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From World Cup to Aussie Rules final: Canadian Mike Pyke on remarkable journey

09/26/2012 10:43 EDT | Updated 11/26/2012 05:12 EST
Victoria's Mike Pyke will be front and centre this weekend as Aussie Rules Football decides its champion.

The six-foot-six former Canadian rugby international is a ruckman for the Sydney Swans, who take on the Hawthorn Hawks in the 2012 Toyota Australian Football League Grand Final. The 117th AFL championship game is expected to draw close to 100,000 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Saturday.

"The city's abuzz," Pyke told The Canadian Press from his Sydney home. "The whole team's obviously very exited. It's a once-in-a-career opportunity."

The odds might be even longer for a Canadian.

Matt Woodland, a Canadian friend who was living in Australia, started Pyke's unique journey.

He thought the sport might suit Pyke, so he convinced him to send a highlight video to a local player agent who recommended the Canadian — who had played at the 2007 Rugby World Cup — to the Swans.

The club was interested enough to fly Pyke and his fiancee down in June 2008, signing him a few days later.

The 28-year-old Pyke, who made his debut for the team in 2009, is now in his fourth season. Announcers who once labelled him a "sideshow" have changed their tune, calling him one of the most improved players in the league.

Going into the final, Swans co-captain Adam Goodes has pointed to the ruck pairing of Shane Mumford and the 227-pound Pyke as an area of strength for his team against Hawthorn.

The tall ruckmen go after the ball, like NBA centres at tip-off only with far more body contact, hoping to divert a teammate to trigger an attack. Their secondary role is to offer an escape valve if the team is under pressure and needs to clear the ball from its own end.

Mumford spends more time in the ruck, with Pyke in a more forward position although he does give Mumford a breather in the ruck during games.

The game can take Pyke all over the massive pitch, meaning fitness is key.

Pyke, who wears No. 38, appreciates the compliments after an injury-plagued 2011 season. But he notes that he had a decent season before that in 2010.

Playing in Sydney, away from the sport's hotbed in Melbourne, may also help conceal his progress.

But he has been a fixture in the roster most of the season. Pyke has played 17 straight games since Round 8, kicking a career-high three goals in a win over the Western Bulldogs.

After a slow start, Hawthorn finished atop the regular-season standings with a 17-5 record. The Swans were third at 16-6.

The teams split their two meetings this year. Early in the season in Round 5, the visiting Swans trailed by 20 at halftime before rallying to win 106-69. In the rematch at Sydney in Round 23, the Hawks were 38 points down before eventually winning 102-95.

"They're a fantastic team," Pyke said of the Hawks, whose 2008 title was their 10th.

"Most people probably don't give us much of a chance," he added. "Hawthorn have been red-hot favourites almost all year. It's going to be a very tight battle. We're looking forward to it."

But Sydney, in search of its fifth title and first since 2005, has a poor record at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The Swans have lost 11 of their last 13 there, including their one game there this season. Hawthorn won 12 of 15 games at the MCG this season and has beaten the Swans four straight there.

But the Swans ended an 11-game losing streak to Collingwood in the playoffs, in a game that drew 57,000 in Sydney, so history many not be a factor.

"It's all indicative of the character of the group," Pyke said of the Swans. "This group doesn't really look to past performances or past personal efforts and rest on their laurels. This group is very good at staying in the moment and completing the task ahead, whether that be a meeting or training session or game on the weekend."

It's a demanding sport, played in four 20-minute periods of actual playing time.

The oval playoff surface measures between 135 metres and 185 metres in length, and 110 metres and 155 metres in width.

Each team fields 18 players with three interchange or substitute players who can come in and out any number of times.

There are four goal posts at each end.

A goal, worth six points, is scored when the ball is kicked between the two inside (taller) goal posts. A behind, worth one point, can be scored in various ways including if the ball touches the goal post or passes between the main goal post and the smaller side post.

Friends and family have made the trip to share the final with Pyke. He expects to have his mother and in-laws at the game, as well as a dozen or so Canadian friends who live in Sydney.

Pyke's current two-year contract expires at the end of the season. Negotiations on a new deal were underway but Pyke asked his agent to put them on ice during the playoffs so he could focus on the game. His goal is to remain a Swan, however.

"No doubt," he said. "I'm happy here."

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