Australian Rules Football is virtually a religion in the state of Victoria. The makeup of the AFL tells the story, of the six Australian states, Tasmania has no AFL team, New South Wales has one, Queensland has one, Western Australia has two, South Australia has two - and Victoria has ten! In recent years, as other sports have developed, Aussie Rules has become a little less dominant - but it's still a big deal.
But back in the 1960s, Australia was still very much divided into Aussie Rules states, and Rugby states. Victoria was an Aussie Rules state, and it played a huge part in the life of my school. For most boys. I was a heretic. I played Rugby - most of the time.
This was a somewhat odd decision. At my school, Rugby was stereotypically played by the big, dumb boys. I was two years younger than my form mates, because I was smart, and because I was two years younger than my form mates, I was fairly small. I played Rugby, though, for the very best of reasons at a highly traditional boys school. My father had been Captain of the First XV. I was never going to replicate that, but I wanted to come as close as I could.
The way teams were assigned was primarily based on Form - so at this stage of my schooling, my third year at the school, I was playing on the third form Rugby team. It was possible for younger students to play on the senior teams, if they were good enough - I wasn't. And it was legal, though unusual, for a boy in my position to play with his age team - so while I was in third form, I was the same age as most first form boys, and so could have played with them. I seriously resisted doing so - I'd rather be ploughed into the ground with my form mates than uninjured and comfortable with my age mates.
There was also a significant advantage to playing rugby and this came from the fact that not all schools played it. We had compulsory sport, representing the school. Those who played Aussie Rules played every week in winter. Those who played Rugby got the occasional weekend off.
And that state of affairs lead to one of my few performances in an organized game of Australian Rules Football - and to the punishment that followed it.
It was winter, and while I know Australians try to convince the rest of the world that we are some sort of tropical paradise - well, we lie about that. There's some nice warm sunny bits. And then there's Victoria between April and September every year. In winter, the school and its grounds could be quite bitterly cold, with a wind sweeping across the sportsgrounds, and rain and mud.
First form boys typically got very sick in their first winter at the school. Boarders from all over the country, and some from overseas, brought every variety of cold virus possible into the school, and in winter, your resistance went way down. The school was divided into boarding houses (with an additional house for the day boys) each with its own matron, and they all took subtly different approaches to the ideals of health care. Our matron was Irish, or Scots - I never quite got that straight - and she took the approach that whatever didn't kill you, made you stronger. She'd treat you if you were sick, of course, but she didn't believe in mollycoddling boys - we were expected to just deal with minor illness like a cold and work our way through it. Some of the other houses had slightly more lenient matrons - none of them were pushovers, I wouldn't want to give that impression, but ours was unusually forthright in her views.
Anyway - it was an absolutely vile morning. The weather was incredibly atrocious - the winds were close to a gale, and rain was pelting down. There was no rugby that day - and I intended to make the most of the fact, by staying indoors and staying warm. And I'd just sat down with a book to do this, when an older boy - the Vice Captain of Football, I think - looked in on me.
"Rysher, have you seen any firsties around?"
"Hang on a sec - how old are you?"
"Fantastic - get your footy gear, and get down to the changerooms. Tell Mr Carter I sent you."
"Just do as you're told, all right."
I did - he was a Prefect, and he could have made my life quite miserable. I went to my dorm, grabbed out my rarely worn Aussie Rules kit, and headed down to the changerooms through the rain, wind, and mud.
What had happened was pretty simple. The Matron of one of the boarding houses had unilaterally ruled that all of her coughing and spluttering first formers were too sick to play football that day.
Our school was fairly isolated. This meant that most other schools had to travel quite a long way to play us in sports - something like an hour and a half, I think, and any day boys there would have had to have got up even earlier to get to their school to start with. So if they turned up, and there wasn't a team waiting for them to play, that would have been rather unfortunate and embarrassing.
So a couple of senior boys were running around the school trying to find boys eligible to play on our first form team. I was still young enough, so I was one of those shanghaied to play. They managed to scratch together enough of us to fill the gaps in the team.
All the Masters in the school had to coach a sporting team, and naturally the ones who were actually any good at this task were coaching the senior, prestige teams. The Form I XVIII was coached by one of the others. He was a new teacher at the school, one of the English imports who turned up occasionally. He was very, very English, probably around 30, and, from what I could see, he didn't have a clue about the game of Aussie Rules. It was part of an alien culture to him. I don't want to unfairly criticize the man - he was a nice enough chap, and he did a pretty impressive job coaching cricket teams. But Aussie Rules just didn't seem to make any sense to him. The normal captain of his team, was one of the first form boys who'd been prevented from playing that morning, because of illness. He looked around and focused on me, and realised I was a third form boy - and so, appointed me the temporary captain of our newly assembled team for the day.
Now, being the junior team, naturally, we were playing on the worst oval available. The good grounds went to the senior teams - we were pretty condemned to playing in a muddy paddock. It wouldn't stop raining, it was windy. It was pretty horrible.
The game did not go well. The other team wasn't exactly playing fairly - with the weather, it was somewhat hard for the only umpire - a third form boy from my own class - to see what was going on behind the play. I made a few complaints in my capacity as captain, but they were ignored. I think he was trying to be fair and not give me special treatment because we were friends. So as the game went on we started playing a bit dirty as well. We were all cold, wet, and miserable, nobody was enjoying themselves. Mr Carter had to stand on the sidelines being rained on, so it was hardly a picnic for him either. At half time, he told me off for constantly arguing with the umpire - in cricket you absolutely don't do that (or at least not in schoolboy cricket) and you only do it with care in rugby - but in Aussie Rules, while the umpires decisions must be respected, it is acceptable for a team captain to make his views known. I don't think Mr Carter understood that. At three quarter time, he was quite angry with us, because we were no longer playing by the rules at all. Neither team was. And it didn't get any better in the last quarter. Their captain - a big boy for a twelve year old - flattened one of our smaller players - not deliberately, I don't think - but after that, the ball became a minor part of the equation.
At the end of the match, we were cold and we were all miserable. We were soaking wet, dripping wet, and covered in mud.
But there was some light at the end of the tunnel.
The meat pies.
Meat pies are the stereotypical Australian food. The size you can hold in your hand, rich, golden pastry, filled with gravy soaked meat. Piping hot. Smothered in tomato sauce. They are footy food. We eat incredible amounts of the things - and back then, before everybody was obsessed with low salt, low fat, and the like, we ate even more of them.
And as we came off the ground, some of the Master's wives were waiting under the eaves of the change rooms, with hot meat pies, straight out of the oven. They were angels. They knew how cold we were. They understood.
We were the hosts - so we had to let the boys from the other school line up before us, and get their pies first. Manners were important, and it was only a couple of minutes to wait.
But here's the thing about meat pies. For some reason, that I don't think anyone has ever explained, Aussies smother their meat pies in tomato sauce. Some people put it on top. Some people lift the top crust and pour some inside. Some punch a hole in the crust and get it inside. However you do it, tomato sauce is part of the whole pie experience.
I used my prerogative as captain to ensure that I was first in line when we got our pies. And as I emerged from the line with pie in hand, and headed for the sauce table, the captain of the other team was waiting for me.
"Sorry. We've used all the sauce."
At the time, it seemed to me that his words were dripping with sarcasm. It seemed to me that they had deliberately, and maliciously used up all the sauce. It was incredibly obvious to me that this boy was deliberately goading me, and that I was entirely justified in the way I reacted next.
That still seems possible. It's also possible that there simply wasn't much sauce left in the bottle. But that did not occur to me at the time (nor did it occur to me that ladies who had come out in the cold to cook hot pies for a couple of hundred hungry teenage aussie boys had probably remembered to bring more than one sauce bottle!)
So, pie in hand, I charged at him, and I smashed my pie right into the centre of his face - aiming directly at his 'pie-hole'. He staggered, dropping his own pie, and yelling, leaned forward - half or more of my pie was now on his face - and the stew filling of a freshly cooked meat pie, is quite impressively hot. The crushed remains in my hands, were actually scalding me as I pulled at the neck of his jumper, and stuffed what I had left down the front of his jumper.
He yelled some more - his face was being scalded. His chest was being scalded. And those terms are quite accurate - this stuff was hot enough to burn, and it did. Not too badly, thank God - but it certainly hurt him.
One of the ladies grabbed me and pulled me back, while a couple of others attended to him - using a tea towel to get the meat off his chest, and pulling off his jumper to tend to any burns there.
A hand gripped my neck. Mr Carter had grabbed me from behind.
"Rysher, come with me."
I didn't have a choice - he was standing behind me, his hand clamped on my neck, and he pushed me into our change room.
"Strip and get in the shower, you wicked little boy." I heard him move away.
I stripped off my boots, my socks, my football shorts, and jumper, and headed into the showers as he returned.
Our shower room was controlled by a master tap outside the room - he turned it on. Cold water only. There was never much hot water anyway in those showers, but he didn't waste any of it on me. I stood there taking it for about ten seconds.
"Wash the mud off, you filthy boy."
I did as I was told. And when he was satisfied, he cut off the water.
I left the room and we headed back into our change room. In his hand, he was holding an old sandshoe.
"Bend over and touch your toes. And don't you dare stand up until I tell you."
I was cold, I was soaked. And he slammed that sandshoe into my bare bottom. I'd been slippered before - and while I didn't enjoy it, it was infinitely preferable to the cane. But as cold as I was, this really did hurt. The noise was very loud, and I was horribly embarrassed as I realised we were still close enough that the other boys, and even worse all the ladies would have to be aware of what was happening to me.
He gave me five very hard whacks before telling me to stand up. I was crying, and I was shaking.
"Dry off, get dressed, and then you sit on the steps until we go back up to school."
He left the room, and I sank down onto the concrete floor of the change room. It was rough, but it was cool, and it soothed my pain a bit. I sat there - I can still remember the roughness of the surface on my bottom - for a minute or so, before I got my towel, dried off, and got dressed.
I went and sat outside on the steps. Everybody going in and out of the change rooms had to go past me. After about half an hour, one of the ladies approached me with a pie covered in sauce. She looked over at Mr Carter, and after about five seconds, he nodded.
It tasted good. It warmed me up, and I was hungry. But perhaps the best thing about it was that I could tell, looking at Mr Carter, that the matter was now closed.
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