Filtering the experience of a global landmark like the MCG through International Rules might appear like remembering Croke Park for a rodeo (yes, it did, 96 years ago this month) but the comparison would be wrong.
In terms of world sport the Melbourne Cricket Ground, built in 1853, might be famous these days for the Boxing Day Test matches just after Christmas but the venue’s character in Australia is equally bound up in the country’s great, indigenous code of football.
The venue is also entangled with the uneven – at times fascinating and at other times fitful – progress of the hybrid game, which sought to synthesise Australian rules and Gaelic football.
Now nearly 40 years old, but probably in danger of not hitting that landmark such have been the twists and turns of the world at large and the game’s constituent sports, the international series knew terrific nights in Melbourne’s iconic sports ground.
My brother-in-law, who lived in the city, told me that the locals only had to glance out the window to see were the lights on in the ‘G’ for a crowd to drift down towards whatever was going on by the Yarra.
The distinguished sports writer Greg Baum has a quote, which is writ large on the official website.
“The MCG is a shrine. It is to this city what the Opera House is to Sydney, the Eiffel Tower to Paris and the Statue of Liberty is to New York; it symbolises Melbourne to the world. It inspires reverence.”
It’s fair to say that I didn’t fully appreciate this at the time of my first acquaintance but that was for reasons of my own making.
I was slightly unusual among the 1999 travelling media party in that only Jim O’Sullivan of the Examiner and I had been on the previous tour in 1990. In those years although the internationals had the support of the VFL (now the AFL) they weren’t ‘official’.
They were organised and staged by outside promoters, who publicised the tests as exhibitions of Gaelic football. Attendances were accordingly underwhelming and the Melbourne test was played in Waverley Park, a vast and by then crumbling arena in the suburbs. It attracted 18,000 to a ground that had seen in its heyday attendances of more than 90,000.
So, 21 years ago this October on what was the third trip by the GAA Down Under, Ireland got to play at the MCG for the first time.
It had long been a source of interest for its most famous Irish connection. In 1956 it had been the principal stadium for the Melbourne Olympics, the first games to be staged outside of Europe or North America. There on December 1st, Ronnie Delany won gold in the 1,500m final. The old footage is compelling, as he sweeps from third-last to leave the front runners looking like slow motion, including world record holder and local favourite John Landy.
On the 2003 trip, Landy – by then Governor of Victoria – held a reception for the Ireland team. I went along to say hello to his wife Lynne, an old friend of my mother and known in the vernacular as ‘Lady Guv’.
On the 1990 international trip, Roy Curtis from the Star visited the MCG and decided to reprise Delany’s finishing kick on the strict understanding with himself that nobody’s looking. Having spread his arms in distinctive homage, he looked furtively around to see some sniggering stadium operative waving at him.
By 1999 the AFL were fully on board. The series had been revived on a formal basis the previous year on a two- rather than three-test basis. It was a modest success with crowds of 22,000 and 35,000 in Croke Park and Ireland winning on aggregate.
Everyone knew though that the litmus test would be attendances in Australia where the public had proved hard to enthuse.
This time they were giving it a good shot. Dermott Brereton, a celebrated former rules footballer and media analyst since retirement, had played in the internationals in the 1980s. His parents came from Dublin but he looked like an Aussie from central casting.
Looking at his playing days – all blond mullet and perm and tight shorts – it would be tempting to disparage the effeteness of it all. Except.
We meet him at a media briefing in the MCG, blazered, square-jawed and tanned. Not all of us are aware that 10 years previously at the same venue he played a central role in one of the great Grand Finals. In this he was more than somewhat hampered by a ruthlessly executed hit at the ‘bounce’ which starts a rules match.
Opposing Geelong player Mark Yeates gets such a connection on Brereton that the following things happen: the Hawthorn star breaks two ribs, bruises his kidney, starts to vomit –- and later will urinate – blood.
Remarkably the following also happens: Brereton, by his own account shrieking with pain, gets up and plays on, kicks goals and drives his team to a breathtaking 144-138 victory.
In 1999, we’re paying attention as he talks about the honour of wearing the national jersey.
“I looked down at the coat-of-arms and it was great feeling.”
At the first test in the ‘G’ that sense of representing the country crystallises.
“I was talking to a 70-something man,” he says afterwards, “who hadn’t been to watch a game of footy in 20-odd years. He told me the last time he played under the coat-of-arms was on the Kokoda Trail.”
[The Kokoda Trail was an engagement between the Australian army and the Japanese in Papua New Guinea during the second World War.]
All of which suggested that the home side was taking it seriously, at least. The Irish media wasn’t so convinced about the Australian public. Early in the week, the AFL were talking about pre-sales of 30,000, which the GAA were privately revising to 20,000.
At the first publicity call in the stadium, the actual figure plummets onto the conference table like a stone: 6,000. AFL CEO Wayne Jackson says worryingly that the first test 'deserves' an attendance of 60,000. All well and good and I bleakly report that 'in truth the best that can be hoped for is half of that'.
On the evening of the test I decide the official buses are going too early and that I will glide up to the ‘G’ in a taxi at a more appropriate time.
The first sense I have of the scale of the error is when the driver starts cursing the traffic on the way to – but some distance from – Yarra Park. Liam Horan, then with the Irish Independent, and I have to disembark.
“You’re bettah off walking, mate.”
What, from here?
So we run – well, at least hurry down the road. There are people everywhere – a crowd of 64,326 – moving through the shadows and with the floodlights spilling over onto the concourse.
A feature of International Rules coverage is how difficult it is to find press entrances and access to dressing-rooms afterwards when they literally send out someone like a Sherpa to guide us through the interstices of the stadium.
Anyway, we get redirected from about four different gates, accreditation dangling uselessly around our necks. Eventually someone takes us in and leads off through various gates – there seems to be a separate entrance for about every 10 seats and not necessarily the closest ones – and corridors and stairs.
On arrival in the press area, the stadium goes dark and fireworks erupt into the night sky over the fabled stadium, as if in celebration of the visiting media group now being complete.
It's not the best game ever but it's pretty good and Jarlath Fallon's grace note of a goal gives Ireland a decent, eight-point cushion heading to Adelaide. The GAA's best footballers – among them four Footballers of the Year, Fallon, Séamus Moynihan, Trevor Giles and Peter Canavan – prove their mettle.
Four years later the entirety of the country appears to have come to Melbourne for a three-pronged entertainment – second international test on Friday, Ireland-Australia RWC pool match on Saturday and Melbourne Cup the following Tuesday.
Another big crowd, 60,235, turn up to the MCG – more than the attendance at the Docklands Stadium for the rugby a night later – to watch Ireland chase a 10-point deficit from the first test in Perth.
They don’t quite get there, winning by three and losing on aggregate, but it’s an intense performance. I remember being riveted by Ireland captain Graham Canty’s battle with Barry Hall, who had disposed of a number of markers in the first test and scored 13 points.
Hall, whose talents at Aussie rules and boxing, topped off with anger management issues, might suggest a UN convention rather than a sports arena, was Australia’s go-to attacker but Canty, conceding about five inches, shadowed him relentlessly, getting in vital touches to prevent clean marks and never backing down.
Hall’s haul shrank to four and Canty was written up in local media as a potential AFL recruit and picked up the his team’s player of the series award for a second successive year.
The world though has changed. As an idea, the internationals have never recovered from the violence of 2006 – just as the series sold out Croke Park for the first time – and the game has gone two rotations in Australia without returning to Melbourne, let alone the MCG.
This week, as the city fights the global contagion, contingency plans are being made to move the cricket Boxing Day Test to Adelaide.
In 1999, the Australian game's laureate Martin Flanagan wrote that the MCG "stadium glittered like a diamond for the occasion". When all the current darkness has lifted, it will shine again.