By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Once dismissed as the "Canadian experiment" by skeptics in the bruising world of Australian Rules football, hulking ruckman Mike Pyke could prove a gamble turned masterstroke for the Sydney Swans on Saturday.
Just four years after landing Down Under, the towering 28-year-old has become a cult hero at the Swans and is set to play for the game's ultimate prize.
Pyke will run out with his team mates at Melbourne Cricket Ground on Saturday to take on the Hawthorn Hawks in the Australian Football League's Grand Final.
The match will thrust the British Columbian in front of 100,000 baying fans and millions more across Australia glued to television sets.
Playing in a Grand Final, Australia's answer to the NFL's Super Bowl, is a dream that eludes most players for their entire careers and on Saturday Pyke will become the first North American to achieve that feat.
"I was told when I arrived that the Grand Final has 100,000 people or whatever the number is, but I don't think you really appreciate it until you witness it," Pyke told Reuters in a telephone interview from Sydney.
"I was fortunate enough to be there live in 2009 and it really is like a coliseum atmosphere. You have this massive stadium and watching these guys go out and put their bodies on the line, it's pretty cool."
Australian Rules can appear anarchic to the uninitiated.
With roots in rugby but played with 18-a-side on a huge ground -- the object being to boot an oval ball through a pair of posts -- the game is derided as 'aerial ping pong' by many parochial Australian rugby lovers.
Pyke, who played rugby union for Canada at the 2007 World Cup, loves it, even if he concedes he once also saw it as having "no rules".
"You know, in the 1980's it was like a massive punch-up ... That was my first impression of it," he said.
"Since then there's actually quite a few rules and you'd be surprised. I've learnt it's actually a great sport."
Standing two meters tall, Pyke was once employed as a hulking back for Canada's rugby team but on Saturday he will play second ruckman for the Swans.
The ruck position is often crucial to a team's fortunes. The goliaths of the game, ruckmen wrestle and crash into their opposite numbers at set-pieces to tap the ball down to their team mates.
A good ruckman can turn a game by giving his team mates first use of the ball and they also drift up and down the field to shore up the defense or provide more attacking options.
On Saturday, Pyke and first ruck Shane Mumford will have their hands full against Hawthorn's duo of David Hale and Jarryd Roughead, who can be deadly in attack.
It will be the biggest test of his AFL career but he has never been one to back down from a challenge.
When thrown into rugby's toughest assignment, a match against New Zealand's All Blacks in 2007, Pyke intercepted a Dan Carter pass and ran nearly the length of the field to score a try.
"At the time I probably didn't enjoy it enough or appreciate it enough," he said. "I didn't even go out to have a beer that night but looking back on it, it was a pretty special moment."
Pyke excelled at school rugby and ended up in Scotland before his career took him to southwest France to play for the Top 14 side US Montaubaun.
He fondly remembers matches at boutique stadiums with boisterous crowds but suffered a nasty facial injury which sidelined him for a long period and had him struggling to break back into the starting side.
With his career at a crossroads, Pyke felt his time was up when he felt bored watching a Hong Kong Sevens game.
"I realized I'd probably fallen out of love with the sport and was doing it more as a job rather than a passion," he said. "So when the opportunity to play AFL came up, it was something I didn't want to pass up."
The Swans, a club that has fought tooth and nail to retain an Australian Rules foothold in the rugby league heartland for nearly three decades, proved to be a good fit.
Sydney had previously turned Tadgh Kennelly, a champion Gaelic footballer, into an outstanding AFL player and made him the first Irishman to earn a Premiership medallion in 2005.
"I was really impressed by the professionalism of the club and they welcomed me with open arms," Pyke said.
"Even the players themselves. The first time I was running around during training as a random person they were all very, very friendly which is a real credit to them and a credit to the club and Aussies in general."
Despite some pundits expressing skepticism about the signing, the Swans made Pyke the AFL's first overseas player from a non-Irish sport.
He made his debut in 2009 in a pre-season match against Port Adelaide Power, taking on the team's intimidating ruck duo of Brendon Lade and Dean Brogan, a battle he concedes he lost "10 times over".
He improved, however, and became a regular in a Sydney team possessing few superstars but with a strong team culture fostered by former Premiership-winning coach Paul Roos.
On Saturday, Pyke has the opportunity to prove once and for all that the doubters of the "Canadian experiment" were wrong.
"I'm a pretty big believer in a top-down approach to culture and that's from the CEO and the head coach and our best players, they drive where this club is going and they lift us all," he said. "I took a big chance on them as well. Fortunately, it's worked out well for both parties."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford/Nick Mulvenney)
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