Contributed by: Ben Leahy
This Saturday the 26th of August, over 200 Aussie Rules Footballers lace up their boots and take to the Jakarta Bintangs' home ground in Ciburbur to compete in the 2006 ANZ Asian Australian Football Championships. Despite the withdrawal of teams from Shanghai and the Philippines, this year's tournament attended by the Hong Kong Dragons, Japan Goannas, Thailand Tigers, Malaysian Warriors, Singapore Wombats, Bali Geckos and, of course, the Jakarta Bintangs promises to be one of the closest fought yet. In anticipation, we take a quick look at the competing teams.
In 2000, the Jakarta Bintangs hosted the inaugural Asian Championships after pitching the concept to their regional neighbours. The return of the Championships to Jakarta this year marks a special occasion for and provides the two-time Asian Champs with special motivation to play well. The Bintangs have suffered from indifferent form this year, beating the Singapore Wombats at home but losing on tour to Bali, Malaysia and Hanoi. However, whereas the Bintangs had only modest player numbers to choose from for their tour matches earlier this year, this weekend they will have their best-ever squad for an Asian Champs in terms of numbers. That squad will be boosted by experienced campaigners like their 50 International Games Captain, Matt Stephens, and the addition of some ex-Bintang players flying in for the tournament. In assessing the Bintangs' chances, one source said that, whilst not favourites, the Bintangs could have a real run at this year's Championships.
After Japan and China, the Bintangs are probably the next most likely Asian team to develop a local league - having worked to promote Aussie Rules in local schools and having invited Indonesian players to training sessions. However, there are no Indonesian locals in their current squad.
The Bintangs' great rivals, the Bali Geckos, are in their third year of competing at the Championships. Bali carry good form into the tournament with recent wins over Jakarta and Malaysia as well as finishing runners up in the 9s Masters Tournament they hosted earlier this year. Their proximity to Jakarta means that like the Bintangs the Geckos have fielded their biggest list ever for an Asian Championships. Also like the Bintangs, the Geckos list will be boosted by the addition of ex-Geckos flying in for the tournament. Despite this, and the fact that the Geckos came runners up in 2005, coach, Peter Muir, is keeping a lid on expectations for his side, saying "We look ok, but we'll see on the day how the other teams are. Up here, the old saying 'one week at a time' holds even more currency because the games are three months apart!"
The Japan Goannas have performed well in their international matches this year. In this Tokyo Goannas press release, President, Matt Hegarty, sums the Japan Goannas' prospects at this year's Championships. "We came third last year and probably snuck under the radar of our opposition as we were an 'unknown quantity' competing for the first time. No team will take us lightly this year but we are confident of another strong performance given our overall skill, speed, relative youth and discipline. This year we have a much tougher draw, as we are drawn against 2 powerhouses of Asian Australian Rules Football in Singapore and Hong Kong, while Bali is an up-and-coming force, and Thailand recently drew with Hong Kong. The clichw that no game is an easy game clearly applies to this tournament". Japan are also unique amongst the tournament contestants in fielding 5 or 6 local Japanese players in their squad.
The Singapore Wombats were comfortable winners of the 2005 Asian Championships, but this year the two-time Asian Champs have had a tougher season. In a news story for the Jakarta Post, Wombats President Allan Norton expects a harder 2006 tournament. "The Wombats will be a different team this year, following injuries to key players and several departures. Despite this we will be having another crack, knowing some of the other clubs have improved dramatically and that we will need to lift our game even further to retain the cup".
The Hong Kong Dragons are the only other team beside the Bintangs and Wombats to have won the Asian Championships, with back to back wins in 2003/04. The Dragons are another team in good form this year with wins over Singapore and the China Blues in a tri-nations series as well as claiming a disputable one point victory over Thailand. The Dragons have assembled their best squad for a while ahead of the Championships, but despite this they will be without some key players, including their Coach whose wife is pregnant and expecting any day now. Dragons President, Nathan Byrne, says that although roughly 40 per cent of his side will be touring for the first time this tournament, many of the new recruits are already strong Aussie Rules players, and like most Dragons already looking forward to downing the Wombats.
Like the Dragons, their close friends and regional neighbours, the Thailand Tigers will be competing for the fifth time at an Asian Championships this year. The Tigers have 26 tourers landing in Jakarta with a few players missing due to work and financial commitments. The Tigers have beaten Hanoi this year and claimed to have drawn with Hong Kong in their Anzac Day clash. Mark Robson of the Tigers has a more philosophical attitude ahead of the tournament, "The Tigers will play some good hard footy, backing up your mates, and then we'll see how far that gets us. I think on behalf of all the teams, that the Asian Championships are just as much about having fun on and off the pitch as for the competition."
Good luck to all the teams and apologies to the Malaysian Warriors who I didn't have a chance to catch up with for this article.
World Footy News