Fair dinkum! 'Footy' has arrived in HK
Dragons host Asian Championship of a game where no quarter is given
Sometime around the end of the Jurassic period 135 million years ago, Australia, still joined with Antarctica at the time, split from the rest of the Pangean supercontinent and headed east. Since then its unparalleled environment has been a breeding ground for the evolution of the unique and bizarre - the duck-billed platypus, koala bears, the Skippy TV series and Australian Rules Football.
''You don't get any more Australian than Footy,'' said Matthew Wu Man-chung, deputy vice-captain of the Hong Kong Dragons team who today host the Australian Rules Football Asian Championship. ''You're really immersing yourself in Australian culture.''
Wu, the only fully-fledged Cantonese member of the Dragons, picked up the game while at school in Melbourne, briefly joining the ranks of the Fitzroy club's under-19 squad before playing in the Victoria Amateur Football Association league, one of the toughest non-professional competitions in the game.
'I copped a lot of racism when I was a kid, because there weren't any other Asians playing. It's quite daunting because it's a blokey type of game. You're really immersing yourself in Australian culture. My teammates were always great, but your opponents would do anything to put you off. But while you might be a novelty before the game starts, once they realise that you can it well they shut up and instead try harder to knock your head off.'
While this weekend's start of the AFL grand finals is being heralded in Australia as a spectacular success because six of the eight surviving teams come from different states, marking a major breakthrough of the traditionally southern sport into a truly national game, its spread across Asia has been more modest.
Following the late withdrawal of the 2001 champions Singapore, only Indonesia, winners of the other two continental championships held, and China will join two Hong Kong teams at the Tin Kwong Road Recreation Ground in Ma Tau Wai, Kowloon, from 10am to 6pm.
However there is still a strong link between the Dragons and the very elite of the game. James Hodgkinson joined the team this year straight from the Brisbane Lions, winners of the past two Premierships, where he was the physiotherapist. The 30-year-old says the SAR's Aussie Rules exponents do work harder on one aspect of the game than their professional counterparts. 'A few of the guys have lost a step or two in speed and the remnants of their skills have become quite rusted,' he conceded, 'but they're very, very dedicated to team bonding.''
While physically the Dragons may be a long way from the Lions, who use hyperbaric chambers, walk-in industrial freezers between quarters, ice vests, hot and cold plunge pools and a vast array of doctors, conditioning coaches, nutritionists, as well as martial arts experts and sprint coaches to get the most out of their players, the sport, typically played on cricket ovals around 100 metres wide, is still incredibly demanding, particularly for the players in the midfield.
'The top on-ballers run 27 kilometres a game. We're playing two 15-minute halves, rather than four 25-minute quarters because it's a round-robin tournament, but in a full game our on-ballers would still run 15 to 18 kilometres. They've got to be fit,'' said Hodgkinson clearly understating the situation after a practice game left at least four players injured.
With strong similarities to Gaelic Football, footy is predominantly a catch-and-kick game, although a player can make hand passes or run with the ball, which is slightly smaller and less-rounded than one used in rugby, provided it touches the ground every 10 metres. Points are scored by kicking the ball through the four stand-alone posts - six for a goal between the two middle posts and one point if it goes between the others for a behind.
Dragons coach Simon Dixon says there is also a huge strategic element to the game. 'It is very tactical. There's a structure to it - forwards, on-ballers and defenders. Everybody's got a job to do and each players is directly accountable for another.'