>> A tonne of fish on the way to Etihad
THE LAST of the AFL's fixturing taboos ends this weekend when North Melbourne hosts the Western Bulldogs at Etihad Stadium, the first time a game for premiership points has been played on Good Friday.
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In doing so, the AFL becomes the last of the major winter codes to play a game on one of the significant Christian holidays of the year.
Good Friday is a day that is undeniably Christian. It commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. But here's the rub. Not enough Australians identify as Christian, and not enough Christians go to church often enough, or even observe the basic tenets of the day, for it to any longer prevent a game of football taking place.
According to the 2011 Census, only 61.1 per cent of Australians identify as Christian. The same census revealed that of those, six out of seven do not regularly attend church services.
They're the ones who on Good Friday instead pack out the golf courses, the movies and, increasingly, country and suburban footy. That’s if they’re not fleeing the city for the beach and the bush for the last chance to enjoy a long weekend before the leaves turn and the weather cools.
And with an AFLPA survey last year revealing that 90.3 per cent of active players had no objection to playing on Good Friday, not even the traditional reluctance of the AFL’s leadership could stand in the way any longer.
North Melbourne has been pushing for Good Friday football for nearly 30 years. But despite the club's close ties to the AFL, with former coach John Kennedy serving as the League’s Commission chairman in the mid-1990s, and later, former player Andrew Demetriou as the longtime chief executive, the Kangaroos were rebuffed every year.
Kennedy, a devout Catholic, and Demetriou were flat out against football on Good Friday and their views always prevailed.
Current AFL boss Gillon McLachlan is also said to have only marginal enthusiasm for the proposal, but in this instance, the rest of the AFL executive team and the Commission, who wanted to at least give it a try, had their way. So here we are.
"Our view was the attitude and interests of our supporters and stakeholders was gradually changing," AFL general manager of fixturing Travis Auld told the AFL Record, admitting that demand from football fans for a game on Good Friday had grown given what other sports were offering on the day.
WHAT THE OTHER SPORTS DO ON GOOD FRIDAY
NRL: Triple-header, with games at 4pm, 6pm and 7.50pm
SUPER RUGBY: One evening game in New Zealand
A-LEAGUE: Melbourne Victory game at AAMI Park, 7.50pm kickoff
SOCCER: English Championship (second tier) plays a full round
MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL: Full schedule of matches
What shaped the AFL's position was a series of discussions with those who might be affected by a game on Good Friday. The players gave their approval, while the Royal Children Hospital’s Good Friday Appeal also saw the merit.
The churches, understandably, didn't share the same enthusiasm, although they were consulted.
Not that they could do much about it. Religion is one thing in Melbourne, but football is another matter entirely.
The Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne chose not to oppose the game, but did quibble with the 4.20pm AEST starting time.
A later start, it argued, would allow more Catholics to attend the 3pm services and still make it to Etihad Stadium for the match.
"Good Friday is the day Christians remember that Jesus Christ suffered and died for us so that we might know and enjoy the love of God for all eternity," said Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, when the game was announced last October.
"It provides a window into values that are not controlled by consumerism, money-making or busy-ness."
North Melbourne has one of the more visible players of faith in the AFL, former skipper Andrew Swallow, who in an interview with The Age in 2014 was forthright in his opposition to Good Friday football.
Below: Former North skipper Andrew Swallow. Picture: AFL Photos
"Do we need football then? Are people that bored in their lives that they have to have football every day of the year? We still come in and train, but I think it is a great time even if you don’t have that faith or belief, so just spend the day with your family. Surely you can occupy yourself for one day."
The Kangaroos have been clear with Swallow from the start; they would respect any decision not to play, although it appears as though he will.
Indeed, nobody at the Kangaroos or the Bulldogs – players and officials – has expressed anything other than a strong desire to take part in the day.
"That question could get me into a lot of trouble at Sunday Mass," joked Bulldogs skipper Robert Murphy, whose parents John and Monica met when he was a Catholic priest and she was a nun.
"But, seriously, any time the Western Bulldogs take centre stage is all right by me and the fact it's in partnership with the Royal Children’s Hospital overshadows my history with Catholicism. I think it will be good."
Of course, while the foundations of the Good Friday holiday are based in religion, for most Victorians, it is the Good Friday Appeal that dominates the day.
Throughout the state, you can’t escape it, be it the Seven Network telethon, the blanket coverage in the Herald Sun or the tin rattlers on every street corner.
Last year, the appeal raised more than $17.4 million for the Royal Children’s Hospital.
The ties between the appeal and football have always been strong.
Players from all clubs visit the hospital throughout the year and player appearances have always been a high point of the telethon.
Many donations are made with the offer of something more if a particular footballer reads it out on air.
The Appeal didn't necessarily sign off on the Good Friday game, but it was heavily consulted and stands to benefit considerably.
"It’s terrific for us and a great opportunity for us to reach a wider audience," Appeal director Anne Randall said.
"The Good Friday Appeal has been around for 86 years and people are devoted to it. The match is making a significant donation, which is what makes it widely welcome."
Five dollars from every adult ticket sold and $10 from every family ticket will be donated straight into the Appeal’s coffers.
North and Bulldogs members with automatic entry entitlements are being strongly encouraged to make a donation.
Seven will cut away from the appeal telethon to broadcast the game. But there will be heavy integration with the appeal throughout.
"We've seen with the Big Freeze at the ’G and E.J. Whitten Legends Game that they're very good at doing that," Auld said.
The TV viewership should run into the high six figures, while the ground should be close to capacity.
The corresponding match last year drew 47,622 fans, which gives this game a strong foundation from which to build.
"North Melbourne has led that discussion for as long as any club, so it made sense to give them the opportunity to host the first Good Friday game," Auld said.
"The Western Bulldogs are also a strong partner, but this is also some reward based on their premiership success last year."
It is a big day for the Kangaroos.
"There's a bit of that North Melbourne mindset in all of this where everyone feels that compulsion around innovation," chief executive Carl Dilena said.
"We pioneered Friday night football, the Grand Final Breakfast grew from humble beginnings and there's always this philosophy at North that we should be trying the next big thing.
"What we hope is that after getting a Good Friday game after 25 years that it remains in the calendar like the Anzac Day game and it's in people’s diaries as a big game, not something that disappears or gets shipped off interstate."
Auld said there are no guarantees that Good Friday football will continue, let alone the Kangaroos and the Dogs having the day to themselves.
"We’ll see how that pans out," he said. "The view is that we will trial it and see how the event, the day and the slot performs and that depends on a number of factors."
The League is looking for more than a good game, big crowd and bumper television ratings.
"It needs to add value to the Good Friday Appeal in terms of our social responsibility and its importance to this state," Auld said. "All the stakeholders, including Channel Seven and the Herald & Weekly Times need to be pleased as well."
For the Kangaroos, the requirements start with a win over the Bulldogs and a whole lot more.
"Success for North would be a bumper crowd and helping the Good Friday Appeal exceed its fund-raising record," Dilena said.
"Let's make it a big event that people say, 'Wow, I want to come back next year' and convince the AFL it's a viable proposition that should be locked in every year with North as the anchor team."
This story also appears in this weekend's edition of the AFL Record, on sale for $5 at all grounds.