Peter Barrett

Nick Riewoldt of the Saints loves a sushi roll.
Nick Riewoldt of the Saints loves a sushi roll. Photo: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Grand final day, 1974. It's four hours before the opening bounce, and Richmond full-forward Barry Richardson is deep in his pre-game routine, tucking into a big plate of steak and eggs in the clubrooms at Punt Road.

“There was no real discussion about what you should eat and what you shouldn't eat,” Richardson recalls of that era, when players still held down day jobs, drinking water at training was considered "weak", and facial hair was strictly an above-the-lip situation. “The common wisdom was that you had a big steak before a game and that would stick to your ribs and be good for you.” The Tigers went on to beat North Melbourne by 41 points that day. It was Richardson's third premiership and his last game as a player, although he would later coach the team and serve as president, too.

Much has changed in Australian rules football since Richardson's time. The game is more serious and played by generously paid (often fully bearded) professionals. Each club has people in charge of educating players about food to maximise on-field performance and make sure younger players have cooking skills so they can fend for themselves.

Pumpkin risotto.
A pumpkin and mushroom risotto tops Ryan O'Keefe's list.

Sydney's Lorraine Cullen is one of the AFL's full-time dietitians. While eggs and “some protein” might be appropriate before a big game, the idea of eating a big, bad Barry Richardson steak today isn't backed by the science. “You're not going to feel great after a steak,” says Cullen, “you'll probably want to have a lie down. Mind you, it might be psychology as well. Maybe that's what made them play well.”

Cullen works with hotels and the club's in-house chef, former MasterChef contestant Courtney Roulston, on menus for away games and weekly training schedules, as well as providing nutritional support on match day. That includes drawing up tailored hydration programs (Cullen tests the players' urine twice a week to ensure they are properly hydrated) and reacting to issues such as cramps that might occur during the game itself.

It's important to build carbohydrate loads and hydration during the week, Cullen says, rather than sitting down to a huge pasta the night before a game. “It's really thinking about the day,” she says. “Making breakfast really good, lunch, snacks and dinner, so you spread the nutrients throughout the day rather than having them in one big hit in the evening.”

Former Richmond great Barry Richardson's pre-match meal was heavy on steak.
Former Richmond great Barry Richardson's pre-match meal was heavy on steak. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones

Although still in the minority, there are a few players today who take more than a passing interest in food. At Collingwood, Scott Pendlebury is known for being a stickler for good-quality organic wholefoods (his fiance, Alex Davis, is a qualified nutritionist), and at Hawthorn, defender Josh Gibson is a co-owner of Brighton Schoolhouse cafe and fan of several restaurants including Dukes in Windsor, Touchwood in Richmond, Chin Chin, Cumulus, Kong and Tonka.

St Kilda's Nick Riewoldt was raised by a family of food lovers in Tasmania and has a share in two pubs – the Waterside Hotel in the city and Hotel Brighton in Bay Street, Brighton. “I love to cook,” he says, adding he and his wife, Catherine, often have people around for meals. “I find it really therapeutic. I love experimenting with different things. We've got a pretty good dynamic – I cook and she cleans.”

In Sydney, Ryan O'Keefe's passion for food is well-known. He's trained under chefs as part of the AFL Players Association placement system, and you might have seen him with Rachael Finch and George Negus on a 2009 heat of Celebrity MasterChef. Every fortnight, O'Keefe helps out with the spit roast at the Bronte Road Bistro, a restaurant owned by a friend. “We cook it away for seven or eight hours and then everyone comes in and we have a night of it,” says O'Keefe. “I've worked with chefs, trained under chefs, and it's something I enjoy – a good little 'getaway' for me.”

Fast and fun: chicken burrito is recommended post-match fare.
Fast and fun: chicken burrito is recommended post-match fare.

Even umpires are getting into the food game. Brett Rosebury has umpired the past six grand finals and steers clear of quick-fix sports gels and supplements in favour of dishes such as beef pad see ew (stir-fried noodles), or flathead tails and steamed broccoli with Meredith goat's cheese. His tip to stave off game-day cramps? Pretzels. “They retain salt and help keep you hydrated,” he says.

Of course, this kind of culinary sophistication was unheard of in 1980s. “It was a revolution, I suppose,” recalls pioneer sports dietitian Karen Inge, who spent eight years trying to get footballers to switch from fatty foods to carbohydrates. Inge started at Collingwood in 1981, but things really took off at Hawthorn, which won back-to-back premierships in 1988 and 1989. “Every Monday night at my house I would have cooking classes,” she says. “I had two home economists helping me with the cooking, and I also introduced the concept of celebrity chefs and got Gabriel Gaté to come one night and cook for [the players]. Some of them had never eaten pasta.”

Inge has watched the science of sports nutrition grow exponentially since then and now works with ex-footballer Jason Johnson at Dineamic, a business that feeds elite athletes healthy meals, including at AFL clubs such as Carlton, Adelaide, Port Adelaide, Greater Western Sydney and Fremantle. “We feed teams, Carlton in particular, after their main training session – generally twice a week and then their post-game food. Pretty much after that [the players] are left to their own devices to organise, plan and prepare their own food,” Johnson says, adding that it's crucial to feed players the right food in the first 30 minutes after a game. “We do things like chicken burritos, something that's a bit sort of fun, a little bit like fast food, which is part of our marketing as well – nutritious fast food.”

It's in stark contrast to the kind of post-game recovery players in Barry Richardson's era were used to. “We'd walk up the race and one of the trainers would have a slab,” says Richardson. “You'd drink the first one while you took your boots off and you'd drink your second one in the shower. It was very civilised.” And probably a lot more fun.

WHAT FOOTBALLERS EAT BEFORE A BIG GAME

Andrew Swallow, North Melbourne: Chicken stir-fry.

Ryan O'Keefe, Sydney: Roast pumpkin and mushroom risotto.

Nick Riewoldt, St Kilda: Takeaway sushi rolls.

Josh Gibson, Hawthorn: Char-grilled calamari on a Greek salad.

Travis Cloke, Collingwood: Fish and chips.

Barry Richardson, ex-Richmond: Steak and eggs.

WHAT TO FEED THE KIDS

Have the kids got a match coming up? Try these dishes from Sydney Swans' dietitian, Lorraine Cullen: "These are balanced meals, predominantly carbohydrate-based, that will help fuel your body and give it sustained energy on game day."

Dinner the night before

  • Pasta with lean mince bolognese, a green salad, and crusty, wholegrain bread. Then, for dessert: ice-cream and fruit salad.
  • Chicken and pumpkin risotto with a side of green vegies. Then, for dessert: fruit crumble and custard.

Breakfast on day of game

  • Porridge with honey and mixed berries, and two slices of toast with Vegemite. To drink, she suggests 200ml fresh orange juice and 500ml water.
  • Fruit salad and natural yoghurt with honey, and two poached eggs with two tablespoons of baked beans on two slices of toast. To drink, she suggests 200ml fresh orange juice and 500ml water.