G'day sport

01:05, Mar 05 2012
Melb sport
RIVER TIME: The paddle around the docklands development is bracing without being overly exerting.

I am somewhere near Chinatown, about three blocks north of Flinders St station when the caffeine begins to take hold.

A giant furry rabbit playing the bagpipes by the corner of David Jones department store breaks off long enough to yell something incoherent at our group of tennis-junkies who are so immersed in Federer jibber-jabber and Nadal natter that we dumb-foot his cap of coins into the thoroughfare.

But the rabbit's obscenities miss their mark and it returns to the wheeze and drone of its tartan bag. Even an ill-tempered, 6ft 4in, musical carrot-muncher can't break the focus of sports-mad Melbourne when there's a major event in town.

Melb sport
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The reason for my stay in the Victorian state capital was the Australian Open tennis tournament - the first major of the year and the main meat course to follow the amuse bouches of New Zealand's ASB Classic and Heineken Open. The reason for my caffeination was the organisers' habit of starting two-match evening sessions after 7pm meaning the second match can - and often does - last well into the wee small hours.

Sports tourists are a strange bunch - one Scots family in front of me watching Federer in Rod Laver Arena, chomped their way through a roast chicken out of a supermarket bag and complained heatedly about the bugs and mugginess.

They may have looked more at home watching an Old Firm football derby at Glasgow's Ibrox, but they had travelled halfway around the globe to see a game or two of tennis, and turn pink in the heat. What's more, they were now in an unfamiliar city well past their bed-time.

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In many cities I can imagine being stranded at a sports ground in the early hours would pose a problem for fans eager to find their way back to their homes and hotels. But not Melbourne.

It's a remarkably well-conceived city - even the streets are an extra few feet wider than those in most other cities to give an impression of roominess and, for the sports obsessed at least, the jewel in its planning crown is the sports and entertainment precinct on the banks of the Yarra River.

Free trams for the ticketed, or a simple stroll for the enthusiastic, separate downtown from some of the world's most magnificent sports grounds. And they come in their droves to visit them. On many nights during the Aussie Open, more than 35,000 people packed into Melbourne Park's arenas or sat in front of the giant screens while tens of thousands more were next door watching A-League football at AAMI stadium and still tens of thousands more were at the Melbourne Cricket Ground watching state Twenty20 cricket.

Ah, the MCG. Or just "The G" to the initiated. It's worth the flight over the ditch on its own. A few fans more than 100,000 fill it to the brim for Boxing Day cricket or Aussie Rules derbies. It is one of the most majestic stadiums the world has produced - up there with the Circus Maximus, the pre- make-over Wembley Stadium, Yankee Stadium and Stoke City's old Victoria Park. (I'm biased over that last one, admittedly.)

To understand its place in the hearts of the Aussie sports-mad masses you just have to spend 15 minutes with groundsman Cameron Hodgkins, who's spent time working on the hallowed turf of Lord's - the home of cricket - but who returned to tend the 20,000-square-metre expanse of grass and coax it through alternating seasons of Aussie Rules and cricket (with the occasional rock concert thrown in for good measure).

He talks with passion about the chemical makeup of the soil and the "building roar" of a full house barracking an AFL attacking move. But what cements the nigh- religious hold that the MCG has over the Aussies is one of Hodgkins' less celebrated activities.

Because the playing surface's turf and soil is replaced so often, it's felt that it's not a proper place for people to scatter the ashes of their dearly departed. But that doesn't stop them sneaking on to the pitch when no one's watching, to scatter great-uncle Alfred on the ground where he'd watched Don Bradman knock off 132 and 127 not out against India in 1947-48.

"In the morning I have to come along and sweep up the little brown mounds," says Cameron.

The best way to meet the grand old lady that is the MCG is by asking for an introduction from one of the ground's grand old men who run the tours. Volunteers all, they are loaded with a mass of stats and stories and have the keys to players' rooms, libraries and the Long Room so you can soak up the smell of linseed and linament.

Within five minutes of meeting our guide Joe Stanley (no relation to our own Smokin' version) he's well into a conversation about the current Australian cricket captaincy and we've all seen a photo of newly arrived great- grandson William, whom, we learn, was put down for MCG membership within 36 hours of making his debut in the world.

"It would have been sooner but he was born on a Saturday and the offices didn't open until Monday," says Joe.

As well as the tours, the stadium is home to an exceptional reference library (if you can remember to make an appointment, there's an incredible range of material including a 1611 English to French dictionary which references cricket) and the National Sports Museum.

The museum displays everything great about Aussies' affinity to sport. It's slick, glossy, interactive and one-eyed. Olympic torches adorn one wall, Jack Brabham's 1966-67 F1 BT19 takes the limelight on another, the Blackham Ball (the cricket ball used in the 1882 match against England that spawned The Ashes series) sits atop a six-foot stand taunting any Pommie visitor with the implied phrase "the death of English cricket".

The best part of the exhibition is hearing a holographic Shane Warne say he used to be a "bit of a fat bastard". The pre-Liz Hurley model of Warnie - it is uncanny to feel as if you're in the room with him - is staged in an MCG locker room from where he tells cricketing tales about his MCG hat-trick in 1994, his 1999 world cup triumph and that first-up delivery to Mike Gatting in 1993.

To help a Melbourne sports tourist around the city - at least one who isn't likely to be dope-tested in the near future - it pays to be caffeinated. And not in any old hotel-jug kind of way.

There's a heap of attractions spread along the Yarra and centred at Federation Square, where the disjointed earth- coloured panels give the impression you're in some rocky bay by the shore rather than in the centre of a vibrant city.

And to do justice to them all, it pays to get a good coffee or three.

Maria Paoli runs the Evolving Success cultural coffee tours and, as my mum used to say, is full of beans. She judges baristas, runs competitions, writes, teaches and consults on coffee.

In each cafe we enter as we buzz around Carlton - an Italian-flavoured suburb where the smell of roasting and baking hits us each time we get out of the car - she's welcomed like an old friend and immediately gets down to describing flavours, origins and specialities. This is so much more in depth than the simple clover leaf or fern coffee art which I'm used to - this borders on science and I'm left feeling there's a vaguely illegal coffee subculture at play.

To heighten this effect, at Seven Seeds I'm ushered into a separate room where a young barista plays with a chemistry set that looks more akin to a moonshine still than a coffee perculator. It provides what's known as siphon coffee and brings out flavours in beans that I've never tasted before. Coffee, strawberries and grapefruit are strange but, I can now attest, alluring bedfellows.

Duly perked, we're off to Brunetti's where coffee and sport are joined in the ridiculously trim form of owner Fabio Angele who, as well as running what's now become an international franchise by getting to work at 5.30am, manages to fit in time for a daily 20km run, 4km swim or 100km cycle. Apparently it's the coffee that keeps him going and the "sport that keeps him sane".

Fabio's father came to Australia as a pastry chef for the Italian team at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and never went home. Now the business pumps out 10,000 macarons per day (watchers of MasterChef will recognise them as the pastry-du- jour, although Fabio says the next trend from Italy will be eclairs decorated with edible pictures) as well as display cabinet after display cabinet of cakes, tarts, breads and chocolates.

Brunetti's also has its own cycle club. Its motto: Friendship, fun, team rides and good coffee.

As if to further argue that all Melburnians are sports-mad and that everyone I'm going to meet has a sporting connection, Fabio asks me to pass on his regards to my next port of call, a fellow triathlete called Kent Cuthbert who runs kayak tours around Melbourne's docklands.

The five-time ironman competitor is yet again trim, bronzed and undeniably sporty. The paddle around the docklands development is bracing without being overly exerting and gives an alternative view of an area that, although it is really yet to take off as a bustling tourist centre, mixes the multimillion-dollar apartments of the extremely affluent with the houseboat culture of Melbourne's lowest rent inhabitants.

Kent's got a great spiel for his tour, including yet another example of the Aussie competitive nature. Apparently the Bolte Bridge, which we paddle under before heading out into the Yarra from Victoria harbour, was built with huge towers on either side which play no role in its support. They were, however, at 140m, six metres taller than Sydney's Harbour Bridge.

And, of course, the whole area is overshadowed by the immense structure of Etihad Stadium, yet another arena with a capacity larger than Eden Park and which is regularly filled to overflowing by AFL fans.

There are other things to do in Melbourne than watch sport and visit great sports grounds, but the city so obviously thrives on competition. That, and coffee.

James Belfield travelled to Melbourne with assistance from Tourism Victoria.

FACT FILE

What to do: If you're travelling with the non- sports-obsessed, there is plenty to keep them occupied while you're off talking balls (and bats).

The Australian Centre for the Moving Image has a great interactive section on the history of the small, silver screens and, from June to October, will host Game Masters, which will feature more than 125 playable arcade and video games and profile more than 40 game designers. Federation Square, Swanston St, Melbourne, ph +61 (03) 8663 2200, acmi.net.au

Queen Victoria Market is an easy stroll from the city centre just off Elizabeth St and a great place to people-watch, buy presents or enjoy the usual hustle and bustle of a vibrant market. The food courts are particularly good with great meat and vegetable stalls from a cosmopolitan mix of cultures. 513 Elizabeth St, Melbourne, ph +61 (03) 9320 5822, qvm.com.au

At 297m, Eureka Tower is the tallest residential building in the world and its Skydeck88 viewing platform is a wonderful way to see the city. It is named after the Eureka Stockade - Australia's mini rebellion in 1854 in which gold miners took on the powers that be. The tower's tip is coated in 24 carat gold and its red stripe signifies the blood of those who died in the stockade. Eureka Tower, 7 Riverside Quay, Southbank Victoria, ph +61 (03) 9693 8888, eurekaskydeck.com.au

For the caffeine and sports tours: Kayak Melbourne tours can be reached at kayakmelbourne.com.au and Maria Paoli's coffee tours can be booked at evolvingsuccess.com.au

Where to eat: Melbourne is blessed with dozens of great restaurants and bars - especially around the Laneways maze of back streets.

It's worth searching out a few for yourself. Degraves St is a good place to start.

In Fed Square, Chocolate Buddha offers great Japanese-inspired food with Aussie ingredients. Communal dining along huge benches makes for great people-watching too. Ph +61 (03) 9654 5688 or visit chocolatebuddha.com.au

Livebait is a fine-dining seafood restaurant with views out over the water. Although non-sports fans may not enjoy its perfect view of Etihad Stadium. 55B NewQuay Promenade, Docklands Victoria, ph +61 (03) 9642 1500, livebait.com.au.

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