Australian Rules football is considered a tough sport by most Australians due to the high level of physical strength, stamina and skill required, but a Tasmanian league has arguably the strongest competitors in the country.
Instead of playing on soft, green and sometimes muddy grass, the Queenstown Crows play on a unique gravel oval.
Popularly known as The Gravel or The Rec, the oval was established in the 1800s and is still used by footballers on Tasmania’s rugged west coast.
Growing up in Queenstown, John Carswell played on the clay court oval for many years, causing some unique injuries to players.
“If you slipped on gravel, the scrape would tear the skin off you, so it was called gravel rash,” Carswell said.
“The gravel efflorescence required some active maintenance or repairs, if you left the gravel efflorescence behind it could easily become infected.
“So from that point of view it was difficult, if you landed heavily on the gravel it hurt a little more than if you landed on grass.”
Carswell said he spent a few nights in Queenstown hospital with gravel rash that hadn’t been properly disinfected, causing blood poisoning.
“The doctors would always remind us… that maybe we should consider not playing.”
Why is the oval made of gravel?
In the late 1800s, Queenstown was a hive of activity, with many families moving to the cold city to work in the mines.
As a result of the smelter in the city at the time, sulfur dioxide was released into the atmosphere, killing all vegetation and preventing regrowth within about 100 square kilometers of the city.
When the locals expressed a desire to play football, it was not possible to grow a turf so a gravel surface was used instead.
“Everyone worked five days a week, eight hours a day. Recreation was a big part of the community and it was a tight-knit community.”
So, in 1896, the first game of Australian Rules Football was played at The Gravel.
The first two teams were called the Carters and the Lumpers because one group transported the ore and the lumpers picked it.
The smelter is now closed so there is an argument that they could try to grow grass on the ground, but no one has tried it yet.
It would also rob Queenstown of their strong home advantage.
“Players who had never played on the gravel before and had to play on the gravel were a little shy, not all of them, but some of them,” said Carswell.
In some pluses, the surface allows the ball to bounce more firmly than on soft grass, and it matches the high annual rainfall on the West Coast, as the ground is never too soft to play on.
It also suits a certain type of player.
“You played football a little bit differently, so when you got knocked over, you learned to roll and also ran a little bit slower,” said Carswell.
“The alpha male miner did well on the footy ground, if you were determined to get the ball and happy to get a hard knock… you didn’t have to be the fastest or the most skilled footballer.”
Queenstown’s connection to AFL
The Gravel’s best-known export is Brisbane Lions senior coach Chris Fagan.
Born in Queenstown, Fagan spent his early years playing on the oval before moving to Hobart in his teens to play in the Tasmanian Football League.
He later moved to the mainland to continue his coaching career.
Fagan was an assistant coach at Melbourne Football Club and Hawthorn Football Club before his current role as senior coach with the Lions.
Currently, the city is struggling to retain players as most workers prefer the “drive-in, drive-out” lifestyle.
“I think the Queenstown football club will survive… I think there is still a future for a few more years,” said Carswell.
The Queenstown Crows play in the Darwin Football Association, which is made up of teams from around Burnie on Tasmania’s northwest coast.
The Crows are currently fourth on the ladder.
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