Appreciating the Galahs
To a hardened footy follower who devours every morsel of news about the sport, any new documentary about the game of Australian Rules, no matter how obscure the subject, is going to be an attractive proposition. Even a story of a half-century old, long-forgotten tour of Ireland, New York and beyond by a hastily-put-together bunch of blokes from Melbourne will be of interest.
But The Galahs, the tale of an audacious but ultimately successful 'world' tour, conceived (or at least promoted and funded) by commentator and former umpire Harry Beitzel, is a such an incredible story, full of warmth, humour and enthusiasm, that it will surely appeal to a far wider audience than a few students of the history of the game. The Galahs is very much a labour of love, produced and directed by Cam Fink, Rob Heath and Tony Wilson, whose father Ray was a Hawthorn player of the era, although not a member of the 1967 tour.
Growing up, I had heard the odd mention of the Galahs' tour of Ireland, but was aware of little of the detail. What I knew was that a group of VFL players representing Australia traveled to the Emerald Isle in October 1967 to take on an Irish team at what I believed was a hybrid game along the lines of what we now know as 'International Rules' football. In fact, as The Galahs reveals, Harry Beitzel's team challenged an Irish team to a match of their own game, Gaelic football. And not just any Irish team, but the All Ireland Champions - County Meath - who had won the All Ireland Final - the equivalent of our Grand Final, not long before.
The film takes us from the germination of Harry's idea (Or was it Harry's? An alternative train of thought suggests it was in fact Ian Law of Hawthorn who first floated the concept), through to the hasty preparation of the itinerary and opponents and the learning of a game that, while not entirely foreign to Australian Rules players, entailed some very different rules, concepts and skills, not least of which was the handling of the round Gaelic ball, a task that proved much tougher than many expected, even for the best the VFL had to offer.
And then, of course we are taken through the tour itself, through the eyes of some of the players who made the tour - Bob Skilton, the tour captain-coach Ron Barassi, Billy Barrot, Stuart Magee, Law, John Dugdale, Paddy Guinane, Ken Fraser, Hassa Mann, Laurie Dwyer, Barry Davis, Norm Brown, John Nicholls and Bob Keddie.
Each of them looks back on the tour with great fondness and not without pride at having had the chance to represent their country in the sport in which they excelled - or at least a variation of it. Skilton, a triple Brownlow Medallist, still rates the tour as one of his career highlights and felt privileged to play alongside the others in the team: "I wouldn't have minded that side lining up for the Swans!"
Barrot's memories of how the tour all came together are somewhat hazy - "I don't know how it happened or why it happened" - but he revels in his recollections of how high and far the round ball could go: "You could kick it a mile! It'd go up in the air and drift and drift and drift and drift, like a rocket coming down!" Barrot's light-hearted reflections give the impression that the whole event was a bit of a lark, but Skilton reminds us that with the fiercely proud Barassi in charge of the team, the focus was very much on doing everything possible to win.
The tour liaison officer, Andrew Buckle, gives a slight greater insight into the mechanics of putting the together unprecedented tour - one which not only took in matches in Ireland, but also England and New York. And of course, the man behind it all, Beitzel himself, who claims the idea came to him while watching the All-Ireland final of 1966, provides his own account of a small yet remarkable chapter in Australian football history.
As well as being a radio commentator and TV presenter, Beitzel also ran a PR company and wasn't averse to taking a risk on the business front, and he mortgaged his house to fund the trip, boldly telexing the Gaelic Athletic Association with his almost ludicrous proposal and, even more ludicrously, offering prize money of "10,000 Irish pounds, winner take all!"
One of Beitzel's strokes of genius was to incorporate a version of the famous Aussie digger's slouch hat into the team uniform, a move which generated some controversy but also some much needed publicity.
What makes this film particularly delightful is the fact several players from County Meath - captain Peter Darby, Mick Mellett, Mattie Kerrigan, Pat "Red" Collier and Jack Quinn - are also interviewed, and they provide a fascinating alternative perspective of the super-fit and highly athletic Australian interlopers who came from a faraway land to take them on at their own game.
Of course the two sports played by the Irish and the Aussies, while being worlds apart in some respects, had quite a few common elements, and the fact that the two indigenous codes were barely known outside their homelands perhaps helped to foster the respect the opposing sides had for each other, a respect that was only further strengthened as the Irish leg of the tour went on.
After a short stay in England, the Galahs moved on to New York to take on an Irish team there in another match of Gaelic football, one which generated great feeling - not always of the friendly kind - and its own interesting stories.
At 58 minutes, this film is the perfect length to hold the interest of those who might not be footy buffs, while enticing those who are to ask further questions of what is sadly now little more than a footnote in the game's history. Fortunately those present at the film's premiere at this year's Melbourne's International Film Festival had a chance to see some of those further questions answered, with Barrot, Keddie, Mann, Davis and Fraser all speaking post-viewing. For them the tour is far more than a footnote, rather a proud moment in what were fine careers for all of them.
Wonderfully complemented by the music of David Bridie, The Galahs is the kind of documentary film that was always going to appeal to the footy devotee but, so warmly does it capture the stories of the players who shared their memories of that unlikely tour of so long-ago, few who see it will be disappointed.
A film that deserves to be seen far and wide, The Galahs has had an unfortunately very limited season in selected Melbourne cinemas. It is to be hoped that Fox Footy or a free-to-air television network might see fit to air it at some stage. There are plans to release the film on DVD. (For further details, click here.) If you love your footy, you should see this film. If footy's not your thing, you should see this film anyway and enjoy a tale of audacious human spirit, endeavour and humour.