Ben Beams remembers the day of his football awakening.
- Former footballer Ben Beams believes that if Tasmania’s AFL bid doesn’t prove strong enough, the game in the state will wither and die
- Former AFL Tasmania boss Scott Wade thinks “this is potentially our last chance”
- A decision on Tasmania’s AFL bid is expected in early September
It was October 1, 1990: the day Tasmania defeated Victoria at the game’s spiritual home, North Hobart Oval.
A 12-year-old Beams was there.
“It was instilled in you, the map of Tassie, and in 1990, I was a 12-year-old kid watching the game, watching Dougy Barwick kicking barrels at North Hobart,” he recalls.
“It was just a great time and that instilled ‘The Map’ into me.”
The beginning of Beams’s sparkling 20-year football career can be traced to that day.
He’d go on to play in Tasmania’s win against Western Australia at the same ground as an 18-year-old, just six years later, before being drafted to Melbourne and playing in the 2000 AFL grand final.
But Beams’s halcyon days as a footballer would come while captaining the Tasmania Devils in the VFL, in a memorable stretch from 2003 to 2006.
There aren’t many who truly understand the power of The Map like him. It’s something he believes can’t quite be grasped by those outside of Tasmania.
“I get frustrated with my mainland mates. They just don’t get it,” he said.
Scott Wade, the former Hawthorn rover who represented Tasmania six times in the late 80s and 90s, knows The Map well too.
He harnessed its power as vice-captain of the Tasmanian team in 1990, and remembers the electricity generated by almost 20,000 Tasmanian fans when it defeated Victoria by 33 points.
“It was not the greatest-ever Tasmanian team, but we came together as a team,” he said.
“And once Tasmanians come together as a team under The Map, they do special things.”
Wade played for Hawthorn from 1981-83 and his local career included premierships with Clarence and Hobart.
He was also crowned the state’s best player on two occasions, awarded the William Leitch medal in 1984 and 1989. But it was representative football that had Wade’s heart.
“I guess that’s the day that I thought if we had our own AFL team, the whole state will come behind this, the whole state will embrace it,” Wade said.
‘Why not us?’
Tasmania’s win over Victoria consolidated a growing belief in the state that it deserved a place in a competition that was beginning to expand to include other traditional football heartlands, like South Australia and Western Australia.
It didn’t merely spark the career of a young Ben Beams, but was the start of a 30-year push for Tasmanian inclusion in the national league.
It was the day Tasmanians began asking: “Why not us?”
And Beams wasn’t the only starry-eyed Tasmanian overcome by state pride on that famous October afternoon.
Horrie Gorringe, whose name graces the old grandstand behind the goals on the western side of North Hobart Oval, was still around to witness the famous win.
A nuggety on-baller considered one of Tasmania’s finest footballing exports, he lived long enough to see Tasmania come of age in 1990 but died four years later at the age of 99, long before the state’s current push for AFL inclusion.
His son Graeme Gorringe recalls his dad’s connection to The Map and his experiences representing Tasmania.
“He loved it. It was his highlight in life,” he said.
“He’d love to have a Tasmanian team.
“What he’d say was, money would be the problem. The mainland wants this and want that and want something else and they’re never satisfied. The more you give them the more they want.”
Graeme is 85 now, but a life working on a dairy and apple farm in the state’s Huon Valley has left him with a rubigold shine.
His dad was a founding father of Tasmanian football and a member of the Tasmanian team of the century.
As a 13-year-old, Horrie was selected for the state’s first schoolboys’ team, which ventured to Brisbane to play in the national carnival in 1908.
“Took them four days to get there” his son said.
“Horse and cart, and a train for a couple of days to Brisbane.”
Horrie Gorringe was not only around to see Tasmania’s win over Victoria almost 100 years later, but also to witness the first serious rumblings about Tasmania joining the AFL.
At the time, VFL club Fitzroy was in a precarious financial position, prompting it to sign a deal to play three matches in Hobart during the 1991 season.
The move sparked chatter about a possible relocation to Tasmania. Those flames were fanned by then-AFL executive commissioner Allan Schwab.
“If you were to put a team into Tasmania, it would have to be to our mind, a team that would have to be relocated,” he said that same year.
And that’s where Tasmania focused its early efforts, immediately eyeing the ailing Lions.
At a function in Hobart before a game against Carlton, the state’s governor Sir Phillip Bennett shared a table with Carlton president John Elliott, AFL CEO Ross Oakley and Schwab.
Fitzroy chairman Leon Wiegard delivered a speech to the room, skewering persistent talk of his team being moved out of Melbourne.
“We’ve been relocated as a permanent base to Brisbane, Canberra — let me know if I’ve forgotten any of them — Adelaide and Perth, and now this is the first step, as we know, to Fitzroy being relocated to Tasmania permanently,” he told an amused room of local dignitaries.
It was an attempt by Wiegard to humorously spike any talk of the Lions moving out of Melbourne, but just five years later, the club was on the move — not to Tasmania, but to Brisbane to merge with the Bears.
‘It’d be like keeping Greece out of the Olympics’
Tasmania wouldn’t receive a relocated team, but the state’s eyes had been opened to the possibility and the fuse had been lit.
“Heat on AFL in new push” spruiked the front page of a 1995 edition of the Sunday Tasmanian newspaper in bold font.
“Tasmania deserves a chance in the big league,” an editorial in the paper read.
“If the AFL doesn’t agree, it risks making its competition, so far as national aspirations go, a joke. A sick joke,” it continued.
This time, Tasmania was serious.
The AFL was expanding again, and a second WA team from Fremantle had earned inclusion. The powerful 36-time SANFL premier Port Adelaide was also circling a license.
Tasmania spied an opening, and the state attempted to seize its chance via a bid spearheaded by local businessman Michael Kent, including plans to convert the Hobart showgrounds into a fit-for-purpose, 30,000-seat stadium.
“It’d be like keeping Greece out of the Olympics,” Kent declared of Tasmania’s deserved seat at the expanded AFL table.
“We will continue to keep at it until we’re there. They cannot continue to walk away,” he said of the AFL at the time.
The railway or the stadium
Kent’s stadium plans even had federal backing, but there was a catch.
The showgrounds stadium was one of two major projects being considered for $11 million of Commonwealth funding at the time.
The other was the ABT Railway on the state’s west coast, a premium tourist attraction in desperate need of upgrading to ensure the visitors kept coming.
In a bid to impress league powerbrokers, the Tasmanian bid proponents flew then-AFL CEO Wayne Jackson over the proposed venue in a helicopter, before touching down for a guided tour of the site.
“As far as we can see ahead, we’re anticipating having a 16-team competition. Certainly, we’re not looking to issue extra licences,” Jackson said at a press conference on the same day, deflating Tasmania’s hopes.
With those words, the railway was deemed the project of higher state significance and thus received the money. The rest is history, and Tasmania’s AFL dreams were dashed again.
Throughout the early 2000s, the conversation tapered off as the AFL began to corporatise and grow into the monolith it has become today.
Then came the 2008 bid, which carried the slogan “It’s time” and a business case produced by GEMBA that proponents believed proved the state’s economic viability.
This time, corporate support had been garnered and Tasmania went about ticking a set of AFL-defined boxes before presenting its case to the league, in person.
Paula Wriedt was Tasmania’s minister for economic development and led a delegation that included current Richmond CEO Brendon Gale, Alastair Lynch and Premier Paul Lennon to AFL House in Melbourne.
But she was shocked by how the delegation was treated.
“We went there with good intentions and hoped we’d be received with an open mind, but we were met with a level of aggression,” she recalls.
“Right from the start, our case was picked apart and talked down.”
It would spell the last serious push for a team and would be the catalyst for a souring of relations between Tasmania and the AFL.
Wriedt believes Tasmania, despite having ticked the required boxes, was never going to be seriously considered and then-CEO Andrew Demetriou’s mind had already been made up.
“On reflection absolutely. It was aggressive from the start, it was disappointing. We came with a solid case and left very disappointed that we were not heard, and felt that it wasn’t fair.”
With the passage of time, relations have improved.
Gillon McLachlan replaced Demetriou in 2014 and as he prepares to end an eight-year tenure in the role, there has been a softening towards Tasmania, with the state’s latest case for a team by far its strongest.
Instead of leaning on Tasmania’s football heritage, the current proposal speaks the AFL’s corporate language — one of growth charts, rather than grit and gravel.
It highlights the state’s trajectory rather than its traditions and promises to grow the pie instead of taking a slice of it.
There are big government dollars, a decade-long sponsorship commitment and funding promises for a high-performance centre and new city stadium.
But when all your chips are in, you risk losing it all, and Ben Beams believes that if Tasmania’s hand doesn’t prove to be strong enough, the game in Tasmania will wither and die as other sports begin to win the hearts and minds of Tasmanian kids.
“If it doesn’t happen, I really worry about the state of the game and how many kids we’re going to have playing Aussie rules in 10 years’ time. It’ll be very sad,” he said.
“Our state needs this for our kids coming through, so they can have the game.”
As a former AFL Tasmania boss, Scott Wade is aware of the politics and is privy to how such deals work.
He knows the importance of broadcast dollars, and while in disagreement with the AFL’s treatment of the state in 2008, his business brain understands why the league had to look at growth markets during the global financial crisis.
Wade only knows one way though, and that is to keep punching.
Ever combative, he’s torn between keeping up the fight and conceding defeat should another knockback occur in the coming weeks.
“My heart tells me that if it doesn’t go our way, we just keep persisting,” he said.
“But I think the reality is that this is potentially our last chance.”