Home » Commercial creep wrongly lumps Anzac Round with other AFL “occasion” rounds

Commercial creep wrongly lumps Anzac Round with other AFL “occasion” rounds

Next Thursday will be the 30th Anzac Day clash between Essendon and Collingwood, and as usual, it will be close to the biggest AFL home and away game on the calendar.

It’s part of football folklore how Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy, Magpie football manager Graeme Allan and RSL Victorian president Bruce Ruxton engineered the concept.

And how that first big clash in 1995 produced almost the perfect occasion, the Pies and Bombers playing out an epic draw in front of a staggering 95,000 people, with another 20,000 or so turned away at the MCG gates.

No one fortunate enough to be there that day will forget it, the crowd way in advance of what anyone had anticipated, the spontaneous roll-out creating the momentum for the game to immediately become a “must-see” moment, and the honouring of this country’s men and women who had served and in many cases lost their lives heartfelt and appropriately moving.

These days, though, the association between AFL football and Anzac Day extends a lot further than just one game at the MCG between the Pies and Dons. Indeed, you might just call it Anzac Week.

First, we started playing another game the same day in Perth. Then, in 2015, Richmond and Melbourne met in the first of what has also become an annual fixture on the eve of Anzac Day. And now, in what has become Anzac Round, everyone’s getting in on the act.

You’ll hear the Last Post played not just on Anzac Day, which this year falls on a Thursday, but at games on Wednesday evening, Friday night, Saturday afternoon and evening and again on Sunday.

You can argue (and I would) that playing it on repeat and on days which aren’t actually on the same anniversary being commemorated dilutes its significance.

Then there’s the encroachment of the commercial-driven enterprise into the occasion. It started innocently enough, with Essendon and Collingwood coming up with specially-designed guernseys for the big Anzac Day clash.

Then the Bombers and Magpies felt compelled to produce new designs each year. Then the other clubs followed suit. Each wheeling out amidst much fanfare “special” Anzac Round designs, some suitably respectful and subtle, others at times bordering on tacky.

And pointing out that a percentage of proceeds from their sale to supporters will go to the RSL and veterans and their families isn’t necessarily a “no questions asked” excuse.

In my view, the whole exercise now because of that commercial creep and the apparent need to cut everyone a slice of the pie in many ways makes it barely distinguishable from the AFL’s other “occasion” rounds. And that’s wrong.

The recently-introduced Gather Round is a bit of fun and promotion for a specific market. Sir Doug Nicholls Round is a celebration of Indigenous culture and influence on our uniquely indigenous game.

I’m not sure Anzac Day and what it marks, a brutal and costly military campaign which saw the loss of more than 8000 Australian lives, is something which should be treated in anything like a similar manner in an AFL context, regardless of how many photos are taken of AFL players wearing those specially-designed sale items looking balefully into the distance.

Younger Australians may not fully appreciate the tone which Anzac Day once struck, more a time for sombre reflection upon those who gave their lives for this country than for getting excited about a big sporting event.

Indeed, it wasn’t until 1960 that football was played on Anzac Day at all, to do so requiring an act of parliament lifting previous restrictions on sporting activity on the solemn anniversary.

We’ve got better over the years at moderating our tendency to find inappropriate metaphors for acts of football on the day. Nothing, no matter how “heroic”, nor “courageous” which happens in an AFL game can ever approximate the carnage and brutality of a real battlefield.

But negotiating the boundaries of taste around this important national date are never easy. Awarding an Anzac Medal to the player best exemplifying the “Anzac spirit” is one thing. Pissing contests between clubs and their fans on social media about who has the best and worst Anzac guernsey designs in my view is a bit “off”.

I’ve never forgotten interviewing former Essendon star and a much-loved football figure, the late Jack Jones, about Anzac Day in 2011. Called up as a 19-year-old to serve in World War II, he witnessed the sort of horrors incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t been through them.

Jones spent 22 months in Papua New Guinea and Bougainville, then had to wait another four months for a boat home after the war had finished. Of his company, 91 were killed and 197 wounded.

“It was outrageous, the war. No one wins a bloody war,” he told me with some passion. “I was just lucky. The bullet or shrapnel didn’t have my name on it, yet the bloke standing next to you is gone, just like that. It’s just the luck of the draw.”

Jones saw soldiers killed while standing next to him, others succumb to their wounds or illness such as malaria, and another who couldn’t face the prospect of returning to that Pacific nightmare take his own life.

Jack became a regular presence around publicity before the big Essendon-Collingwood Anzac Day game, and his contribution always reminded us how fortunate we all were even to be here enjoying a game of football.

And his warts-and-all stories of the true horrors of war are something of which we must never lose sight, no matter how big the time around Anzac Day becomes for AFL football, which club has rolled out the best jumper design, or however much money the marketing of it makes.

You can read more of Rohan Connolly’s work at FOOTYOLOGY.