This is it. Six months of sweat, hard work and peptides boils down to this. The first weekend of October. A long one too. Stretched in the northern states by the Queen and Labour, in the south in celebration of the sport itself. A day given to banners, chant practicing and all fan-related pre-gaming activities. Because, don’t get it twisted. Not just the banners, but also the significance — this year it’s all about you.
Some would argue the supporters should always be at the front and centre of the game. The fiscal foundation for the lavish lifestyles of the part-time ball-chasers. But nowadays the shouted cries from the stands rarely make it into the tactical decision-making rooms downstairs, drowned out by all the compartmentalised analysis involved with pro-footy. A world of sport scientists and resting key players and staying half-a-step ahead of the grey letter of the laws. Stats reporting the fractions of fractional errors that gave the game over. The key moment within the micro percentages that swayed the entire season. There’s never been so little room for error. There’s never been so little room for emotional eruption, the grandstand crescendo and the Hollywood-ending that all the over-hyped pressure deserves.
Even last year when rugby league (read: Johnathan Thurston, or Michael Morgan, or Ben Hunt) gave us the best grand finale since that bloke from Newcastle destroyed Super League with one waltz-over-the-line cherry pick, there still was a sense of both inevitability and legitimacy to the Cowboys taking their maiden premiership. The justified culmination of years inching closer to the cup. Years of final hurdle fails. Most of which, it should be noted, were largely at being too frequently on the wrong side of the aforementioned multi-interpretable laws of league (although seven tackles is really just black and white numeracy).
Meanwhile, AFL has been in the midst of the most dominant premiership run in over a decade with the Hawthorn Hawks going on a tri-peat streak to match that of the early-naughties’ bank-rolled Brisbane Lions. And while the Hawks have seen off a separate challenger each year, it has still all felt like a repeated scene. An executed act of professionalism, rather than the gauntlet gamble we sign up with our insistence that salary-cap systems are the only way to ensure the levelled playing field required for fan interest maintenance.
But the 2016 finals look a lot different. Quite literally, the tale of two sides.
One, all that above. The expected. The algorithm results of fantasy league calcs, with the two top place holders in both codes — the Sydney Swans and Melbourne Storm — fighting off a series of admirable final spurts to reach their respected main game bookings.
But it’s the other side of the ledger — featuring a pair of classic small poppy prize-stealers, the Cronulla Sharks and the Western/Footscray Bulldogs — that has made this year’s pair of contests so interesting.
The Sharks — while arguably the second best side all year, only relegated to the third notch by a barnstorming Raiders run — haven’t won a pennant in their entire 49 year history. The Bulldogs match and beat that, having not taken out the top prize since 1954.
Arguably, the Sharks’ case isn’t too dissimilar to that of the Cowboys — simply substituting the guide-dog directed whistle-keepers for the self-inflicted mismanagement and tabloid-filler of the modern game’s personalities. Financial fights and selfies of blokes pissing in their mouths have almost sunk the club in recent years (or at least forced them to retire to the New South Wales Central Coast). But, a bounceback was foreseeable, with cheque books dusted off over the past two seasons with the intention of assembling a side with the right mix of juniors and experience and low-salary rejects, giving them arguably the strongest seventeen (on paper) since the glory days of the post-Super League (almost) success. Yet — as ungraciously displayed towards the back-end of the season — out-coaching the Sharks and picking apart their crucial weaknesses has always assisted in their reputation as the Cronulla Chokers. The converse of which, is that of the tide-turning possibility. Bankable amounts of underdog worth.
Ironically, one key stat sides with the Sharks’, as only five teams since the competition reunited in 1998 have finished both minor premiers and grand final winners. Also, despite having arguably three of the most hateable in their ranks — Gallen, Fifita and Ennis — Sydney’s disdain for the city of Melbourne remains marginally stronger, so they should also be lifted by the crucial crowd majority. A factor that arguably assisted in the impressive and not-soon-enough form return for last weekend’s semi final crushing of the defending champion Cowboys.
The Western Bulldogs’ case, however, is that of pure dreams. The classic, all puns and punt kicks intended — they are the underdog dictionary reference. A club that’s dodged mergers and relocation threats throughout it’s up-but-mostly-down history. But much like the Sharks, there is a similar sense of timing, having slowly pieced together a side over the past few years, with things, seemingly now finally falling into place. Well, kind of. The Dogs finished up seventh after the regular 2016 season, thus booking themselves in for a guaranteed three weeks of knockout footy. They took care of West Coast and Hawthorn and the equally alluring underdog option, the Giants, on their way to not only the big game, but also the record books, becoming the first team to make a grand final from such a low starting position.
Standing in the way of these two football fairytales are a pair of absolute beasts.
Melbourne Storm have been brutal in 2016. Wrestling their way — quite literally — to the deserved top placement. Giving mere inches away in matches, they are the modern team, coached as vessels of pre-match plans. Executors of the exact calculations. Cronk and Cam and Coach Bellamy lead a pack of warriors, with few weaknesses and where luck and subsequent cash-in is often the only way through the wall.
Swans, not without their slip-ups this year, were clinical in their destruction of the Cats last weekend. At their bruising best, the game was done before a quarter had been completed. Billion Dollar Buddy as worthy and immortal as he’s ever been, a man with more than a few kicks to prove this year it seems. No measure of ticker and years of fight can reliably be banked to beat that back.
Of course, there’s a serious of sub-stories surrounding the games as well. The tragic absence of Dogs’ courageous captain Bob Murphy, Swans breakout star Aliir Aliir being unable to make it through the final fitness test and the looming retirement plans of several Sharks — with Ennis already confirmed and Gallen likely to only make it through only one more year.
But all these fade behind the main headline, dumbed down right here — these are two David vs. Goliath games.
That is the pitch, not merely for turnstile wear, record-breaking viewership, nor steroided hype — but for you. For the majority, the fans of the unrepresented. And the marginal, the uninterested. Those who are ordinarily forced to reluctantly pick a side on the first weekend of October. Allegiances formed not from an investment of loyalty, but calculated from the personalities of players involved or geography or some equally disconnected reasoning (“I’m going for the game itself”).
But not this year, you have a side. No fence-sitting impartialness, or dice-rolled decision, is needed. Because, after all, who the fuck wants to see Goliath win.