This feature appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Nov. 5, 2005.

These Magpies migrate half a world away

By Ed Odeven

You think six weeks in sunny Florida or Arizona shagging fly balls, running the bases, taking extra infield practice and working on the hit-and-run is an exhausting way to spend the baseball preseason?

Try spending two weeks with the Collingwood Magpies of the Australian Football League.

The Magpies departed Flagstaff Friday morning for their return to Melbourne after a two-week stay here, the team’s first training camp at NAU’s Center for High Altitude Training.

It included weight-training sessions at the Skydome, football skills exercises, running, boxing and an assortment of other activities – mountain biking in Sedona, trekking to the top of Mount Humphreys, hiking the Grand Canyon and completing a series of obstacle-course/roping activities on NAU’s Challenger Course on which Nicholas Hageman and his staff tailored the course to be more difficult than usual.

And by the way, the Magpies don’t hold their first preseason game until mid-February!

“This’ll be a good leg up for preseason training,” said Magpies head coach Mick Malthouse, while keeping an eye on his players Wednesday morning at NAU’s East Fields.

Yes, indeed. The Magpies, who brought more than 40 players to Flagstaff, returned to Melbourne today and resume training Monday. “I think we’ve had one official day off in the two weeks, so it’s been pretty hectic,” Malthouse said. “They’ve enjoyed it and they are starting to show the signs now of tiredness, and that’s what we expected. By the time we leave Friday morning, I will say they will be reasonably exhausted and looking forward to going home. But they will understand when they get back the benefits of being here have been enormous.”

“Quite frankly, I’ll say right now with only a few days to go, it’s been a terrific bonus for us.”

Dr. David “Butters” Buttifant, the Magpies’ head of conditioning, suggested that the club come to Flagstaff. In his former job with the New South Wales Institute of Sport, he came to Flagstaff with well-known Olympic swimmers like Elka Graham and Ian Thorpe and directly saw the benefits high-altitude training had for the swimmers. (The Magpies prepared for the trip by frequenting the altitude room at their training facilities back home.)

After they arrived in Arizona, they attended a Suns-SuperSonics exhibition game, then quickly got to work.

“We’ve probably never in the history of the Center for High Altitude Training dealt with a team that has done so many different things,” said Sean Anthony, the Center’s assistant director. “Usually, the training camps are pretty straight forward.”

And it’s not just the players who worked up a sweat.

“This is the most well-conditioned support staff that I’ve ever seen,” Anthony said. “It’s amazing when you see the drills that these guys are going through.. …. Everyone’s out there doing drills with them. Their coach, Mick Malthouse, the legendary Mick Malthouse, he’s 60 years old and he’s out there running the same drills they are – he climbed Humphreys, he went mountain biking in Sedona, he did the Grand Canyon. … You take your average American coach and regardless of sports and, boy, most of them aren’t out there participating in all the drills.”

This trip was designed to be exhausting.

“We wanted to make the commitment that we were going to work harder than anybody else this year,” says Reg Crawford, Magpies chief of staff, a former lieutenant-colonel in the Australian Special Air Service.

Call this the Magpies’ own two-week version of X Games: Aussie style. The main attractions:

A 25-kilometer hike/bike ride in Sedona.

An 18-mile hike up Mount Humphreys.

A trek from the top of the Grand Canyon to the bottom and back again.

“They went rim to river and back in 7 1/2 hours,” Anthony marveled. “They talked about (captain) Nathan Buckley standing out on this big rock taking a picture. He’s the team captain. He’s a legend in Australia. He’s the best football player Collingwood’s had in the last 40 years, and he’s standing over a 200-foot drop (that makes me nervous).”

The Magpies’ Grand Canyon excursion might’ve set some record, if records were kept of such things, for an exhausting hike like this one. Guide books say to plan for a 10- to 15-hour trip. They had several hours to spare!

Said Crawford: “A lot of people say, ‘It can’t be done. I’m not going to be able to do it.’ And then they achieve it, and your mind just gets expanded a lot more than it was before.”

AUSSIE FOOTBALL

Crawford has only been on the job for three weeks. Mostly, he’s in charge of coordinating the team’s coaching activities.

He considers himself a “keen sportsman,” even though he never played Aussie football – his background is in rugby.

“I come from a totally foreign code to these guys,” he said with a chuckle.

Even so, he had no trouble explaining the basic concepts of Australian Rules Football.

“If you were to combine soccer and gridiron, it’s perhaps what you’d get when you have Australian Rules Football,” he said. “The objective is to get to the other end and score. We are very much like soccer where we score through goals – they are more upright than soccer goals – and we have to kick to score goals. But we are similar to gridiron as well. It’s a very physical game. There’s a lot of body contact, so there’s a lot of use of the hands as well.

“We have a combination where we run, we kick and we pass with our hands.”

There are 18 players per side in Aussie football ( many refer to is as “footy”.) Each team dresses 22 players per game, so only four reserves can be used.

RABID FAN BASE

The Magpies are the most popular footy team in Australia. The team’s official Web site, http://www.collingwoodfc.com.au, posted daily updates on the team during its stay in Flagstaff, including video footage of practice and activities such as the rope-climbing exercises.

Doug Krause, an American living in San Diego, became a fan of the sport in 2002. He’s since become an avid supporter of the Magpies and follows the team on Fox Sports World telecasts and Net.

When he found out the Magpies were coming to Flagstaff, Krause made the eight-hour drive here.

After a recent practice, he was interviewed by Collingwood TV, which is owned by the team, and got to Malthouse and the team’s ultra-popular captain, Nathan Buckley.

Buckley, in fact, invited Krause to have lunch with him and his teammates at NAU’s University Union.

“To put it into the American vernacular,” Krause said of Buckley, “he is easily as famous and well-respected in Aussie Rules as Magic Johnson or Joe Montana were in their sports. … So meeting him was a wonderful experience, I consider myself very, very lucky.”

And what was that experience like?

“We talked a little bit about how the team has been doing in the last couple of years (not great), and he and the rest of the team are very optimistic about turning that around.

“But mostly we talked about normal stuff: what I do for a living, their families back home, how some of the players got their nicknames, their trip to the Grand Canyon, how we celebrate Halloween, etc.

“I had lunch with a legend of sport, and he and all of his teammates were gracious, interesting and down to earth. Not many people can say that.”

Australians Geoff and Adele Sinclair, a friendly middle-aged couple on vacation in the Southwest, stood on NAU’s East Fields Wednesday morning waiting for the team’s skills practice to commence. It started late because the team spent extra time in the Skydome weight room.

No problem, the Sinclairs proclaimed. They patiently awaited the start of drills and spoke about their lifelong support of the club.

Are you excited to be here? I asked Adele.

“Yeah, my word, absolutely,” Adele said, bundled up in a thick coat and a Magpies scarf.

And who’s your favorite player?

“James Clement.”

Why?

“Because he’s the best defender in the competition,” she decided.

Geoff Sinclair was then asked what he think about his beloved Magpies traveling halfway around the world to work for two grueling weeks of training.

“Well, if it’s got to be something different, perhaps it works, because it’s good for team bonding,” he said. “You couldn’t do anything better for team bonding than this.”

Magpies midfielder Paul Licuria agreed.

“I believe it’s been beneficial,” he said. “We’ve gotten a lot closer over the last few days. An issue we had before we’d come here was we weren’t a very close group. … It’s been good. We’ve gotten a lot closer, definitely.”

BIG-TIME EXPOSURE

For the Center for High Altitude Training, having a team of the Magpies’ stature in Flagstaff has been a win-win situation.

They are the first Aussie football team to come here, the first pro team sport to visit.

“It’s a big deal to have these guys here,” he said.

And they are already talking about coming back next year. Though they don’t want to announce it to everyone.

“What I’ve noticed during the course of the camp is that the team feels a sense of ownership over a site like this,” Anthony said.

“My intuition tells me that they wouldn’t be very happy about seeing another Australian Rules Football team here. … They want to think of this as their retreat.”

Maybe so, but Malthouse suggested his club’s Flagstaff training camp could trigger a new trend for footy clubs. The word is out, he said matter-of-factly.

For now, Flagstaff residents can take pride in knowing that the New York Yankees of Australian football find this town a good place to hold training camp.