Led Zeppelin’s epic rocker “Kashmir” played during the three quarter time break of GWS v Adelaide at Spotless stadium.
The ascending ostinato of John Paul Jones’ eastern string arrangement and John Bonham’s massive-sounding effected drums never fail to build a sense of excitement and anticipation, and nowhere in the AFL world are these two emotions more prevalent right now than in Greater Western Sydney supporters.
The quarter just ended, in which the Giants quashed the brewing Adelaide revival with eight goals, provided the reason.
The side where only seven players have over 100 matches experience moved the ball with such precision and cohesion, and showed their newfound stamina to run out a match better than a team with Taylor Walker on song and Eddie Betts kicking them from ridiculous angles.
Not what most predicted heading into the year, and scary times for the teams south of the border. But on the flipside, very good times for AFL in Sydney.
The Swans and Giants now sit a game clear of Collingwood in the top four with six wins each. However, it’s in the stands that you find the biggest reason to be optimistic about AFL’s future in the Rugby heartland.
“Fan engagement” is at its purest and most sprightly in the cheersquads of the harbor city.
The week before at ANZ Stadium, as Geelong threatened to pull ahead, local supporters maintained their hope and voice before the Swans broke the game open in the last term.
Amongst the lasting boos Steve Johnson copped for his low knock on Jarrad McVeigh, the nervous groans preceding Buddy’s every set shot and the criticisms of where Gillon McLachlan is taking the game, this Melbournian felt like he’d never left.
Back at Spotless, though GWS failed to answer Adelaide’s four goal final term, supporters of the newest club maintained the battle cry.
People of all ages, sexes and ethnicities echoed the leader’s roars of “WE ARE THE GIANTS!” and “G, W, G-W-S!”, their enthusiasm undaunted by the fact a new chant began every half minute.
Fans as young as five wore their colors proudly, reserving their loudest shouts for “Jezza” (Jeremy Cameron), while the more colorful supporters sported orange, grey and white dreadlocks.
And after every goal, the voice over’s demand of “Giants fans, WE NEED TO HEAR YOU” was met, not with bored, half-hearted groans like in Melbourne, but a loud, passionate howl that belied the attendance of under 10,000.
These fans view the game like a child would a Christmas Day present: Shiny, new and exciting, and to be enjoyed to the maximum extent. And according to Greg Dixon, GWS cheersquad leader, AFL’s popularity can only grow.
“In just the last four matches, we’ve seen a huge increase in people turning up to games,” Dixon, hair spray-painted orange, says proudly. “I reckon there were over a thousand here at 11 just for the reserves game.”
“Fan recruitment’s a big part of our mantra, too. That’s why we get every member to wear their colors and send half the cheersquad out to do a lap of the ground at three quarter time.”
“People in Sydney and down in Melbourne question whether we’re just a project or experiment of the AFL, if we’re temporary. But I can tell you, we’re here to stay.”
So, there’s reason to be hopeful that AFL will endure in its final frontier, though this hope must be tempered by pragmatism: Rugby will always be number one.
In the weekdays that separated these two matches, all local sports talk centred on the looming State of Origin series. Double-page spreads focused on die-hard Blues and Maroons fans and key players for each state, while the few words AFL did receive concerned Buddy and his latest reunion with the Hawks.
“We’ll never be as big as the more established teams with 40,000 plus members,” Dixon concedes.
Nonetheless, the May weekends in Sydney offered a glimpse into what AFL in New South Wales might be at the height of its success. Always the second football code, but with a following large enough to warrant two teams, each playing an entertaining brand of football, and generating enough media coverage and scrutiny a senior team requires to thrive.
Essentially, an achievement to be proud of.
Hopefully Gill, Mike and the AFL Commission look beyond the money, see the success the expansion to Sydney has had, and in the future establish teams in areas already loyal to the game.
I hear Tassie’s keen…