Glossy Helmets Clatter In Drizzly Night At PJ McIlwain (Inter-Species Turf War Threatens Derailment Of League)
“Whatever it is, at this point, that the Kenmore Panthers know to be out there, waiting for them to seize it, is something that most of us surely forget about sport from time to time.”
Report by Nicholas Turner
The roads through Wacol are windy and barely lit, cautious going after the rain. Once you’re off the freeway, you start to notice things bouncing in the darkness. Roos. In the tens and then the hundreds, headed one way or another. It soon becomes clear that the centre of activity is a large sloped patch of grass in front of Wacol prison’s loopy and shimmering razor-wire. The roos bathe in the glow that leaks beyond the spotlighted yard. Each of them is laid out in that very human way that roos recline, arranged in nose-in cliques, blowing the occasional quiff of fog into the wet air. They play it cool as we pass, not giving us much attention. Cards close to their chests.
Just over the hill at PJ McIlwain Place, the first punt of the night splits a dreary, post-storm sky. After a day of heavy rainfall and amid the bitter remnants of cold drizzle, the supporter base for a mid-season female gridiron game in Brisbane is modest. Wise folks have brought blankets and they laze inside the little sideline shelters like they never left the couch at home. Others pace around to stave off cold joints. The Western Jaguars, at home here where many diamond-shaped signs warn us not to feed the kangaroos, are taking on last year’s cup-holders and current competition leaders the Logan City Jets. The Jaguars will lose in a game defined by behind-scrimmage play. The pigskin is too slippery to throw with any confidence.
The Female Gridiron League of Queensland consists of just four teams, which means that across tonight’s double-header the whole competition is in action. As this is just the second year of the league, the focus is squarely on player and official development. The burden of knowing everything about a seemingly complicated game falls on the shoulders of just two or three people. Players are constantly asking coaches what to do next, when to take the field, how to avoid this or that infringement. Likewise, sideline umpires and spectators seek regular council on the ins-and-outs of the rules of play. At one point in this first game, the sideline flares at the sight of a high tackle (unanimously illegal in all mainstream contact ball sports in Australia), only to be duly quieted as the on-field referee makes a point of coming across to explain to us that, in this game, the player may attack the head as long as she doesn’t grab the face grill. We all shrug and accept.
The coach of the Logan City Jets is a bouncy chap with a couple of thick gold earrings and a diamond stud. He spots us on the sideline right after his rousing half-time speech, and spontaneously sidles up for a chat. He’s got nothing but admiration for how quickly his girls have adapted to a game that he describes as very complex (illustratively flashing a laminated sheet of paper that looks like the findings of very intricate stock market research – one assumes this is his playbook). In the previous season, to help the players learn the ins-and-outs, the whole competition was launched as seven-a-side. This season it’s a nine player game. Here’s a man who must not only train and organise, but also teach his players how the game works on a play-by-play basis. A noble displeasure usually reserved for under-fives soccer coaches. But he takes it all in his stride and makes a public display when the girls get it right.
By the end of the first game, Logan City has stretched its lead to 26 – 6. They’re blessed with a lightning-footed running back that nearly scores in every corner of the park. The Jaguars are forced to go hard up front, and they’re good enough to shuffle up the park and hold onto the pill. But they’ve got two serious problems. First, when they’re not in possession, they bleed points out wide. Second, when they do get far enough up the field to threaten a score, Logan’s defensive lynchpin has some brutal ways to dispirit them. She inflicts a series of collisions late in the second half that sound like an odd thing of meat and hard plastic falling from great height.
It becomes apparent that this plateau of land where tonight’s games are being played is actually a first choice hang-out for the local kangaroos at around about this very time on a Friday. More attractive even than the juicy slope in front of the prison. Small, triangular heads start to appear around the fringes of the park, over the horizons of the fields’ camber. Then there’s an odd brave one that skips along just behind the spectators, thrilling the kids. In hindsight, the roos have done everything feasible to mark out their territory here; the soft black pellets on every square foot of field, I now realise, are not a synthetic fertiliser. By the time the second fixture rolls around, gangs of four or five upstarts slink into the end zone and have the gall to rest there, mid-game, like it’s nobody’s business. The sense that we’re on borrowed turf becomes something more than an inkling.
The other game of the night sees the second-placed Gold Coast Stingrays against the Kenmore Panthers. From the whistle the play has a genuine pitch of excitement. Both teams are full of competitive steam and have brought along noisy support groups. The rain has dried up so the ball finally goes to the sky, and Gold Coast have an all-class quarterback who puts it on the spot all night. There’s usually an equally tidy pair of hands downfield to collect the express airmail. Kenmore are an energetic side that play hard up front through a few fierce yard-makers. But they probably work too hard here for not enough result, never once granted a cheap run; they go for the long pass on occasion, but this is not an aspect of the game that the Panthers have mastered. That the Gold Coast defensive line is watertight makes a loss for Kenmore more or less inevitable from the start.
But even though the Panthers go down 44-0, they never look like a losing side. And so, of all the teams that take the park today, it is, ironically, the most heavily beaten that sums up the enduring spirit of these pioneers. With just a few moments to go, Kenmore call a time out and huddle to nut out a final play. Once the coach has outlined his plan, the players whip themselves into a frenzy of want and excitement. The small crowd gravitates toward them, eager to throw in a good word; ‘come on Panthers.’ Though the contest has long been laid to rest, they take the field again as though everything this game could possibly offer is still available to them. Whatever it is, at this point, that the Kenmore Panthers know to be out there, waiting for them to seize it, is something that most of us surely forget about sport from time to time.
To play good – to play right – is to realise the potential beauty of the game. And the potential, realised or not, is always there.
Match Day (Steak) Burger score: 7.0
MD(S)B Cost: $6.00 (w/bacon)
MDB Service Atmosphere: 7.0
Game Score: Logan City Jets 26, def Western Panthers 6; Gold Coast Stingrays 44, def Kenmore Panthers 0
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