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THE sun is once again shining on Aussies Rules as supporters set about to attract more locals and other expats to sample the excitement of the sport with a special showcase event.
The 2018 Aussie Rules X – Exhibition Day will be staged by the newly-formed Bahrain Suns at the Bahrain Rugby Football Club in Janabiya on Friday between 11am and 10pm.
The kingdom had a team called Bahrain Blues competing in the Australian Football League (AFL) Middle East Regional League up until 2011 and over the past two years, enthusiasts Shannon Crockett and Kolija Koracak, have been steadily helping to renew interest in the sport.
Despite what you may be thinking, what is regarded as football is in fact called soccer in Australia. For Australians, their brand is much more exciting and boasts its very own league – AFL. The sport is also fondly known as ‘footy’ and Aussie Rules.
“It has everything people love about sport – high scoring, tackling, physical contests, fast-paced, no padding, free-flowing, no 0-0 draws and you don’t have to wait 90 minutes for a goal!” explained Melbourne-born Crockett, 39, a key account manager at Gulf Brands International.
“We now have around 10 guys who meet up on a weekly basis between October and April. Our ideal goal is for it to grow to 20 or more. We are not age bias either, if you are 18 or older, you are welcome to join us.
“We usually play for an hour, followed by a bite and a beverage. Our aim is to become a social club first and then build on that.
“Bahrain Suns is the name we decided was the best fit for the new team that matched, not only where we are, but also a nod to one of the new expansion teams in the AFL, Gold Coast Suns.
“If we get enough players that are willing to train on a weekly basis, travel once a month and can commit to the club, our aim is to join the AFL ME.
“We started playing last year when the Australian Navy were stationed in Bahrain. That will continue. Once we solidify our team, we will start with International friendly matches, inviting clubs to Bahrain and then we will travel to do the same.
“Aussie Rules is the nickname given to the sport, rather than Australian Football,” explained Crockett. “We don’t want people to confuse our group with rugby or soccer.”
Developed by three cricketers in the mid-19th Century as a way to keep fit during the winter, AFL is influenced by early forms of football and rugby. However, it has also been suggested that ‘footy’ was influenced by Marngrook, a traditional Aboriginal game that sees players kick a ball – made of animal skin that is stuffed with charcoal or feathers – high into the air.
Having developed in Australia and becoming a nationally-recognised sport played by two teams consisting of 22 players each (only 18 players are on the field at once), footy is now played by more than 100,000 people across 80 countries including the US, South Africa, Canada, Denmark, Sweden and now, once again, in Bahrain too.
Unlike in rugby where you can throw the ball to teammates, in footy, the oval ball must be punched or ‘hand-balled’. However, if their intended teammate is far enough away, the player can kick the ball to them and, should the target catch the ball, it’s called a mark. Similar to a penalty, this mark provides the team with a ‘free kick’.
The objective of the game is to kick the ball between the goals on the opposite end of the field. Should you kick the ball between the two middle posts, that’s a goal earning six points, however, if your ball passes through one inner and one outer post (there are four in total), the team will only receive one point.
Those Australians, like to be different.
On Friday, the Bahrain Suns will be joined by players flying in from the four teams in the UAE – Abu Dhabi Falcons, Dubai Dragons, Dubai Dingoes and Multiplex Bulls – to play in a mini round-robin-style tournament.
“This is more to showcase the sport to people who have never seen it or are curious to understand it and, of course, the people who love the game and want to be able to see a game live,” explained Crockett.
“It’s Australia’s national sport and it’s Australian – it’s our own game, created in the late 1800s and has evolved over the years into the version we play today.
“We don’t mind that it’s not globalised like other sports. There are small Aussie Rules leagues all over the world. Europe has one and so does the US. They’re not professional but set up by people who love the game and want to play.”
At home, the AFL, however, attracts elite players from all over the world including Ireland, the US, Fiji, South Africa and Sudan, to name but a few, and Melbourne hosts an international competiton. “Australia does not compete, we prefer to help develop the game, not dominate it,” added Crockett. “Aussies love teaching and showing Aussie Rules to people wherever we travel to and it’s something we take great pride in. I’ve taught kids in the US how to play and me and the boys from the Abu Dhabi Falcons played with local Sri Lankans after watching a game of cricket in Galle in 2016. It’s a special feeling.
“Plus, anyone can play! This isn’t a game where every player has to be 6ft 5ins tall. The shortest player in the AFL is 5ft 4ins and the tallest is 6ft 9ins.
“I played for a local team at school but then went on to live most of the last 20 years abroad so my access to the sport was always limited.
“It’s more of a passion for the game for me. I played three seasons with Abu Dhabi Falcons. I’m not exactly gifted in the height department, so I mainly play in the forward line – basically, that’s the guy who either kicks goals or helps others to kick goals.”
As well as playing, the Aussies love watching the sport too. The AFL Grand Final is the Australian equivalent to football’s UEFA Champions League Final or American Football’s Super Bowl, and it’s always played on the last Saturday in September.
“It’s so big that no one will book or attend a wedding that weekend, even if it was your own!” said Crockett, who met his co-organiser, Koracak, 44, the Bahrain Merida pro-cycling team’s brand director and marketing consultant, in 2016, as they watched the final.
Koracak once helped start an Aussie Rules team in Croatia and has been keen to work with Crockett to get the Bahrain Suns off the ground and flying.
Last month fans flocked to the rugby club to watch this year’s final action over breakfast. “The game starts at 2.30pm in Melbourne, so due to the time difference we have to watch it at 7.30am,” explained Crockett. “This year West Coast Eagles from Perth played against Collingwood Magpies from Melbourne. Collingwood is the most hated team in the competition, so everyone was cheering for whoever they were playing against.
“It was one of the closest Grand Finals in recent history. The Magpies were in front all day but ultimately lost by 5 points when the Eagles scored a goal with two minutes remaining – each goal is worth six points – so less than a goal decided the result. It had everyone on the edge of their seat. West Coast winning was the ultimate outcome.
“I was born and raised into a family of Richmond Tigers supporters. My parents grew up and met in Richmond so it was in my blood from birth. Our team, however, was one of the worst in the competition for most of my life, so I got teased a lot in school.
“For 37 years we were the laughing stock of the league. That all changed last year when we won our first Grand Final since 1980.
“I flew back from Bahrain to be with my family to watch the game and managed to score a ticket to attend the Grand Final with my dad to see our Mighty Tigers break the Premiership drought. It’s was the greatest day of my life!
“You’re not just waiting for a goal to be scored. There are so many aspects to the game that keep you interested. Look up online the video for ‘AFL Mark of the Year’ and ‘AFL Goal of the Year 2018’ and you won’t be disappointed.”
Find out more on Friday at the rugby club and check out the Facebook page – Bahrain Suns Aussie Rules or email us firstname.lastname@example.org