Australian Rules Football is proving to be a winner with gifted and talented pupils, reports Crispin Andrews
Through the heat of a London summer, elite athletes push themselves to the limit. "C'mon mate! The bloke behind always backs up! Let's hear you call for it!"
Even though the commanding voice is undeniably Australian, there's not a green cricket cap or spiky blond-rinse haircut in sight. Neither is the whole thing a cunningly orchestrated manoeuvre designed to get to one of those under-manned Pommie bars at England's cricket venues before the cold beer runs out. Yet while the memories of the Ashes series are fresh in many minds, in a south London school an impact is being made by that other great Antipodean sport - Australian Rules Football.
"It's a great sport that combines elements of some of the UK's more popular invasion games, like football, rugby and basketball," says Brian Clarke of Aussie Rules UK, who is coaching the Rare Flair Group, Carshalton High School for Boys' cohort of gifted and talented students.
At first glance it looks as if the group don't agree. After an hour's intensive training they are almost dead on their feet. However, as an able group they are more than capable of coping with the physical demands of this active sport. Indeed, by the end of the session, the consistency of their catching, kicking, communicating and most importantly, their awareness of invasion principles, has increased dramatically. They are even starting to back each other up when the odd kick or pass goes astray - not always easy to remember for a group of naturally egocentric teenagers who are used to focusing on their own performance.
However, there is also another reason why the lads are being pushed to the limit, as Brian Clarke explains: "To help combat the obesity epidemic that is threatening kids over here we make our sessions as active and physically demanding as the guys can cope with."
The students involved in Rare Flair are not the only ones lucky enough to have had a go at Aussie Rules. Indeed, it all started two years ago after head of PE Paul Avery trained and played with a team while on holiday in the sport's Melbourne heartland. As a football goalkeeper Paul loved the game. "It's like goalkeeping with contact," he says.
The following year, Carshalton trialled Aussie Rules in their summer school and the boys enjoyed it so much that a tournament was added to the inter-house programme the following June. After another successful summer school outing, Paul Avery decided to take a momentous decision - from September 2004 onwards Aussie Rules would replace football on the PE curriculum.
"Most of our kids play football from the age of two upwards - at primary school, for clubs, on the park, in the street, everywhere. It was getting to the point where everyone either loved or hated it," he says. "They knew everything or more often than not, thought they did. Its usefulness as a learning tool was becoming minimal."
In Aussie Rules, Paul believed he had found an alternative invasion game through which everyone could engage with the learning process. As it was a new sport there was no peer group pecking order determining who was and wasn't any good, and local club rivalries associated with football played no part. Kudos wasn't at stake, so winning was not the only focus during games lessons, and gloating from the winners and accusations of cheating from the losers wasn't the only form of post-match analysis.
Each year group now gets six weeks of Aussie Rules lessons. During the first four weeks, skills and invasion principles are taught, before being put to use in two weeks of Touch Aussie Rules game play - a non-contact version of the sport. An inter-tutor group Aussie Rules competition is then held in which everyone takes part, and from there students are selected for the Rare Flair Academy, where they get a term's worth of weekly coaching from Brian Clarke.
Surprisingly, dissenting voices about the removal of our national winter game from the curriculum have been minimal. The boys still get their football, with more than 100 inter-school fixtures played each year.
Between 60 and 100 boys play for the school every Saturday and there's still community football to get involved in. However, now they also have another game to play.
* Aussie Rules UK Tel: 020 7273 1974 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org