Spreading its wings

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am


Tropical Storm Talim has been closing in on the Pearl River Delta for the past 24 hours and it seems to have sucked all the air south and out of the suburbs of Dongguan.

The weather is stifling, every breath comes laboured and even a short walk leaves you dank and clammy with sweat. The smart place to be is inside but passion does funny things to common sense, especially when it comes to sport. We are sitting on the sidelines of a soccer pitch inside the Guangdong Zhujiang Technical School and watching a bunch of young teenagers take to a game that up until three months ago was unheard of around here, surrounded as we are by the factories and by southern China's relentless urban sprawl. Australian Rules football might belong half a world away but it has these kids in its spell.

'It's an exciting game,' says 18-year-old Wu Maoxue. 'I've played soccer before but this game is more dangerous. You have to tackle and jump really high. None of us knew anything about the game before, but we are learning fast.'

Wu is one of 25 students who have taken in the advice dished out by Confucius centuries ago and now emblazoned high on a nearby school wall - 'I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand' - and have thrown themselves full tilt into an Aussie Rules programme run by Macau-based, Melbourne-born Russell Egan and supported by the school and a few sponsors.

With the help of the likes of physical education teacher Feng Miao and the backing of the school's chairman and president, Zhang Jiangfeng, the group is training up to five times a week, beginning with the basics and hopefully working their way up to competitive games in the near future.

Today they've been put through a series of speed and skill drills and have just finished a game restricted to handball rather than kicking, due to the limited space available. But they've gone at it like the game has long been in their blood.

It's a labour of love for Egan, whose background in Australia was in vocational studies while he was also involved in organising Aussie Rules games for indigenous players. He's made instant believers out of the students here, drawn from the poorer villages of Guangdong.

They come to this school to learn practical skills they hope will allow them to grab a slice of China's rapid economic development.

Australian Rules, says Zhang, is helping them learn the sorts of things that can't be found in any manuals or classroom.

'By learning Australian Rules they are also learning leadership and teamwork skills - it is helping develop their characters,' says Zhang. 'The game is also introducing them to another culture which is something these kids from rural communities would not otherwise be exposed to. It's helping them to think about the opportunities there are in life.'

The past week has seen the news reach the school that the sport's controlling body - the Melbourne-based Australian Football League - has set in place plans to establish an AFL academy in Guangzhou.

Guangzhou is a fitting choice, as the first-ever Chinese-Australian player in the country's top league - Wally Koochew - was born in 1887 to a father who had grown up in nearby Wampoa before emigrating Down Under in 1865. Koochew played four games for the Carlton club in 1908 but there have been precious few players with a Chinese heritage at the game's highest level since.

Lin Honghui, 18, and his friends have heard the news about the AFL's plans and it certainly has them thinking. 'We were told what is happening,' says the rangy one-time basketballer. 'We would all love to play more and learn more about the game.'

Egan is now looking to set up games against a team from Tianjin University. Expat communities in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Macau have ensured regular games of Australian Rules are played but the programme set up in Tianjin in 2005 was the first to officially promote the game in local communities and it has since received the backing of the AFL, the Melbourne Football Club and the City of Melbourne to the tune of the A$1.5 million, to help build a purpose-built oval for the sport, which was launched in October last year.

While facilities at the Guangdong Zhujiang Technical School are light years away from that, what these kids lack in equipment they more than make up for in enthusiasm as they duck in and out of makeshift obstacle courses and lay boot on to battered pigskin.

The bigger picture is not only seeing this bunch learn how to play the game but getting them to a level where they can help spread the word, says Egan.

'We think the best way to spread the game is to teach these kids how to coach as well,' he says. 'What we don't want is for them to learn the game and to learn to love the game, and then it just ends when they finish up here at the school.

'We hope to get them to a level where they can maybe go out to schools and start programmes like this and get more and more kids involved all over the region.'