Arms outstretched, it is a mad dash to anticipate the ball’s descent. Aiming skyward, bodies leap before colliding. Triumphantly, one player emerges with ball in hand, and kicks it downfield. Known among Australians as Australian Rules Football or footy, the sport combines the ball handling techniques of both soccer and rugby. Two 18-player teams battle for an oblong-shaped leather ball, which is carried, kicked and passed around a large oval pitch. Points are gained by passing the ball through the end field goal posts. It is a fast-paced game dubbed “hockey on grass” by Canadian players. Though the sport remains little known in Canada, footy enthusiasts are hoping to build up a following of players and fans on the West Coast and across the country.
In Australia people typically participate in sports through local sports clubs, which are not only home to seasoned players, but also places where anyone can safely learn to play. Club members and players are encouraged to help build the organization, which generates a sense of ownership and community. Footy’s on-field camaraderie is reflected off the field. Post-practice or post-game beers are often shared with the opposing team at the host team’s respective clubhouse or sponsoring pub. Some sports in Canada, such as rugby or soccer, are organized through clubs, although drop-in rec centres or beer leagues are a common option for less committed players.
Keen to see footy grow in Canada, Greg Everett, international liaison officer for the AFL (Australian Football League) Canada, recognizes that the lack of sports-club culture in Canada makes it hard for footy to take off. Even with the buzz created by Victoria native Mike Pyke playing professionally in the AFL for the Sydney Swans, and regular season games airing on Canadian sports networks, footy has yet to attract a large audience. “At the moment, the focus is on more people playing the game,” says Everett, who actively participates in and encourages the Canadian footy community. Sharing a similar sentiment, Toronto-based company Aussie X has been growing the sport in Canada, introducing footy and other Australian sports to prospective young players through school workshops and team-building days.
B.C. AFL President Karl McGrath oversees what he describes as a “player-run league,” which promotes and prioritizes building healthy teams with AFL Canada’s assistance. “The league’s main focus is to provide sport for people,” says McGrath. League rules ensure that experienced players (usually Australian expatriates) make up no more than 50 percent of a team’s players, keeping the team open to players of all levels of experience. Newcomers can check out a practice and have a go before playing a game. Having grown up playing footy in Australia, McGrath is no stranger to club culture and sees that most Canadian players enjoy the social side of the sport. Many return the next season and maintain new friendships throughout the year. Vancouver Cougars footy player Ash Steier, who represented Canada in the 2011 International Cup in Australia, is a returning player who has embraced footy and the club culture it provides.
B.C. footy veteran Mike McFarlane has run footy workshops since 2001, and has introduced over 50,000 kids to the sport along the way. The workshops inspired McFarlane to launch the North Delta Junior Australian Football League, which has continued to introduce new generations to footy. It has even encouraged some parents, whose children have attended McFarlane’s workshops, to play footy themselves. For instance, Lorna Moore, who switched from softball to footy, still plays at age 50.
A dynamic sport within a supportive community, footy is becoming part of the Canadian landscape. If you are interested in checking it out, contact the B.C. AFL to find local clubs for men’s teams and AFL Canada for women’s teams.