goal from tight in the pocket during the third quarter was the exception.

Essendon was simply out-slogged, with Carlton recording a club-record 111 tackles. While rain also doused the Bombers’ running game, their forward structure broke down on its own accord, with Lachie Plowman and Sam Docherty consistently positioning themselves behind the ball to intercept Essendon’s forward forays.

“When you’ve got conditions like that, it comes back a little bit of old-school days,” said Carlton coach Brendon Bolton. “It’s not pretty, and it’s a bit about heart.”

It’s all about heart and it’s all about hate. All great rivalries are.

The only thing that could enhance the Carlton-Essendon rivalry (or the Showdown, or the Western derby) is to only play it once a year as part of a fixture where each team plays each other once. The fixture in its current form, apart from being inequitable, has too many games that are less a battle for premiership points than an excuse to fill space and time in the television schedule.

But that is an argument for another time, and one likely more difficult to prosecute come round 20 when 750,000 tune in to see another 50,000-plus crowd at the Adelaide Oval for Showdown XLIII.

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