Australian football tackles Missouri

Sunday, October 10, 2010 | 7:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:41 p.m. CDT, Monday, October 11, 2010

COLUMBIA — The St. Louis Blues have had a bad season.

Leading up to this weekend’s national championships in Louisville, the Blues have traveled long distances to play physically demanding games before unimpressive crowds.

None of the players were paid for playing, they’ve had their share of injuries and oftentimes many must juggle the sport with legal careers.

You may have guessed, these Blues don’t play hockey.

They play Australian Rules football, a unique athletic game, that for many Australians has become both part of the culture and almost a religion.

For those Americans who might have caught the sport on ESPN2 in the awkward early morning time slots, Aussie football appears a strange, brutal, fast-paced chaos of men in shorts, singlets and knee-high socks continuously chasing an oval-shaped ball.

Aussie football, which contrary to popular belief is nothing like Rugby, has spread across the U.S. in the past decade and a half.

Missouri has played an important role in the sport's U.S. development, producing two strong teams, the Blues and the Kansas City Power. Both teams will compete in the weekend's championships expected to draw about 1,000 USAFL athletes.

The United States Australian Football League now boasts four national divisions each comprising eight amateur teams made up of about 30 men. The USAFL also has a burgeoning womens' league that toured Australia this year.

St. Louis Blues captain Jim Martin is a 37-year-old U.S. born Missouri attorney with a wife and two kids.

After being introduced to the sport by a fellow attorney more than a decade ago, Martin is now the USAFL central region vice-president. He still remembers the first time he watched an Aussie rules football game on ESPN in the '80s.

“I thought it was crazy. I thought there were these guys running around and it didn’t look like there were any rules,” Martin said. “Now that I know how to play it, I tell people it’s like tackle soccer with a football because people think it’s like rugby."

“It’s more like soccer because there’s no offsides, you can move forwards and backwards, it’s free-flowing. The only difference is it is a much bigger field, and there are a lot more people, and you can hit each other.”

Today there are two formal regional leagues within the national competition, the Mid-American AFL and the Eastern AFL who play home and away games throughout their summer season.

But for standalone teams like Denver and California, which must travel long distances to find opponents, it’s still an ad hoc system.

USAFL president Richard Mann, an Australian physiotherapist, was surprised to discover Americans playing the unique sport when he visited Cincinnati in 1996.

“This guy invited me out for a kick of the footy, and I thought he meant just the two of us,” Mann said. “And I got there and there was like 16 guys showing up for training.”

The league developed organically through word of mouth over the following year, with the first formal game played between Cincinnati and Louisville that year, Mann said.

By the start of 1997 teams had popped up in Indianapolis, California and Nashville.

“At that point it was typically ex-pat Aussies who wanted to bring football to the U.S, so teams started popping up all over the place,” Mann said. “Now we have Americans starting up teams. We’ve had U.S. college football players contact us after seeing AFL on ESPN2 and asking how they can apply to our national team.”

But still many Americans have never heard of “footy,” as it is commonly referred to by Australians and American enthusiasts alike.

Many would not have known that small groups across the U.S. gathered in the early hours of Saturday morning, for the second week in a row, to watch the Australian Grand Final on ESPN2.

The Australian Football League’s Grand Final is without a doubt Australia’s answer to the Super Bowl and it’s been around for almost a century longer.  

Footy was developed in Australia in the mid 1800s to keep cricketers fit during the winter, according to the Australian Football League.

The first incarnation of the AFL came a decade later when the Victorian Football Leagues’ seven founding clubs were established.

One of these was St Louis’ namesake, the Carlton Blues. An Australian Carlton fan created the Missouri team not knowing St Louis already had the Blues hockey team, according to Martin.

The 14-year-old Blues have had to overcome logistical hurdles in the U.S their 146-year-old Australian counterpart would not have faced.

The iconic four white goal posts needed to play the sport which have sat at the opposite ends of Australian cricket grounds for decades are substituted with PVC piping on soccer pitches in the U.S.

“The end posts are probably 20-foot high and then you put them together and you’ve got 40 foot posts,” Martin said. “Somebody who has a pickup keeps them in their garage during the offseason.”

Mann said despite rapid growth in the skills, membership and international profile of the league, it still operates at an amateur level.

“Even though we’ve got guys playing all over Australia on football scholarships we’re still at the grass roots level where we’re still out there walking behind a paint marker to mark a boundary,” he said.

And then there were some hurdles to recruitment.

ESPN broadcast AFL to an U.S. audience 30 years ago when the sport was more barbaric, which Mann says has acted as a deterrent to prospective players.

“There is still that perception that it’s overly violent and overly physical,” he said. “I’ve literally spoken to guys that are 6-6 and 250 pounds and they’ve looked at me and said ‘no I’m not going to play that sport it’s too rough.’

“But football is a very highly skilled, athletic game.”

The USA’s American Revolution national team has competed in the International Australian Football Cup, which is held in Australian’s Melbourne since the first international game in 2002.

This weekend St Louis has it's chance at redemption, but not as a standalone team. It has joined forces with Cincinnati and Louisville to make the Ohio Valley River Rats. The Rats must overcome Austin, Portland and Atlanta to qualify for the division III final on Sunday.

Higher up the ladder, Kansas City will play off against Milwaukee, Dallas and Calgary for its chance to take out the division II final.

These games will not be televised.

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