THREE names were on the scoreboard. Three teams were warming up, in front of three sets of goalposts. I lingered near one, the Horsham RSL Diggers (known as United), and was surprised at the pre-game banter: “Put love into it, fellas,” urged the United runner. “Put love into every kick!”
It would be an unusual game.
But of course: it had been an unusual build up. Artist Gabrielle de Vietri and her collaborator Renae Fomiatti had rolled into Horsham, in north-western Victoria, set up their round blackboard table at football training, in umpires’ rooms, at community meetings and out in the street. “What shape should the ground be?” they asked again and again. “How many goals?” and “How many players each side?” They handed over the chalk, watched and listened.
They videoed these consultations and the footage is compelling. Ordinarily, football is given. Like the cold, hard south-westerly winds with which it shares the winter, football is a fact of life.
Except that now, it was not. A young United player stands with his arms crossed. “You know what,” he says, “I just had this crazy idea.” He wipes the board clean and explains a complicated rotating defensive formation in which one team is pitted against two half-teams for ten minutes at a time. “This encourages, obviously, the two teams to work together.”
In another video, a teenaged umpire holds court, and immediately rejects the absurd notion of a triangular ground, suggested by others. He chalks a circular field and divides it into three zones for the umpires to cover. “It’ll be different,” he concludes, “but I’m sure we can work around it.
This was the project: take something unquestionable and question it. People, come here: what do you think?
At the ground, game-time approached. The volunteer on the gate declared that most drivers were expressing “bewilderment” upon arrival. But they duly nosed their cars around the boundary line, as is the custom. A local pirate-rock band was singing angry shanties on the PA, including one dedicated to the umpires (“What do they know? What do they know?”). Colourful emissaries of Melbourne’s inner-north arts scene lazed in the sun, eating hot chips and waving away flies.
At the pre-game briefing, only two teams showed up: United and Noradjuha-Quantong (Quannie). Taylors Lake players were late. Would they come at all? The others gathered around the blackboard table and heard the rules: it would be three sets of goals, eight a side, contesting throughout 20-minute thirds. If scores were tied at the end of the game, the winner would be determined by golden goal in extra time.
“It’s very unlikely this will happen,” explained Yariv, the designated rule boss, “but the third team can still win – if they kick enough goals in overtime to take the lead, without either of the others scoring a goal.”
At lunch, I sat with the Quannie boys. Their captain, Hilly, a redhead wearing Ray Ban knockoffs and a mischievous smile, was having trouble with the maths. “There’ll be 20 players on the ground,” he declared. “Three teams of eight. [pause] Wait. Nah, 22. Wait…”
He was certain, however, that the $1000 prize money would come in handy on next weekend’s footy trip to Adelaide.
The Quannie coach, Jarred, was dead serious. He’d thought carefully about tactics and decided that free-riding would pay off: “Don’t over-commit with the tackling, boys,” he said, in the rooms. “If there’s a contest, sit back and wait for the ball to spill out.”
Sit back? Wait for the ball? Never before has an Aussie Rules coach so blasphemed. It was unthinkable. But it was smart. And the United coach, Kev, was onto the same strategy. This was, as the posters declared, “a different game”.
As the siren sounded, I positioned myself near the changing rooms (United and Taylors Lake were sharing) on a bench with a neatly dressed local couple, Baz and Joy. Their allegiance was divided: Baz is a life member of United, but their son and grandson play for Taylors Lake. “What do you make of all this?” I asked.
“It’ll be interesting, won’t it?” Baz replied.
A centre bounce – only two ruckmen contest this time, but three teams wait around the ball. (Photo: Tarni Rees)
Most players and punters were tipping chaos. But within a minute, order reigned. It was fast, clean, high-scoring football.
From turnovers in others’ backlines, both Taylors Lake and Quannie moved the ball swiftly by the open flanks – which, in this match, were the shortest route home. Quannie full forward Jordan Huff marked and goaled, and then, inside a minute, Taylors Lake responded.
“It’s a lot of fun, this,” Joy declared.
“Geez, they’re having a go, aren’t they?” Baz observed.
At one-third time, Taylors Lake had kicked five, Quannie four, and United three. It wasn’t clearly art, but it sure was sport.
Taylors Lake had been winless through 2013, but recruited strongly in recent weeks. Their new captain-coach, Deeks, a fast, tough, tattooed onballer, was their best player in the first quarter. In the huddle, he saw no reason to diverge from traditional footy-speak: “We used our vision, we ran hard, we won the contests,” he said.
After the break, his team bolted to a three-goal lead, before a Quannie comeback. Three majors in three minutes to big Huff had the arts-scenesters in raptures: “The Huff is making his name today!” the dapper commentator cried. “The ladies in the canteen are going crazy; hot chips are spraying everywhere like champagne.”
From then on, the full forward was known only as “the Hufflehoff”. (The Hufflehoff, it turned out later, was enjoying the commentary). But all the while, he was manned by an undersized United full back. Would Taylors Lake double-team him instead?
The Hufflehoff marks strongly. (Photo: Tarni Rees)
At two-third time, Quannie were up by a goal on Taylors Lake, and five goals on United. In the huddles, the tactics thickened. The coaches of the two leading teams directed their charges to focus on one another: “We’re going to have to play a game in two,” Jarred told Quannie. “Don’t worry if United kick goals.”
On resumption, Deek, who’d instructed his Taylors Lake teammates in the normal fashion – to “win the hard footy” and “have a crack” – set up one goal and booted another. They were in front.
Play tightened, Quannie pressed, the crowd grew even louder. Zooma, from United, started a fight at half forward. (“He’s a bit of a hothead,” said Baz). His teammates, now running loose, scored three easy goals to narrow the gap.
At the final siren, two teams were level, with United only 15 points adrift. The umpires conferred, confirmed the scores, and readied the teams for overtime. Around the outer, spectators were suddenly aficionados, explaining the rules to all within earshot: a golden goal to win, and United were still in it!
The scores were tied at the end of the third third. (Photo: Gabrielle de Vietri)
Play began again. United kicked the first, and their bench leapt and roared – two more and they’d record an extraordinary victory. Then the Hufflehoff marked strongly on a flank, but his long shot (for his eighth goal) missed. Quannie held the ball near their goal, and a quick snapshot nearly won it again. A Taylors Lake backman, without teammates nearby, handpassed to United instead. Finally, they cleared it. Taylors Lake pushed the ball forward, and a player ran into goal. The end was euphoric.
“What a game!” cheered a fat man with a stubby. “What a sport!”
In the warm, waning sun, de Vietri called for speeches by the losing captains and then the victors. Taylors Lake were presented with a three-handled trophy and medals. They posed for the post-game photo like ecstatic premiership winners.
It had all the trappings of an important game: a bustling kiosk, banners, posters and tri-colour bunting, a big, loud crowd and cars beeping for every goal. Everything about it was familiar; every footy cliché was uttered. But then again, it was different. There were three teams.
Deek, the winning captain, said he hoped it would be an annual game. “We’re happy to be a part of it. You’ve done a mighty job!”
Two players chaired de Vietri from the field. For months before the game, she had cajoled and encouraged and persisted. Mostly, people were sceptical. But on the day, with the game now a reality, the Quannie coach had told me a three-team game was inevitable: “I suppose it was only a matter of time,” he said.
Horsham is in the federal seat of Mallee, which is often described as the most conservative electorate in the country. Something unusual happened there that afternoon. It wasn’t inevitable, but it worked.
Afterwards, Frank, one of the field umpires, was effusive: “I reckon it’ll catch on. I reckon they’ll try it next preseason – we’ll be recommending it, for sure. It’s different. But you need change, don’t you?”