Mike Pyke and AFL’s uneasy relationship with the rah-rahs
Within the rather culturally homogenous ranks of AFL, regional accents that are not Australian are generally, of course, Irish.
Yet sitting on the Swans’ interchange bench during the AFL Grand Final at the MCG is Mike Pyke, whose cultured twang betrays an adolescence spent somewhat removed from the game’s traditional weaning grounds.
Pike, at two metres tall and over 100 kilograms, hails from Victoria, British Columbia. That’s where Nelly Furtado’s from, you know.
As well as being one of the AFL’s most valuable overseas imports, Pyke is also the game’s highest profile convert from Rugby Union.
The Swans also boast Lewis Roberts-Thomson, another who shunned his private school breeding with the 15-man game to take up a sport which, for many among the grammar school set, remains a baffling free-for-all with more in common with netball than anything else.
Pyke’s career represents represents an interesting cross-code relationship that has been largely dwarfed by the fierce crossfire between AFL and Rugby League.
As the nation’s two most popular sports, the almighty rigmarole over the Israel Folau and Karmichael Hunt sagas takes centre stage over any to-and-fro between AFL and Rugby. But to and fro there is, and will continue to be.
And Pyke wasn’t just any rugby player. His talents won him a contract with Montaubon in France’s Top 14, while his intercept try off a Dan Carter pass remains one of the most satisfying memories from the 2007 Rugby World Cup.
Pyke signed with the Swans in 2008, having established quickly that his fitness, strength and speed made him ideal for the game, as proved to be the case. A clash with Pyke is a painful encounter.
His success has surprised many, but is rugby not a closer match with AFL’s skill set than Rugby League? As the Wallabies have proven so depressingly in 2012, rugby is increasingly an aerial game where the ‘up and under’ or ‘garryowen’ is the most effective tactic available for every team, except the All Blacks.
The skills of fullbacks and wingers in rugby are developing in such a way that soon we will see the majority of high balls taken with hands above heads, a la Billy Slater, Jamie Lyon or Lance Franklin. Will this make rugby as attractive a realm as Rugby League for AFL recruiters?
However, it could naturally work the other way too. Franklin, for example, has the build of the most hurly-burly of flankers and the astonishing fitness of AFL players could bring new dimensions to rugby (any converts would have to get a tad fatter, mind you).
The age-old problem remains with AFL though: no one cares about it outside of a few parts of Australia. Our Mr Pyke’s exploits are going pretty much unreported in Canada, whereas his Top 14 endeavours found plenty of followers back home.
Any athletes to make the switch from Rugby Union, a much more international game than League, face the relative ignominy of a localised and parochial sport. No more Twickenham, Stade de France or Murrayfield. Hello Blacktown Olympic Park of a Saturday afternoon.
For the record, here are five rugby players who would be much, much better than Israel Folau in AFL: Israel Dagg (New Zealand), Rob Kearney (Ireland), Patrick Lambie (South Africa), Dom Shipperley (Australia), Juan Martin Hernandez (Argentina).