It’s all over for another year.
This year’s football finals have been played and won – both in very different ways.
In what was a fairy-tale ending for two teams in this weekend's mega feast of grand final football, a nail-biting contest and flawless crowd-pleasing entertainment has left sports fans agreeing that Sunday night's NRL Grand Final was one of the greatest ever.
Australia’s two major football codes usually play their grand finals a week apart. But this year, due to a rare fixture adjustment, what the Australian public got was one massive weekend of finals football that will long live in everyone’s memory for very different reasons.
Aussie Rules and Rugby League actually share the Australian football landscape very comfortably – like siblings with very different personalities living together under the one roof.
Well, over the weekend there was a house party!
It started with Melbourne enjoying its first official public holiday in honour of the AFL Grand Final where the streets teemed with footy fans supporting their teams and reveling in the party atmosphere and it has ended with Sydney enjoying a matching day off, allowing for some much needed recovery time.
Saturday dawned and, as if the weather gods were shining down, the day unfolded as the warmest AFL grand final on record, tipping the scales at 30.8 degrees.
The centre of everyone’s attention of course, was the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground, where all who worship at the altar of footy go to give thanks for another season done and dusted.
If the rundown sheet for these events could be glimpsed they would contain the following: crowd amusements, kicking and running contests, pre-match musical entertainment, retirees’ parade and the main event (including team line-ups and the national anthem): all very busy, colourful, amusing and hopefully entertaining.
In what was yet another yardstick as to whether the AFL should put so much effort into enticing international music talent to our shores, the performances of the two main guests received two very different reviews. As was the case last year with Ed Sheeran, the attempt to appease the younger set fell flat. Ellie Goulding performed her hits and was immediately lampooned in social media for lip syncing – an assertion she strongly denied. Veteran rocker Bryan Adams however, got the crowd involved and in the mood for a big afternoon.
When the time arrived for the actual football match, pundits and fans alike were in a frenzy over which story-line would play out.
West Coast recently had Hawthorn’s measure, by more than five goals, but the Hawks were experienced campaigners who were going for a slice of history.
After two hours of game time, Eagles fans were in shock and Hawks fans were in seventh heaven. The final margin was 46 points and Hawthorn had taught West Coast a clinical and emphatic lesson in how to play and win a grand final – something this team knows well as this was their third straight premiership and their fourth in seven years.
While the scoreline reflects a lopsided game – not what is desired of the ultimate match of the season – it was not a boring game or a performance from which you could look away. The talent and skill which took Hawthorn on the path to the final siren was a lesson in how to play this game – while perfection in anything is an illusion, this team has come close on the football field.
In contrast, the NRL Grand Final took place a day later and in the evening – something Rugby League has managed to successfully pull off and of which AFL power-brokers can only dream.
The format for pre-match entertainment runs much the same as the AFL – but with the addition of fireworks. The music tends, these days, towards local talent and of the rock group variety. This year iconic Australian rock band Cold Chisel re-formed to give the crowd some great classics from their well-known list and had the ANZ Stadium jumping before the big game.
This year’s finalists were the two teams from Queensland – something that speaks volumes for the state of rugby league up north but which gave the event organisers some concern regarding crowd numbers and interest. As it turned out, that concern was completely unwarranted as the stadium was hosting almost 90,000 people and they were loud in support of both teams.
This match had everything. The veteran coach, considered a master of the grand final arena; a player who is being hailed as one of the all-time best bordering on immortality; a team that has never won a flag playing one that has won many, but not recently.
With more intensity than the AFL final, this game was fast and physical from the first kick. The momentum see-sawed and by half-time, a collective breath was taken as all those watching paused to let heart rates settle and assessments be made. The second half was much the same but as the final minutes loomed it looked like the experienced campaigners, as was the case in Melbourne, would win the battle.
But the man, whose name has been on everyone’s lips in recent weeks, was not to be denied this last trophy that would complete his collection of accolades.
Johnathan Thurston, in what he will always insist was nothing short of a team effort, got his Cowboys over the line in extra time. At the centre of all the drama which unfolded in the dying seconds of the game, he was instrumental in the 80th minute try which leveled the scores; he was the reason the game went to extra time when his conversion kick clipped the upright denying the outright win and his was the boot that slotted through the field goal that ultimately sealed the historic one point victory.
Immediately lauded by veterans of the game and commentators alike as the greatest rugby league grand final ever this game will go down in the annals of sporting history.
So the two big final games of the two biggest football codes in Australian sport each had their fairy-tale outcomes from very different results and for very different reasons – but that perhaps is their appeal and why – aside from the occasional family squabble – they co-exist so harmoniously.