My Darwin Diary: A Recap of Round 19 with Michael Murray

Truth be told, I had wanted to head to Darwin to watch the footy since the first time Uni were fixtured to play up there back in 2014, but had never gotten the chance. After checking if anyone higher in the club’s pecking order wanted to go up this year – they didn’t – this was my chance. As the season progressed, I realised that the game against the Thunder coincided with the Masters Grand Final. At that point we were undefeated and pretty confident of making it to the big one, until a couple of nasty injuries in a meaningless game out in Camden robbed us of two of our best players for the semi. Still, when we kicked the first few goals against the Magpies and led comfortably, I was fairly confident that we would progress and Darwin would have to wait. However, as is sometimes the case in sport, the momentum changed and we were overrun in the second half. As the team trudged back to the rooms and dealt with the disappointment of a premature end to the season, I saw a silver lining. I’m off to the NT. This is how my weekend unfolded…

Friday 9 August

0815       I arrive at the airport an hour and a half before the scheduled departure time. This is a world record for me. Usually I’m the person skipping to the front of the line because the check in is closing, while 900 people flying to the Gold Coast can barely hide their disgust. Anyway, I see Matty V, Jay and Jack all at the oversized counter checking in the various bits and pieces. I offer to help to make me feel better about myself. Stick a few labels on bags, push a trolley or two around and its amazing how much it looks like you’re doing. The others have done 98% of the work but I’ll talk loudest and point so the people around think I’m running the show.

0845       After half an hour of waving my arms around and trying to look important, it’s time to go to the lounge. Jay gets me in and I’m pleased to see the entire team is already there and ready to go. When was report time? How late was I? Being a Friday morning, the lounge is absolutely packed so I wander around like I’m lost for about 20 minutes before I can find a seat.

0900       The wild weather in Sydney has meant that our flight has been delayed. I could’ve arrived much later, but I think about the endorphin rush I got from helping in public and decide it was worth getting there early. I wander around the lounge and bump into Sam Graham, the big boss man at NSW/ACT AFL. He wishes us luck and says he’s off to Canberra. It’s forecast to snow. I chuckle and say, yeah, it’s going to be tough in Darwin too. Supposed to be in the 30s, and I couldn’t find my swimmers.

1000       We go to the gate – flight isn’t too badly delayed after all. I buy two waters and give one to Jack who is seated next to me – the second one was a dollar which is effectively petty theft at the airport – and he looks at me like I have two heads. Let it be noted that he still took the water.

1100       We are still on the tarmac. I am already fidgety and we haven’t left Sydney. Could be a long flight.

1130       Finally we take off, nearly two hours after the scheduled time. The passengers are restless. Never mind, lunch will be coming around soon. Imagine the disappointment when it is a party sized spinach and ricotta roll, a yoghurt and a coconut muffin that looks inedible. Effectively six hours on the plane and you get a toddler’s morning tea. The hosties swing by and collect the rubbish, and presumably an entire flight’s worth of unwrapped muffins. They can use them again next time I guess.

1430       We have been in the air for three hours, and Jack has been taking me through his analytics for the game. It’s a really impressive spreadsheet of all manner of data, and for an analyst such as myself – that is, I use Excel at work – I find it very interesting. It seems there’s much more to football than just putting a team on the park and hoping for the best. Who knew?  

1600       We finally land in Darwin and load up all of the bits and pieces onto airport trolleys for the five minute walk across to the hotel. It’s not as hot as I thought it would be. I offer to take a trolley and manage to spill its contents onto the footpath only twice.

1630       Walking through the hotel lobby we are greeted with big smiles, envelopes bearing our names and a freshly prepared mocktail, or as we call it in Sydney, a fruit juice. It seems that they are very keen to make us feel at home. Everyone heads into the function room for a lunch spread. I’d have to imagine it had been sitting there for two hours, since our planned arrival time. With this in mind, I inexplicably make a tuna sandwich.

1700       It’s time to jump in the pool. Fozzie takes a group shot and I duck under the water. I cannot be shirtless in a photo with these blokes, some half my age and forty cans lighter than me. Simon grabs me a beer, I stand in the pool and down it in about three minutes. It’s my turn to get a round, so I go up to the bar. Two beers, $19. Otherwise known as Sydney prices. There they go, making us feel right at home again.

1800       I wander back upstairs, dripping wet. I’m rooming with Jay, but he’s already been upstairs and is busy organising something else for the team. Tired from the day’s activities of sitting down for six hours, I jump onto the bed. Maybe not the best option as I am soon lying on a sodden mattress. I flick the television on to catch up on the local news. Turns out they screen the Melbourne version in Darwin so I’m well across what’s going on thousands of kilometres away.

1830       After changing into dry clothes, I decide to head down to catch up with the rest of the group. On the way through to the bar I spot Tom Reddin, our strength and conditioning coach, and stop for a chat. I love TR and his no nonsense outlook on things. In half an hour of chewing the fat we solve problems facing the AFL. If you’re wondering what those answers are, it’s reducing the game to 16 a side to resolve the congestion and shortening quarters slightly to reduce injuries. And if you want to know what we did with the extra players that will be out of jobs with the reduction in playing lists, we created a team in Tasmania. Someone should forward this idea through to Gil.

1900       I head into one of the conference rooms and see that the boys have the PS4 plugged into the projector in preparation for the FIFA tournament. There’s some people wanting to watch the game between GWS and Hawthorn, so once dinner is brought out it will be switched over. This seems to be a popular outcome.

2000       Dinner is brought out – not the worst spread, all healthy options and plentiful servings. But the real highlight was the bread rolls. They are hotter currency than a pack of Winnie Reds in Long Bay. They could’ve just brought out 400 of those and everyone would’ve been pleased. I look over to the screen and see it starting to snow in Canberra. I think of Sam Graham with some sympathy but then decide he’s probably behind glass and out of the elements.

2030       The leadership group has a meeting in the conference room next door. I use the term conference room loosely because it would fit about fifteen medium sized people in it, but I’m not sure what else it could be called. Jack runs through the presentation he has prepared and some of the video clips specific to the game plan that he and Morro had identified whilst on the flight. I look around and the group are pointedly discussing concepts that are way beyond me. I’d have an easier time understanding the plot of a Russian arthouse film. Without subtitles.

2115       The meeting finishes and I head back to the bar. My phone buzzes and I note that my bank has classified the spending on alcohol as ‘Travel’. This will make me feel good at the end of the month when I reconcile my statement.

2130       The Giants have finished embarrassing themselves and it’s time for the FIFA tournament. I draw Monty and Sam Barkley. I get drubbed 4-1 by Mont and lose 1-0 in the dying seconds to Milk. I swear these games were easier back in my day. Could’ve been the eight beers I’d consumed as well I guess.

2300       The last of the stragglers decide to call it a night as there’s plenty to do tomorrow. This is probably the earliest I’ve been to bed in a month. Is this why I am constantly tired? Nah, it has to be stress related or something.

Saturday 10 August

0800       I wake up, and unsure of what time breakfast finishes I head down straight away. Turns out I arrived with only two hours to spare. Last night I’d mentioned to Barto that I was thinking about doing some crocodile related tourist activity and he’s sitting at the breakfast table with brochures from the lobby in hand. He’s been keen to do something like this on a Darwin trip for years but couldn’t muster much interest from anyone else, but this time he’s got a few of the boys interested through sheer enthusiasm. I remain unconvinced. Crocodylus Park is the one he’s identified – it’s not too far away and has a range of other animals too. Harry Morrison is excited to see the monkeys with the rainbow butts. A quick Google search for monkey rainbow butts confirms for Moz that they are called baboons. I also learn that a red bellied black snake was spotted near the rooms last night and I consider heading to the airport to get on the next flight home.

0900       It’s time for the team meeting. I sit in on this one as well. I’m pretty much an expert in the game plan having heard all about it last night. Morro talks about how tough an encounter it will be, how the NT boys are a different side at home and their fans will be right behind them. I consider chipping in with a little speech of my own, something to the effect of “give it 110% and remember you can’t spell Darwin without W-I-N” but I decide against it. Jack finishes the meeting with a video tribute to our ruckman Sam Tagliabue which has the boys in stitches. I suspect Tags could be plotting

his revenge in the coming weeks.

1000 We arrive at TIO Stadium for the Captain’s Run. Basically it’s a very light session designed to help the players familiarise themselves with the ground and its landmarks. And something about muscle activations but that’s a bit too specific for me. I am impressed by the venue, it sports a lush green surface and huge modern grandstand. It even has a cool room. Jay and I set up the dressing room for tonight – I put a physio table up in the time it takes Jay to do everything else. Good going on my behalf, I think.

1045       We decide to walk back to the hotel. I had it in my head that it was 300 metres away. It was not. On the way back Stella is telling us about her upcoming job over in England – a full-time role at Huddersfield Town, a club recently relegated from the Premier League. Still, I say, Championship football is an enormous opportunity. Living in Huddersfield maybe not so much, but I’m sure she will figure it out.

1100       The players start getting treatment in preparation for the game. Massages, strapping, dry needling. The works. As a spectator most weeks, I give no mind to the amount of prep that goes into getting the team on the field. It’s quite remarkable. Jack says he’s going to watch the stream of Aspley playing the Swans. I decide that’s too lame even for me, so I grab an Uber into the city to see a bit more of Darwin.

1200       The Uber arrives after about 10 minutes, which is the equivalent of 10 years in Sydney and the driver is only too happy to indulge my stupid questions. I ask if he owns a jumper, or if he is slowly turning mad due to the non-stop heat. He laughs and says no and yes. I shift nervously. I tell him that the only things I know about Darwin are Cyclone Tracy and funny NT News headlines that float around social media. I think this puts me within the top 5% of knowledgeable tourists. He tells me that the city is facing a downturn due to the recent completion of a huge capital works project. At the peak of the work, houses were being rented out for $1500 a week, and apartments for not much less. Now though, city apartments are only about $800 a week. Buddy, for that coin you could get an apartment in Sydney. He drops me off on the ‘tourist strip’ and I give him 4 stars. Nice bloke but big liar.

1230       I’m standing outside Crocosaurus Cove on Mitchell Street, and I think about going inside. I think about how excited Barto is for the other crocodile place, so I decide against it. Lo and behold, across the road is the only brew pub in Darwin. It seems the harder I work, the luckier I get.

1300       I go souvenir shopping – there’s a hat I saw online with a crude mock Northern Territory tourism slogan on it, and I have to find it. It’s not at the first place, so I try my luck at another. Thankfully they have it in stock and I laugh like a twelve year old, which incidentally is only a few years younger than most of the boys in the team.

1400       I head down to the Waterfront for lunch – it’s probably a tourist trap but much nicer than the drab CBD. I find a nice bar there with all the football on TV. This will keep me occupied for a while. They have a few local beers available, so for the sake of science I sample each one and decide that they are quite good. I head back to the hotel before I have time to run a follow up experiment to validate my initial findings.

1530       I arrive back at the hotel and think it would be nice to have a quick dip before we head off to the ground. Too bad there’s a wedding on and the pool is off limits. Surely there’s somewhere better in Darwin to get married than in front of a faux waterfall at an airport hotel?

1645       We arrive at the ground and TR is setting up the warmup prep. To my surprise it is quite cool. I venture around the oval checking out the vantage points and taking a few pictures. Some of the boys are getting more treatment, others are out on the field doing their own prep. I’m thinking about going into the cool room and hiding for an hour.

1715       As I’m passing time waiting for the game to start, TR and Jay ask me what I’d prefer to do. Drinks or the rotations? I’d been planning on drinking, so I’ll do that. Turns out they meant giving the players drinks as they exit the playing field on their way to the bench. This was not part of the deal.

1800       The active warmup begins to the strains of Thunderstruck over the PA. Predictable, but a thousand times better than Thunder by Imagine Dragons. TR has asked me to help by kicking balls to the players as they complete run throughs. They’ve given me a green vest so I feel very official. I say sorry about 72 times as my disposals continually miss the intended target. I’m drenched in sweat with minor effort so perhaps it isn’t that cool after all.

1825       Morro has asked me to present our debutant Luke his playing guernsey – he was a late addition to the squad during the season after a couple of years struggling with injury, so it’s a great story of persistence. I mumble something about enjoying his debut and how he will remember it for the rest of his life. Probably a bit too deep given we were five mins away from the game. Should have just gone with the “you can’t spell Darwin without W-I-N” thing.

1900       Its quarter time and we’ve steadied the early Thunder, uh, storm. They nab the first couple and we fight back to lead by 15 points. A Thunder man chants after every NT goal. I’m caught between finding it annoying and endearing. I’ve been busy handing out Gatorade and water. Judging by the player responses, I have forgotten which is which. Turns out it was because Stella had been filling the bottles randomly, so the markings on the outside meant nothing. I get a nice text from Pippa telling me she’s very impressed with my bottle collecting ability which was on screen during the break. Good to know somebody is watching.

1930       Half time rolls around and we have increased our lead. I haven’t paid a lot of attention because I’ve been busy bending over to fill up the drinks – this is great for the back injury I’ve had three months’ worth of physio on. I do happen to catch Fozzie dispensing some rather crude advice to a teammate, and the security guard comes over to tell him to watch his language.

1945       I’ve spent a good chunk of the main break handing out ice blocks and standing in the cool room. On my way into the stands to grab a drink, I bump into Lefty – a fellow SUANFC lower grader – he’s up here for six weeks doing an internship. I usher him into the rooms with his fellow Students.

2030       The third term is a disaster for the home side. Even Thunder man has gone quiet, although it’s possible that his voice has stopped working. Or he could’ve been working on some new poetry. Anyway, we slam on eight goals to two with Moz and Monty both kicking a couple. The lone high point for the Thunder was the absolute hanger one of their forwards took over Tags. He comes off and says “I’m going to be on the back page tomorrow, aren’t I Muz?” Probably yes, I reassure him.  Jack manages to lock the coaches out of the box at the last break and they can’t get back in.

2115       Another blistering effort in the last quarter sees us get up by about 85 points. Everyone is happy, and it’s the fourth win in a row and one that should seal another finals berth – one that looked very unlikely six weeks ago. It’s a credit to the playing group and coaching staff. It’s been an energy sapping effort, and probably the first time I’ve seen people willingly go into the ice baths. Fozzie goes in fully nude for some reason. This is strange.

2130       We are all outside waiting for the bus – problem is it only takes a third of the group at a time. I accost a cab, jump in and laugh at all the suckers left behind.

2145       The pool is still open so I get a schooner and have that dip I missed earlier. People are probably still waiting at the stadium.

2200       Dinner is served – it’s similar fare to last night but they have tripled the bread roll output. This is a popular decision. Morro keeps telling Gulds about how good the vegetables are. I find this very odd. I find out later that he is vegetarian. Putting my HR hat on for a moment, this could be construed as workplace bullying. Morro and Darwin local, Old Boy and all round legend Congers head to the bottle shop to get some cases of beer. I tell Morro the club will pay. I am yet to confirm this with anyone.

2230       The players gather in a circle and hold ‘kangaroo court’. I’ve never seen this done in person, but from what I gather it is an exercise in everyone picking on Fozzie. Jack talks about breakfast. He will not stop. He is going to go to bed so he can get up early to make the most of breakfast.

2315       The group, barring a couple of injured players, heads to infamous Darwin nightclub Monsoons. And what happens at Monsoons stays at Monsoons, so you won’t get any detail about what went on there. Mainly because I decide to stay at the hotel and watch Crystal Palace open their EPL campaign alone, in my bed, in the dark.

0100       As is the case every time I watch Palace, the game ends in a scoreless draw. I should have gone to Monsoons. I go to sleep instead.

Sunday August 11

0845       I make my way down to breakfast. As promised, Jack has been there for ages. Three serves in. He will go back for more croissants. I pick up the paper and turn to the sport section to read the match review. It genuinely is nice to see an article about last night’s game in there. One day we will get the same attention at home, possibly this year when we win the flag out of nowhere. The article itself though leaves a bit to be desired, and refers to our players both as Brahman bulls and bumblebees – given that we won easily I guess these are good things? No photo on the back page, but Tags gets a mention for his performance as a stepladder. They also praise his excellent ruck work. I think he can call it a draw.

0945       Barto is like a kid on Christmas Eve. He needs to be there before 1015 because that’s when you get to hold a baby croc. I was unaware of the daily baby croc holding activity. The group piles into a maxi taxi and I go back upstairs and get ready. Jack and Morro are about to go for a run. As neither of them are wearing a shirt, I insist that they wear sunscreen. They both apply it liberally. To each other. I take some photos which will come in handy for blackmail later on.

1030       I arrive at Crocodylus Park and am pleased to find out that they’ve saved me a spot on the group cruise. And I arrive in time to see Barto hold the baby croc. You would think a vet would get enough of handling animals during the week. He is so pleased.

1045       We wander around waiting until the cruise at 1100. We come across all types of animals. Moz has an interesting theory about emus which Barto tests, with limited success, and Fozzie asks if emus are only found in Australia. I don’t know how to respond to this. Moz sees the baboons and he’s happy with the colour of their posteriors.

1100       As we board the cruise I have my regrets. Crocodiles are the most revolting animals on earth, and I hate them. The tour guide talks and talks and talks. She is so keen on crocodiles. Fozzie asks if we get to see the crocs fed live chickens. He’s disappointed when the guide says that’s illegal. A baby falls off its mother’s lap and its poor little noggin makes a thud as it bounces off the ground. The group stifles laughter. Me, a very mature person and parent, silently judge the mother instead.

1130       My interest is piqued when the tour guide says that she can talk to crocodiles and that they understand her. Darcy and I have already decided that she is stark raving mad long before this. We are taken aback when she calls one of the crocs and it waddles down to the water. This is some sort of trick. She then tells us crocs react 37 times quicker than human beings – an oddly specific and completely unverifiable claim. This is just before she drags food across its face for ten seconds before it opens its jaws. Lady, if you chuck a Mars bar on a stick and hit me with it, it’s gone in two seconds flat.

1200       I’ve had enough of the disgusting prehistoric reptiles so I return to the hotel. Most of the group is poolside doing their bit for melanoma. We round up all the gear and head to the airport.

1300       Back to the oversize luggage check in again. I won’t go into detail about the procedure that they adhere to in Darwin other than to say it is really dumb and takes forever. All the other boys are in the lounge while Jay, Matty V and Jack try to sort this thing out. I stay to express my annoyance at the check in procedure by sighing loudly every couple of minutes.

1330       I arrive in the lounge, again courtesy of Jay. Stella is lying on the floor, a bit worse for wear. Turns out she had gotten back at quite late.

1345       As we mill around in the lounge whilst charging our phones and tablets, the Saints are on tele and I’m buoyed by Dan Hannebery kicking a couple of goals before his leg inevitably falls off. It’s probably pointless for them to win this game as it will only affect their draft position, so I have no doubt they will get up only if to sabotage themselves.  

1430       After nearly an hour of watching St.Kilda, my urge to wrench the TV off the wall rising steadily, we are called to board. On the way through I stop at the newsagent to get the usual bottle of water and junk food I don’t need. I get sucked into another deal at the counter and purchase a second Kit Kat for $1.50. I have no plans to give this to Jack. 

1515       Just as the plane takes off, the Saints game draws to a thrilling conclusion – Josh Bruce kicks the winner with thirty seconds to go. I cannot decide if this is a good or a bad thing. The phone drops out as the siren rings. I’m disappointed that there’s no WIFI on the plane but on the bright side we don’t have to listen to Fozzie barracking for Richmond for three hours.

1615       We’ve been in the air for an hour and ‘lunch’ comes around – it dawns on me, everything is vegetarian. Stella, also vegetarian, thinks it’s mostly bad anyway. What happened to making people with dietary requirements notifying the airlines while everyone else gets good stuff? Typical snowflake PC culture. I will write to Virgin Australia about this.

1930       The remainder of the flight is uneventful – I pass it by writing 5,000 words about my weekend. Everyone scatters and goes their separate ways. I like to think I’ve played a small part in the victory but losing at FIFA and going to see crocodiles didn’t really get us the four points. I pledge to Morro that if we play a Prelim Final on the road I’ll pay my own way up to support the boys. I’m already checking out flights as I head down to the train station.

Looking back on the trip, I guess what I took away from this weekend is that we have an outstanding bunch of young footballers representing our club to the absolute best of their ability, and coaching and support staff that leave no stone unturned in their pursuit of victory. As someone who usually watches from the other side of the fence, seeing firsthand the level of detail and preparation that goes into a trip like this really blew me away. The other thing that struck me is how well everyone gets along. It is an extremely positive and supportive environment, where everyone celebrates each other’s success. It was an absolute pleasure to be around. And to the boys (and Stella), thanks again for having me on board for the weekend. It’s one I will look back on fondly for a long time.

Muz