British Bulldogs

British Bulldogs prepare for European Championships

By Nick Townsend 

Britain’s large population of Australian expats has ensured Aussie Rules has always had a presence in the UK. However over the past twenty years, the game has rapidly expanded outside of its traditional powerbase of London’s Australian community. It’s now played all over the country and they have their own national team, the British Bulldogs, made up entirely of British-born players.

This August the Bulldogs will travel to Sweden and Denmark to compete against seven other nations in the first ever European Championships of Australian Football. While previous European tournaments, most notably the EU Cup, have been 9-a-side and allowed Australian players, the European Championships will be 16-a-side and teams can only include locals. “This will give our players the chance to compete against the best that Europe has to offer,” says Bulldogs coach Mark Pitura, “A number of our players only play 9-a-side games on Rugby pitches so it will be very interesting to see how they cope with 16-a-side footy.”

Unlike many of the countries competing in the European Championships, Britain has a long distinguished history of playing the game. Aussie Rules was first played by a representative Rugby team, who toured Australia in 1888 playing a number of senior clubs including Carlton, Melbourne, Essendon and Port Adelaide. For well over a century Australian expats living in the UK, most notably students and soldiers, have played the game on British soil. The game has even been taken up by the infamous rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge with a Varsity match being played every year since 1921. This game is still played today and is the longest running Aussie Rules fixture outside of Australia. London’s The Oval has regularly hosted exhibition matches between VFL/AFL teams since 1972, attracting crowds of up to 18,000.

In 1989 the British Australian Rules Football League (BARFL) was formed, allowing for regular matches and an establish league. Since then the sport has spread throughout the whole country, including Scotland and Wales. In 2005, the UK’s first junior development program was started, which saw Aussie Rules adopted by ten English schools. In 2006, an English junior representative side defeated Denmark in the first ever international junior football match in Europe. AFL Britain now encompasses 49 clubs in five regional divisions, and claims to have over 3000 junior players.

For AFL Britain junior development is vital for promoting the game outside of the Australian expat community, which in turn is vital for the game’s long-term prosperity. “A quota system in the London league means that nine players on the field must come from a European background and have spent 90% of their life in the EU, meaning that they could be Irish, Welsh, British, Scottish, etc.,” says Pitura, “This gives EU players the chance to play at a high level.”

In a move replicated in many football leagues in Europe, AFL Britain has also shifted emphasis to the smaller 9-a-side form of the game. “Introducing a 9-a-side league has brought more people to the sport. It has made it more accessible and given the chance for players to get their hands on the footy and have a kick.”

“Too many Aussies come to the UK for only a short period of time and then eventually head back to Australia,” complains Pitura, but if AFL Britain continues to expand at this rate it won’t be long before Australian expats become redundant. 

Visit the website for the European Championships in Australian Football 2010. 

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