Long time, no blog … over the last two weeks, our newspapers have been suffocated by commentators analysing two pretty simple games within an inch of their lives. So as the dust settles on the MCG and the scab on Billy Slater’s ear heals, here’s my two bob on the NRL and AFL deciders.
The 2012 AFL Grand Final is probably the best sporting event I have ever been to. State of Origin, Wimbledon, Australian Open, NRL Grand Final, Champions League, Old Firm Derby, Bledisloe Cup, Rugby World Cup, Ashes. Sydney’s premiership takes the cake.
Why? It doesn’t need bells and whistles and streamers and glitter. It’s just a huge game played in perhaps the most fitting venue in the world. Parallels to gladiators and coliseums are drawn too often, but the steepness of the G, its perfectly circular shape, its proximity to Melbourne’s CBD, its green surroundings that add to the stadium’s enormity, all of it. The joint oozes occasion.
Thankfully, John Longmire and Alastair Clarkson engineered a contest fitting of the venue. Not a lot more needs to be said about the game: the savage swings and roundabouts, Sydney piling on eight unanswered goals before Hawthorn kicked six without reply, before a gripping arm wrestle resolved only by Nick Malceski’s left boot.
Besides the magnitude of the event and the quality of the contest, the spirit of the day was a defining feature. This was Hawthorn, the unbackable flag favourites, whose grip on the trophy was loosened only by a Herculean Sydney outfit. And the grace of their supporters was commendable. At the pub after the game, I received two unsolicited hugs: one predictably came from an elated Swannies fan, but another from an overly friendly bloke in brown and yellow. Both sides waxed lyrical about the quality of the game, the ferocity of the contested ball, the talent of Buddy and the grit of McVeigh.
The thought of Big Malch slamming home the match sealer, and the hysterical roar of the red-and-white crowd toasting an unexpected title against a vaunted opposition … well, that was almost enough to make the 12-hour train trip back to Strathfield that night bearable.
I’m afraid the NRL decider didn’t live up to the standards of its Mexican cousin the day before. Canterbury toiled hard but Benny Barba had sold all his magic beans. Long range tries that they would have ordinarily completed, they bombed. Kicks that would have stuck were punched dead by Billy Slater. Sweeping moves out wide were snuffed out. With no intended reference to the wrestling tactics that helped carry these sides to the big dance, Melbourne just choked them out of it.
Although the game never ignited, the ‘redemption’ story was irresistible. Try and remember the reaction on 22 April 2010, when their trophy cabinet was stripped bare by Ian Schubert and David Gallop. The very existence of the franchise was under the microscope. Why would the fans turn up to see a team play for no points? Why would the players bother themselves? Mass exodus seemed inevitable, on and off the pitch.
However this squad – assembled fairly or unfairly, with yachts and brown paper bags and third party deals or not; the Big Three, complemented by a raft of dedicated journeyman and back-up singers – displayed a commendable willingness to stick together for more than two years in order to lift that trophy on Sunday night … that achievement cannot be overstated. Redemption, indeed.
If the AFL was characterised by a spirit of good will, the NRL – a sport not necessarily known for its magnanimity – was a close silver. Perhaps because Melbourne’s cup was so deserved. Maybe because the Dogs fans are confident that they are going to enjoy a long period near the top of Everest so long as Des Hasler is their Sherpa. Either way, it was a shame that James Graham’s chompers, and some beer-soaked words of abuse during the Belmore’s Mad Monday, overshadowed a standout 2012 for two clubs with bucket loads to be proud about.
If there’s a better way to spend a weekend than with 182,659 rabid supporters watching the cream of Australia’s two strongest sports run around, then I’d love to hear it.