IT MIGHT not have been pretty but those who turned out to witness the AFL’s venture into international territory on Thursday night seemed to enjoy it anyway.
It was estimated around 4500 attendees of the 22,546-strong crowd that watched the Sydney Swans beat St Kilda by 16 points at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium travelled from Australia.
But by the end of the evening it was clear the AFL’s overseas expansion is off to flying start, with a big, loud crowd at the game, a buzzing atmosphere in the city and many first-timers keen to see more.
Bars and pubs throughout the heart of the city were packed with the colours of Saints and Swans fans, while many venues were screening the Essendon-Collingwood Anzac Day MCG blockbuster for their Aussie patrons before they walked to the stadium to watch the League’s first match on foreign soil.
The Wellingtonians also came out in strength and got wholeheartedly into what for most of them was a new experience.
And St Kilda and the Sydney Swans turned on a thriller to match the occasion.
There were tips for new spectators on the big screen – “Hit the post – one point” was one – and encouragement for fans to get involved; “Show us your best goal umpire signal after each goal”.
The deck was slippery after morning rain, and skills were sloppy and goals hard to come by. But fans didn’t really seem to care.
They stayed until the end, with the Saints getting within 16 points after a flashy goal from Jack Steven that got them out of their seats.
Then there was another, from a similar hard-up-against-the-boundary position from Leigh Montagna at the 20-minute mark, before a free kick to Swans’ ruckman Shane Mumford sealed the game.
Just like the stadium worker who on Wednesday marvelled at the 200-odd St Kilda supporters who turned out just to watch training, they seemed enthralled by what they saw, even if they didn’t really get it.
Social media attracted comments such as:
– “ANZAC Day AFL in Wellington. St. Kilda vs. The Swans. Not many people know what’s going on. The backwards throw-ins get a laugh, nobody knows what the guys in orange are doing. #afl #saints #stkilda #sydneyswans.”
– “Veddy confused! Only clapping when everyone else does lol #afl #stkilda #saints.”
One first-time AFL watcher, Scott, who was invited by a work client but said he had been keen to come anyway, planned to return when the Saints come back next season.
He quickly studied up on the rules beforehand but said that was barely needed.
“It basically said not many rules,” he said. “It’s quite fascinating, it looks like anything can happen.
“Compared to rugby it seems quite a free-for-all, not a lot of restrictions.”
Another AFL newcomer, Stephen, also normally a rugby union fan, said while he didn’t know the nuances of AFL rules, there was still plenty to enjoy and he would definitely be back.
“There’s plenty of movement, a lot of action, the guys are incredibly fit and athletic, it’s fantastic,” he said.
Another first-time fan, Bex, admitted she knew little about the sport.
“I think if you catch it you get like a free kick hey?” she said. “And if it’s closer to goal you’ve got more chance of getting it in?”
But her unfamiliarity didn’t spoil her enjoyment and she planned to return.
“It’s awesome, it’s exciting,” she said. “It’s quite aggressive – I like that, who doesn’t like that?”
The Saints, and even the Swans, said they’d like to return too.
Anzac Medal winner Dan Hannebery said the Swans had enjoyed the experience after arriving in Wellington on Monday.
“The crowd were great tonight, they were quite vocal and it’s quite evident there’s a lot of New Zealand fans out there so it’s great to increase the exposure to the sport outside of Australia and New Zealand fans came out in droves,” Hannebery said.
“I’d be happy to come back. I really think all the boys really enjoyed it. I think it was sensational experience to come over here and play the first game overseas and we’d love to come back.”
St Kilda coach Scott Watters said the same, with the Saints poised to play four games in Wellington over the next two seasons.
He also implored even more fans to get behind the game when it returns, with potential for growth within the region.
“This is our home game. I hope they’re always behind us. I thought they gave us great support today,” Watters said.
“We’ll be back next year.
“Hopefully the game convinces [more to come next year]. We made 97 tackles, they made 89; they’re big figures.
“I know you guys aren’t familiar with those sort of figures but that’s a pretty contested ball game.
“They see a lot of great contests and I think our game is a great game so those that came tonight spread the word – we think the game can grow and we’re proud of it.”