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Brett Kirk takes Aussie rules to the world

Brett Kirk looks leaner and browner than when I saw him last, but the smile is as clear as ever.

He lives in Western Australia, an assistant coach at the Dockers. This week, he was in Melbourne with his nine-year-old son Indhi, promoting a film in which he stars or, rather, Australian football stars. He is the game’s international face, the man who can pull up anywhere in the world with an oval-shaped ball and find someone to have a kick with him.

The story behind the film, Aussie Rules the World, started in 2010, Kirk’s last season as an inspirational leader of the Swans. He and his wife, Hayley, then had four children (they now have five). They decided that the following year, his first away from football in decades, they would have an adventure – driving around Australia with a caravan.

Back then, David Matthews – now the CEO of the Giants – was overseeing the AFL’s international development. He suggested Kirk and his family go around the world – 23 countries in all – as an AFL ambassador. Filmmaker Michael McIntyre heard of the project and joined in, either filming what occurred himself or employing local cameramen.

Kirk, the game’s first high-profile Buddhist, admits it is a brain wrench to get himself thinking about the film six weeks from the finals. Kirk’s intense focus was integral to the Swans’ success.

I asked him if he wanted to be a senior coach.

“I love the way footy connects people” – Brett Kirk

“I’m not in any hurry,” he said. “I see myself as doing an apprenticeship like my brother did to become a plumber. I’m learning under a great coach, Ross Lyon, who makes the complex simple. I’m finding out if this is the way I want to go”.

He knows that if he does become a senior coach, he will have to give it 100 per cent. And, he added, family comes first.

His best memory of the trip? A black township in South Africa: a bell rang and children came running from everywhere, boys and girls, all wanting to play this game in which the five basic skills of Australian football are equated with the big African animals such as lions and giraffes. And in an instant, Kirk was surrounded by a pandemonium of children running, leading, kicking, catching, dodging.

He also saw a South African AFL game that ended in “tribal singing, people bouncing and singing”, and realised anew “that the essence of the game is the joy it brings”.

Indhi Kirk liked South Africa best of all the countries he visited. Although then only six, he got to play in an under 14 game. His father noted how some of the bigger children protected him. “I love the way footy connects people,” he said.

Kirk quoted the inspirational Nimrod Vromen from the half-Israeli, half-Palestinian Peace Team that toured Australia twice but sadly won’t be coming to this year’s International Cup: “If the world was one big footy field, everything would be all right – we know that.”

Iceland was memorable for Kirk, too. An Icelander studying in Denmark played in the Danish AFL competition, which is now 25 years old. When the student returned to Iceland, he found he missed the game. He put an ad in a paper to start a team and got two replies. “He knew there was an interest.” They now have a nine-per-side AFL competition in Iceland.

Kirk played in Iceland. “It was crazy,: he said. “It was 11 o’clock at night and it was like the middle of the day.”

Afterwards, he went for a beer with his new teammates and it felt like he could have been in Albury or Ballarat.

“Footy takes in passionate people,” he said.

He even umpired in Croatia, where a number of former handballers have swapped to footy. Afterwards, in the pub, he was again overwhelmed by a sense of how it was all so familiar to him. Kirk grew up around the Burrumbuttock Football Club, where his father played 250 games, notwithstanding the loss of one hand in a farm accident when he was four. “The bonds, the connections, are exactly the same over there,” Kirk said.

Indian football began with a single enthusiast, Sundip Charboty, who discovered the game on the internet. Charboty got 25 others “from somewhere”, sequestered off a small part of a cricket park in Mumbai and Kirk conducted a training session.

Kirk learnt the biggest problem confronting Indian football was a lack of footballs. But he also learnt there was a manufacturer of Australian footballs near the Pakistani border. So up they went. Met with Charboty’s enthusiasm and Kirk’s cheerful smile, the manufacturer donated 100 balls to the cause of the Indian game.

Australian football is growing organically, Kirk said. “It doesn’t need much pushing.”

Aussie Rules the World ultimately examines two issues – the place of Australian football in the world and the changing place of football within Australia.

I asked Kirk what he thought the future of the game was. He smiled. “I can’t answer that,” he said. “I just know what’s happening now”. That was the Buddhist in him talking.

This article was originally published in The Age and can be accessed here.