Australia will come to a standstill on Saturday, and a solitary Canadian will be partly to blame.
One hundred thousand spectators will descend upon the storied Melbourne Cricket Ground to watch the Australian Football League Grand Final, with Victoria’s Mike Pyke taking centre stage alongside his Sydney Swans teammates as they battle the Hawthorn Hawks in the country’s biggest sporting spectacle.
An amalgamation of rugby, soccer and basketball, AFL dominates sports-mad Australian culture, with the televised games drawing audiences in the millions.
Pyke’s playing in the AFL is the culmination of an unlikely journey. A former professional rugby player in France, where he also represented Canada in the 2007 Rugby World Cup, Pyke’s career went on a tangent in 2008 when I saw an article in a Melbourne newspaper about AFL clubs on the hunt for strong, tall and athletic sportsmen willing to chance their arm at the game. I convinced Pyke that though he’d never played the game, let alone seen it, at 6 foot 7, 230 pounds with a huge boot and excellent speed, he was purpose built for Aussie Rules.
“At first I laughed it off,” Pyke said. “But I kept thinking about it. The more I researched the game, the more I liked about it. I love rugby but I thought, ‘This sounds like one of those things that if you don’t try, you’ll always look back and wonder what if?’ I’d lived and breathed rugby since I was 10. I wanted something different. A new challenge.”
A rugby highlight reel was compiled and sent off to agents, and while most dismissed it out of hand, it was enough to pique the interest of one.
“I get lots of funny e-mails,” said Michael Quinlan of Top Dog Management. “Parents about their kids. Guys telling me they are the next best thing. This one stood out.
“I saw the video of this clearly huge bloke who was a superb athlete and from speaking with him, he knew what it took to succeed. He is a total pro.”
Quinlan put Pyke in touch with the Swans, who were both interested and uncertain. They’d never been approached by a rugby player, let alone a Canadian one. Following a few conversations, the Swans flew him out for a two-week trial. Fourteen days later, the burly boy from Victoria was a rookie in a sport he’d never played.
Brought in to play in the ruck, a specialist position that rewards the athletic brute, Pyke found himself against players with 10 years of professional experience in a sport they’d played all their lives.
A few commentators ridiculed his debut in 2009, but Pyke kept going about his business and putting in the hard work.
It started to pay off in 2011, when he became a more regular fixture in the Sydney starting team and he’s continued his upward trajectory in the lead-up to Saturday’s contest – Pyke has started Sydney’s last 17 games and kicked eight goals, including a hat trick in one game.
Teammates and the Australian press have labelled him a crucial cog in the Sydney’s artillery.
“The best thing you can say about Pykey is that no one ever says ‘the Canadian rugby player,’” said Paul Roos, who coached the Swans during Pyke’s first two years. “People see him as a footy player and that’s massive.”
As he lines up this Saturday in the red and white of the Sydney Swans – fitting colours for a proud Canadian – Pyke will cap off a remarkable sporting achievement.
“I think [reality] is starting to [set in],” he said. “ I look back on four years ago and I was a like a lost puppy. I had no clue. The only thing I knew was that I had zero chance if I didn’t work harder than everyone else.
“I think when I walk out in front of 100,000 people at the MCG, the reality of it will set in – I’m a bloody long way from where I started. It’s been amazing, but I’ve got a lot more work to do.”