Forget Aussie Rules, for this breed of sports lover, quidditch is the best game going.

WHEN Harry Potter played his first game of quidditch in The Philosopher’s Stone, readers rode along with every swift turn of his broomstick. As the wizard caught the golden snitch in his mouth and won the match for his school house, Gryffindor, millions cheered.

But watching the handful of sportsmen and women gathered at Alexandra Gardens on this gloomy Saturday afternoon, it’s a safe bet this lot were more captivated than most. Clad in rainbow coloured garments and brandishing broomsticks, goggles, capes, volleyballs, plush balls, hula hoops, PVC piping and duct tape, these young athletes are in training to represent Australia in an exhibition quidditch game in England before the Olympics. They will play on July 8 and 9 at Cutteslowe Park in Oxford.

They need to be prepared – among their opponents will be the US, the country that invented “muggle quidditch” in 2005. The sport is huge in the States, particularly at the college level, with hundreds of teams and thousands of participants playing across the nation.

“We’re getting pretty excited now,” says Emily Tucknott, a 22-year-old teacher from the eastern suburbs, who founded the Victorian Quidditch Association. “We’re just trying to get organised.”

Fellow team member Kat Young, a 24-year-old freelance illustrator from Wantirna South, adds: “It still doesn’t seem real to me. I’m never sure what to say when someone asks me about it.”

Most people want to ask a few questions when they hear about quidditch, the fictional sport spawned by the phenomenally successful Harry Potter books and films. The major point of difference between JK Rowling’s quidditch and muggle quidditch, of course, is that muggles – those lacking magical blood – cannot fly. But this fundamental setback has not stopped players embracing the game.

Grounded by gravity, muggles must run around a pitch instead of gliding through the air, which Young admits is a hindrance. “It would be good if we could fly,” she says. “We wouldn’t get so tired.”

Broomsticks, naturally, are an essential part of muggle quidditch, just as they are in the wizard version, even if in this case they serve no practical purpose. Players must stay astride their broomsticks at all times and each game is started with the call: “brooms up”.

There are seven players to a team, who dash up and down the pitch, holding a broomstick between their legs with one hand. The “broomsticks” may be anything from actual Harry Potter merchandise to garden rakes and old-fashioned straw brooms. Admittedly it looks ridiculous at first, until you realise it’s all part of the charm. After all, this could hardly be called quidditch without them.

A lack of flying ability is not the only aspect players have had to adapt to suit the humdrum of muggle life. The snitch, a hyperactive golf-ball-sized object with wings, is replaced by a tennis ball in a sock tucked down the back of the pants of a neutral player, known as the “snitch runner”. This person is ideally exceptionally fit; their job is to run away from the two “seekers” for as long as possible.

While the quaffle – the ball thrown by a “chaser” through the hoops at either end of the pitch to score points – remains essentially the same, the roles of ‘‘bludgers’’ and the ‘‘beaters’’ are altered to accommodate muggle shortcomings.

Bludgers are the nastiest part of Potter quidditch: small, autonomous balls made of iron, bewitched before the game, they fly around the course knocking players off their brooms (fans will know Harry’s right arm was broken by one in a game). But in muggle quidditch, bludgers are simple plush dodgeballs thrown at the chasers by beaters. If a chaser is hit, they must drop the quaffle and run back to their hoops before re-entering the game. Confused yet?

The muggles from the VQA acknowledge that quidditch is still in its infancy here. There are 40 to 50 registered players in Victoria, but numbers fluctuate as curious friends come along to have a go, play a few games and then might not return.

“The idea for it in Australia started when there was a mock game at the premiere of the last movie [Deathly Hallows: Part 2],” Tucknott says. “I did some research thinking it would already exist in Victoria but it didn’t, so I thought, why don’t we give it a go here?”

Young has been playing since last year. “I was part of the second game held,’’ she says. “We’ve just been trying to get the word out ever since … but it’s quite hard to convince people. ‘Come to quidditch!’ ‘Whaaaat?’”

She says the attraction for many is keeping in touch with the phenomenon her generation grew up with. “I’m a massive fan,” she says. “I started on book four. I was a big Lord of the Rings nerd, and at first I was like, ‘No! It’s a kids’ fantasy book!’ But then I got stuck into them.”

Jenn Meers, a 19-year-old student from Mernda, has a similar story. “I was definitely part of [the Potter craze]. It was this ongoing saga and we were the only generation that grew up with Harry, Ron and Hermione,” she says. ‘‘Even though it’s fictional there’s a lot you can relate to, like friendship and going through school.”

But, as Meers and Tucknott both point out, quidditch’s appeal is widening. “We’re not trying to be the most elite sport, it’s more about having a go,” Meers says. “I’m not the sportiest person at all and I’ve really gotten into it. You do feel a little bit magical.’’

Tucknott adds: “Honestly we barely think about the connection with Harry Potter any more, it’s just a really fun sport to play. It’s something different, it will keep you fit and you can have a lot of fun with it.”

Watching the game, it looks like a mix of dodgeball, lacrosse, basketball and tiggy. Samuel Washington, a 23-year-old handyman from Glen Iris, calls it “a weird hybrid”.

“There are pretty much three games being played simultaneously,” he laughs. “I play netball, so that’s all right, I can throw a ball. But I also rock climb – I haven’t figured that one out yet.” Young chimes in – “You should be the snitch – then you can climb a tree”.

Washington laughs, then attempts to explain his role, but mucks up his Potter knowledge. “I’m generally a bludger,” he begins, before Young interjects. “You are a beater. You throw bludgers.”

And what do the unconverted make of their sport of choice? “Whenever we play there are always people walking past who ask us what exactly we’re doing and sometimes we rope them in,’’ says Young. “When we do photo shoots and stuff, we always get into trouble for smiling. I know we’re supposed to be serious but it’s so much fun.”

As the interview ends, the players take to the sodden, makeshift quidditch pitch and begin training. They formulate a game plan under the guidance of their coach, Tucknott’s husband, Robbie, who stops play every few minutes, offering tips on how they might improve before taking on the world’s best in London.

Even after having it all explained to me, watching a bunch of adults holding broomsticks between their legs still looks silly. But, here’s the thing: you would be hard-pressed to find a group of people enjoying themselves more than these guys.