Surprise, surprise! AFL gaining traction in UK
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Many people would think that playing Aussie Rules in the UK is the domain of ex-pat Aussies and maybe a few Irish players with a Gaelic background. This perception is changing, however, with the code expanding massively around the country.
The University of Birmingham Sharks is one such example of this.
The Sharks are a university Aussie Rules team set up, captained by, and consisting of only British undergraduate students.
The president and founder of the University of Birmingham Sharks Aussie Rules Football Club, Tim Smith says he was inspired to get involved in the game after seeing it on TV.
“[I thought] that looks nuts,” he said.
Smith played for the Birmingham Bears in the Central League in England in its inaugural season before deciding to set up the university team.
“I played for Birmingham in Central. Played for a year and it’s a summer sport in the UK basically ‘cause the ground’s harder. And then I just thought when I finished the season with the Senior team I wanted to carry on playing so I set up the Uni team and that’s basically it,” he said.
The Sharks have experienced considerable success in their short history, losing only two matches since the club was founded. Their early recruitment was very much a nor frills affair though.
“Basically, there’s a sports fair at the beginning of each term. And first term, it was literally just me and a ball. And then we managed to get about 20 people. That was last year. This year we got about 35 people around,” he said.
The Sharks’ scalps include a recent win over established team Cambridge. Their win-loss record is even more impressive considering none of the players had ever played the game before a year and a half ago.
Considering the limited exposure that these players have to AFL in the UK, the fact that Smith was able to recruit more than enough players is pretty astounding. Smith thinks this is because the Aussie game is such a unique code.
“Basically, we don’t turn anyone away. Other teams have trials. We just get on the rugby rejects and we convince them to play Aussie rules and because it’s so different, they go for it,” he said.
The success of the all-British Sharks is evidence that AFL has the potential to be played all around the world. In the UK alone, the last five years the game has experienced incredible growth with the inception of leagues outside of London.
“Outside of London five years ago, there was nothing. The London league has been going for about 20 to 22 years. Oxford and Cambridge have been playing for years. [Now] it’s springing up in all sorts of places and there’s more Unis joining as well,” Smith said.
Aussie Rules UK, is the body responsible for developing Aussie Rules in the UK. The ARUK has plans to expand the leagues to 7 in 2010, to include North East, North West, Cornwall, South East, South West, Central and London divisions with 34 clubs involved in the regions outside of London.
This expansion is indicative of the growing market of Aussie Rules within the UK. And with people like Tim Smith getting involved and promoting the game, I can’t see it slowing anytime soon.