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Sunday, June 07 2020 @ 06:56 pm ACST

At training with the Helsinki Heatseekers


It is Helsinki early May. Spring; the tulips are blooming and the sun is shining but it takes till late morning to reach the double figure temperatures. What better time for a travelling Aussie to get to know one of the main clubs in one of Europe's newest Australian Football leagues?

On a Thursday night, at the Helsinki Heatseekers’ training at Kumpula in suburban Helsinki half the players are wearing their tracksuit pants, even though it’s turning warm.

A sharp session of handball drills and mark, handball and play on drills under the guidance of Simon MacGregor, in his Lions guernsey and from Torquay via Bali, was followed by a mark and handball session of moving the ball on. The discipline and application was strong even for those new to the game, and they needed to learn fast. Soon they would take on a Stockholm side in Salo, a town between Helsinki and the once capital of Finland, Turku, and home of the Salo Juggernauts team.

After those training drills came the scratch match with teams of seven or eight, with the few Aussies dispersed to both sides. It was played on the small park, with a modest but even surface which was at least grass which had now thawed. Being a park it was separated from the nearby roads by bushy shrubs.

The ground was shared. In other parts of this clear grass park were a group having a rugby touch match – and they had cones to mark out the field – and, for a short time, three American Football enthusiasts were spiralling the ball by hand to each other.

It was a big enough ground for the second training run of the Heatseekers’ season and the match was played at some speed and with play-on skill. Like many games with smaller numbers (compare with Rugby sevens) it was fast and open.

In fact, interestingly, smaller sides, like similar informal matches after school in Australia, bring a creative new dimension to the game and like Recreational Footy it is a lot of fun. The small game techniques need modification when making the transition to 18 a side footy with stronger tackling opportunities, but it works really well to introduce our game and to develop skill levels.

A couple of players were not yet on top of some of the details (remembering to hit rather than scoop the ball forward on the ground so it is not a throw) but the game was of a high standard. As Kimmo Heikkilä, the great enthusiast for the game, and one of the three key members of the club executive, remarked it was only their third season and some of the players were new. It was also an international group with the club having an Irishman and a Colombian as well as a majority of Finns and the expat Aussies.

The visiting umpire, who noticed the Aussies trying to con regarding goals and out of bounds on the full as always, also wore long pants; perhaps so he could keep his pen and pad for writing this article afterwards.

The numbers playing Australian Football in Finland have grown from the original pioneers, a mere 15 players in 2006 to 60 at the start of the 2008 season. The Finns, a frontier people who are good at rally driving, cross-country skiing and ice hockey naturally find the speed, elusiveness and tackling of the Australian game something that comes naturally.

Now that Finland is, after such a recent beginning, sending the national team, the Finland Ice Breakers to the International Cup, the prospects, like the spring skies in Helsinki, are looking bright.

Handball drills at Heatseekers' training

Simon MacGregor coaching the boys

Out on the full!

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