Thu, 02 Oct 2003

Aussie rules Gecoks prepare for international tournament

Marian Carroll, Contributor, Kuta, Bali

In a small field off a main road in Bali, bemused locals look on as a group of Australians kick a smooth leather ball shaped something like a jackfruit between two palm trees serving as goalposts.

They share the field with groups of locals playing soccer, kite-flyers and dogs, which appear oblivious to the sweating expats charging across the rock-hard ground.

Coach Peter Muir directs the action as the 10 or so guys who have turned up for this week's session run through the drills: kicking, handballing, swearing and encouraging each other.

The Geckos, Bali's only Australian Rules football club, are in training for an international tournament to be held on the resort island next month as part of the Kuta Karnival festivities to commemorate last year's bombings.

The team consists mostly of solidly built expat Australian surfers motivated as much by the promise of cold beers at the local pub after practices as by their love of the game, but this evening they are joined by a 20-year-old Balinese named Wayan, built like a marathon runner and about half the size of his teammates.

Wayan, who it turns out is a middle-distance runner introduced to the team by his boss, has earned their respect simply by having a go. Most of the locals who watch with a mixture of admiration and bewilderment have no intention of joining in and risking a knee in the back as an opponent makes a desperate grab for the ball flying over their heads, or ending up on the bottom of a human pack fighting for a stray footy.

Peter admits most Indonesians consider Australians "footy- mad", having seen them knocking back beer after beer in the bars and yelling obscenities at the televisions during live telecasts of the finals for the Australian national competition held around this time every year.

But he is keen to get more locals involved in the sport and eventually hopes to set up a Bali league modeled on the Java Australian Football League, which was set up by the Geckos' nemesis, the Jakarta Bintangs, Indonesia's only other Aussie Rules club.

"There are some Indonesians interested in playing with us, but they only come to trainings and have never played in a proper match," Peter says.

"A lot of them are put off by the unfamiliarity of it. They have good hand-eye coordination, it's just that the shape of the ball is different to what they're used to and the game is a bit more physical" than soccer.

However, Wayan does not appear to have any trouble handling the oval-shaped ball or following the fast-paced game unique to Australia, nor is he put off by the thought of being immobilized by a tackle from one of the towering giants at training.

"I will come back to play again," Wayan says. "Using that ball is already easy for me."

However, a soccer player sharing the field, Ketut, does not have any desire to join the antics being carried out by the Aussies, which he describes as "impressive, but unusual".

"I can't play that game, I will just stick to soccer .... They (the Aussies) are very tall and strong," he adds.

As the sun goes down, the unlit field behind Jl. Seminyak Raya -- the continuation of Jl. Legian -- starts to empty. The kite- flyers wind up their strings, the soccer players wander home, the dogs start rummaging around for dinner and the Geckos warm down as Peter gives a pep talk for the upcoming tournament.

"We've really got to start training how we would play," he says, taking a swig from his water bottle and ignoring the fact that during an organized game, the Geckos would play on a slightly bigger field devoid of the usual circus troupe and would be aiming at goalposts rather than palm trees.

Next week's tournament will see the team, set up in 1997 after a visiting Jakarta Bintangs player challenged an expat in Bali to a game of footy, play half a dozen Asian expat teams, including from Jakarta, which won last year's inaugural event, as well as Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Several teams from Australia were expected to take part but only one -- from Bateman's Bay on the south coast of New South Wales -- has confirmed its participation, the others canceling due to security concerns.

The Bali side is feeling confident of winning this year's cup and they have reason to be: they have recruited a former professional player from Australia who was injured in last year's bombing and will be in town for the anniversary services.

Jason McCartney, whose injuries included shrapnel wounds and burns to 50 percent of his body, retired from the North Melbourne Kangaroos following the attack.

Although his body is still recovering, he will don a Geckos jersey for the one-day tournament in what he describes as a "fitting and symbolic" move that, in many ways, could mark the pinnacle of his career.

"Throughout my career premierships have eluded me, so playing for the Geckos in this tournament will be like my premiership match," the 29-year-old says.

That sounds like a big statement but Jason has a special affinity for Bali: it was his first overseas trip as a 19-year- old, and this trip back will be his third since the bombing and his 13th over the last decade.

"Every year, whether with the footy trip or not, I always ended up in Bali and the fellas at the club always used to joke that when I retired I would end up coaching the Bali side. Now I'll be playing for them in this tournament, which is pretty funny," he says.

However, incumbent coach Peter has no reason to fear a coup just yet.

While Jason and his wife, whom he married two months after the bombing, had previously considered moving to Bali more permanently, the changes in his life over the past year have put that decision on the back burner for now.

"You wouldn't rule it out, I love the place, but maybe now it's more of a long-term consideration," Jason says.

His involvement will inspire the Geckos to new heights as the players remember the experiences they shared in the aftermath of last year's attack, which occurred one week after they competed.

"It (the bombing) brought us, as a club and as friends, closer together," Peter says.

"You were so thankful you could shake someone else's hand; a couple of the fellas were lucky to be alive. Being the coach, I'm going to use that to our advantage in the tournament."

The teams will play a unique, modified version of Aussie Rules, with 12-minute halves instead of the usual 25-minute quarters, nine players a side instead of 18 and a square soccer field which is much smaller than the oval grounds used in Australia.

The 2003 Bali Nines Australian Football Tournament will be held on Oct. 11 at Lapangan Samudra, Jl. Blambangan in Kuta. Games will be held virtually nonstop from 8 a.m. until the top two teams play in the final scheduled for 4:30 p.m.

-- I-BOX

General definition of Australian Rules Football

Aussie Rules was created in Victoria state more than 100 years ago. It is now the third biggest sport in Australia by participation, and is watched by more than 14 million people a year (two-thirds of Australia's population) across all levels.

It is generally played between two teams of 18 players on a large oval field, and because a lot of the action takes place in the air, with the ball punted distances up to 60 meters, the sport is sometimes referred to as "aerial ping-pong" by the uninitiated.

In fact, it requires a lot of strength, speed and stamina, as well as skill and strategy.

Its main distinction from rugby is that a player who cleanly catches a ball kicked at least 15 meters is awarded a "mark", allowing them to play the ball from that spot without being tackled.

Players may not throw in order to pass the ball, but instead must punch the ball from a stationary hand. The move is called a "handball", but the recipient is not awarded a mark for a handball and may be tackled by an opponent as soon as he catches the ball.

Any player may attempt kicking a goal from anywhere on the field, but due to the sheer size of the field most attempts are made from within the 50-meter goal area located in front of each team's goal posts.

Kicking the ball cleanly straight through the middle of the tallest two posts earns that team one goal, equivalent to six points. One point is awarded if the ball goes between one of the smaller posts on either side of the main posts, or if the ball is touched on the way through.

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