Although Canberra was founded as the nation’s capital in 1913, a significant event in the area did indeed celebrate its 100th birthday on the weekend.
Exactly 100 years ago, the very first game of Australian Football was played in the Canberra-Queanbeyan region, between Duntroon (the Blues) and the Survey Camp at Canberra (the Browns), at Queanbeyan.
The Queanbeyan Age reported the game at the time:
“An exhibition game of football, under Australian rules was played in the Park on Saturday last in the presence of a fair number of spectators…browns 3 goals 3 behinds (21 points) to 2 goals 8 behinds (20 points) for the blues…The park is an ideal ground for the Australian game the cycling track forming the boundaries.”
The ground the Queanbeyan Age refers to exists to this day, located in the centre of Queanbeyan, alongside the swimming pool, with an old asphalt cycling track ringing the oval. It used to be the home of the Queanbeyan Tigers until they moved to their new clubhouse in the growing suburb of Karabar.
Three very famous names were involved in that first match, being war heroes or significant figures in the establishment of Canberra: Charles Young, Fred Piggin and Archie Gilchrist.
The first Canberra Australian Football League was formed in 1924 when the building of the Old Parliament House commenced. Over the next 40 years, the local Australian Football league was fed by the move of many public servants from Melbourne to Canberra, as the new national capital gradually took shape.
Even as other sports started to get established, the strength of the local competition continued throughout the 70s, in particular, with the arrival of St Kilda premiership legend, Cowboy Neill.
Right up to the early 1980s, it was not uncommon for the local grand final to attract up to 15,000 patrons.
Around this time, an ACT representative team, which included Cowboy Neill, and VFL stars from Canberra: Alex Jesaulenko (Jezza), Ian Lowe, Peter Kenny and Robert Anderson defeated a Victoria II state team.
Two years later, the NSWRL invited a Canberra team into the competition (the Raiders), originally based in Queanbeyan; the recruitment of public servants was now predominantly from Sydney and neighbouring regions, such that by the time the Brumbies were formed, Australian Football was very much on the decline.
Victorians who have seen AFL matches staged at Manuka, even when filled to capacity, will recognise that strange feeling of being amongst people with only a faint connection to the game. They might follow the teams of their forefathers, but time and distance has diminished their essential understanding of the game.
As part of the 100 year celebrations, GWS took on Tuggeranong in the NEAFL on the weekend, winning the game by some four goals.
Can GWS playing three or four games per annum rekindle that connection between Canberrans and the indigenous game? The 5,000 foundation members located in Canberra suggests that that is a possibility.
As a sign of what’s possible with the relationship between GWS and Canberra, including the setting up of an AFL academy, was the sight of 19 year old Josh Bruce from Eastlake, all 194 cm of him, hitting the packs hard at Centre-Half Forward.
Perhaps a 100 year old tradition can continue in today’s Canberra. I hope so.