Australia in South Africa 2011-12 November 5, 2011

Australian rules in South Africa

One of the most unexpected sights for the Australian visitor to Potchefstroom is the office of AFL South Africa

One of the most unexpected sights for the Australian visitor to Potchefstroom is the office of AFL South Africa. Australians are mad about their indigenous football code - at least, those who aren't from the rugby heartland states of New South Wales and Queensland. But few foreigners follow or even understand the sport. That's something the game's governing body wants to change, hence a presence in South Africa since 1997.

It was strange indeed to peer in the window of an office behind the grandstand at Senwes Park and see framed Fremantle and Essendon jumpers and a pile of oval balls. It is the off-season, but when the summer of cricket finishes, goal posts will be erected at either end of Senwes Park and the footy begins.

Leagues run in four of South Africa's provinces, with matches every weekend, culminating in regional, then provincial and finally national championships. Surprisingly, there are 11,500 players of Australian rules in the country.

Disadvantaged communities are the primary focus of the programme. Understandably, it can take kids some time to get the hang of a sport they've never seen before.

"Some of the kids mistake it for rugby," says Phindile Kambule, the events and marketing co-ordinator for AFL South Africa. "But in the long term they definitely know what's going on."

Some stick with it, like Bayanda Sobetwa, who stumbled on an AFL skills camp in the township of Khayelitsha when he was 17, and three years later found himself training in Australia with the AFL's newest team, Greater Western Sydney.

I met Phindile and her colleague July Machethe, the national participation manager, at Senwes Park, where Australia were playing South Africa A in a tour match. The Australian cricketers sometimes stop by at the office when they spot the familiar logo.

"We always bring them footballs to train with when they're here," says July.

For the time being, the office is quiet, but come winter Potchefstroom will be an Australian rules hub. And maybe the next Bayanda Sobetwa will be there, breaking tackles and taking high marks. Sobetwa didn't quite make it into the professional league, but he came close, and July believes a South African will crack the AFL soon.

"It should happen in the next five years," he says. "Bayanda didn't quite make it, but he was given a shot. I think in the next five years we will find the right player."

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

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