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Canberra: A footy love story

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13th June, 2019
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Given most Aussie kids’ memories of Canberra comprise FIFO visits to the War Memorial, Art Gallery and Questacon if they were lucky, it may surprise to learn that growing up in the capital was actually pretty good.

Indeed it was pretty great.

It was effectively suburbia in the bush so you were tooling around on a BMX or riding on a path around the entire joint. It was safe, easy to get around.

It was two hours to the snow and the beach.

It was full of sports fields and golf courses.

Cold? Sure, for three months. But you didn’t know any better. Didn’t everyone run about on frost in winter?

For a sporty kid it was grouse. Even ace.

Turn 20 and only your rugby club’s penchant for play-drinking tours of Sydney, San Isidro and New Orleans could hold you in the joint.

Canberra was a “factory” town, the public service not unlike the major employers of similarly-sized Newcastle and Wollongong.

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Sunday through Friday, it was buttoned-down boring.

But there was footy. Great fat lumps of it.

Late ‘70s, early ‘80s, you could see David Campese and Mick O’Connor playing in the local rugby comp.

Johnny Warren was coach of Canberra City. They had a couple old Scotsman played for Liverpool and a little striker called Ivan Gruicic. Frank Farina came to the AIS as a boy, played for the Arrows.

Aussie rules was then probably the biggest game in town on the back of a rotund full-forward called Kevin ‘Cowboy’ Neale who’d played for St Kilda and kicked a thousand goals.

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Didn’t move much, Cowboy. Didn’t have to.

Body like a beer keg and Sergeant Schultz’s moustache, he stood in the goal square and took strong pack marks, and drilled drop punts through the sticks that we flew on each other to mark.

The ACTAFL courted South Melbourne Swans but rugby league brought big city footy to town first and the Raiders became Canberra’s team.

From ’82 you’d go out to Seiffert in Queanbeyan to watch them get flogged by the Eels.

But they were forgiven because they were new and the Eels were shit-hot, and it was big city footy in the town.

And they were your team. Your boys. You could see Terry Fahey and Ron Giteau drinking a schooner in the Mawson Hotel.

Terry Fahey! Ronnie Giteau! Angel freakin’ Marina!

And then Big Mal came to town and carried the club on his big broad back. I was out there in the wet when he banged his arm on the post, sliding in to tackle Darrell Williams.

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He broke it three more times and his arm guard grew ever fatter until it was effectively like an SS Jumbo cricket bat taped to his arm. And he’d use as a bumper bar and once as a club on Mick O’Connor’s shnoz.

Big Mal Meninga with the Green Machine

Mal Meninga of the Raiders (Photo by Getty Images)

And he was a beautiful thing, Big Mal. A real presence. And the Green Machine was bad and mean, the fearsome men from the ACT, and we sang that jingle long into the night in ’89 and Ricky Stuart did a little jig on the dance-floor of Illusions, the odd little discotheque where we pashed off and a posh drink was Southern Comfort and Coke.

And the Raiders knew a dynasty. And I was leaping about in ’94 when they flogged the Dogs, and rugby league was the only game in town.

And then Super League turned up and I don’t reckon I watched a game of rugby league for eight years.

Few reasons: the Super League war was greedy and dumb, a battle by media behemoths for television rights.

Canberra changed their jumper.

Stuart and Brad Clyde went to Canterbury. And Laurie Daley had the knees of a doddering old man.

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Meanwhile, ACT rugby, long the third province and whipping boys, flogged the Waratahs in ’94 before Joe Roff, George Gregan and Stephen Larkham joined the outcasts from Randwick and the Brumbies played entertaining, “running” rugby.

And as league went south, rugby went north.

Then I went overseas where there is no rugby league and I didn’t give a stuff. Stuff the Raiders, stuff rugby league.

But I came back and slowly, slowly, footy fandom came back also. And from about 2012, say, Canberra has been my team again. I’ve cared. They’d blow teams away and get blown away.

In 2016 they scored ridiculous tries from everywhere. They were a flat-out hoot.

Ricky Stuart wore his bleeding heart on his sleeve. Local hero.

And with Ricky coming home, locals came back and backed the machine.

Canberra Raiders coach Ricky Stuart

Canberra Raiders coach Ricky Stuart. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

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And today they’re still a hoot. But they can defend a bit, too.

And now there is a massive horn and the clap, and so many Poms it’s like Huddersfield on holiday.

The Poms try things in attack and rip in in defence. It’s as if growing up on frozen fields instills hardness as normal. Like playing footy on frost – it takes a certain madness.

John Bateman reminds of Ellery Hanley, a backrower with an odd gait who does odd, angular, unexpected things.

Josh Hodgson’s coming back and maybe Joey Leilua. And thus the Machine can beat the hard Sharks at home though it appears Ashley Klein was bullied as a child by kids dressed as Mal.

Or maybe he doesn’t know the rules for knock-on. Or maybe he does and the instruction from on-high is everything that’s dropped is knock-on because if people want consistency, that’s what they’ll get – consistently wrong.

But a win is a win is a win, as they say. And they’re right.

And Raiders’ fans are cautiously daring to dream. A dominant win over Storm, Roosters or Souths and we could go batshit crazy.

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But regardless, these are our people. We like ‘em. And there’s the rub. It’s why the Brumbies are battling for hearts and minds – the people. The stars. Star players sell.

Rory Arnold bolted 50 metres through the meat of the Bulls defence and what did it matter?

Because who are the Bulls? Who’s Rory Arnold?

Before kick-off Paul Martin blew the big bastard horn, he used to do bombs off top tower at Civic Pool in his little footy shorts. He wore a thin little leather choker necklace, might’ve had a shark’s tooth on it, and he thought he was pretty cool, Paul Martin.

Into the match and Aiden Sezer sliced through, we like him, an underdog.

Bailey Simonnson flew in the air and lifted his legs at the death to plant as flying wing-men do, and you can only again credit Andrew Voss who campaigned for the corner flags to be taken out of in-play action, and thus beget this weekly spectacular.

Top stuff, yap man.

Then Jarrod Croker sliced through and it was like the Sharks were not there.

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Jarrod Croker

Jarrod Croker of the Raiders (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

And then they were. And they levelled it 20-all.

Klein ruled Nick Cotric had knocked on while Cotric’s chest was facing his own try-line, an impossibility according to the laws of physics and rugby league.

Chalk it up to consistency.

Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad ran into a melee and was penalised while Matt Moylan wasn’t sent to the sin bin for a professional foul.

But enough carping. Unless you’re a Canberra fan, you probably don’t care.

Though the way they’re going, won’t surprise if you are.