It’s tempting to drag out all of the 2020 clichés. Unprecedented times… A season like no other… Hubs… Bubbles… Tradition thrown out the window…
But with the 2021 AFL Grand Final looming, it seems disrespectful to resort to those. Sure, it’ll be only the second “Big Dance” hosted outside of Victoria, last year’s match at the ‘Gabba in Brisbane being the first. And it will be a twilight game, in Perth, which means a very late night in New Zealand. For generations of AFL fans, the last Saturday in September is sacrosanct. The Grand Final breakfasts, dressing in team colours, the afternoon bounce in bright sunlight, MCC members making their way to the hallowed ‘G, a concrete colosseum that somehow manages to conjure up a grand sense of tradition, history and occasion.
The real story of course, is about the teams. The Melbourne Demons vs the Western Bulldogs. The first all-Melbourne team Grand Final since 2010 (Collingwood vs St Kilda). A replay of the 1964 Grand Final, which is the last time that Melbourne won. A 57 year drought. Generations of footy families, who have never seen a Demons Premiership. The Bulldogs had a somewhat unexpected win in 2016, coached by Luke “Bevo” Beveridge, who remains in charge this year. They broke a 62 year drought.
The Melbourne Football Club is the foundation club of Australian Rules Football, going back to 1858. The MCG is their home ground, and there is a poignancy to the fact that their first shot at the flag since 2000 (spoiler alert: they lost) will be at Optus Stadium in Perth. They have been at the top of the ladder, or close to it, for most of the 2021 season, and are the Minor Premiers. They beat the Brisbane Lions in a qualification final, and then the Geelong Cats in the preliminary final, both convincing victories. They have been imperious throughout the home and away season, but one of their few losses was to the Bulldogs in round 19.
The Western Bulldogs are the fighting, working class club from Melbourne’s western suburbs. Since winning the 2016 Premiership, their fortunes have fluctuated, and despite being in the top four for most of the year, they finished the home and away season fifth. It’s a hard road to the Grand Final from 5th position – an elimination final, a semi-final and a preliminary final (they beat Essendon, the Brisbane Lions and Port Adelaide respectively). The semi-final was a one point victory, following which the Bulldogs thrashed the Power by 71 points the following week. They will embrace the underdog tag, but with a bye before the Grand Final, may well be more match fit.
What does it boil down to? Geelong fan and Melbourne comedian Dave Thornton put it best:
AFL 2021 Grand Final
Teams: Melbourne v Doggies
Supporters: Landlords v Tenants
— Dave Thornton (@dave_thorno) September 11, 2021
The establishment, private school, well-heeled team, vs the scrappy street fighters from the western suburbs (those lines have obviously been blurred over the years, but the stereotypes are hard to shake). Even the club songs, such an integral part of the AFL experience, reflect this:
The Demons sing “It’s a grand old flag, it’s a high-flying flag, It’s the emblem for me and for you“, while the Bulldogs’ anthem references their mascot and geography:
“We come out snarling, Bulldogs through and through.
Bulldogs bite and Bulldogs roar, we give our very best.
But you can’t beat the boys of the Bulldog breed,
We’re the team of the mighty West!”
It should be a great contest, a close game. Expect nerves from both sides in the first quarter. For the casual fan, the players to watch out for are Christian Petracca and Max Gawn (captain) from the Demons, and Marcus Bontempelli (captain) and Bailey Smith from the Bulldogs. There’s the chance for redemption, that great sporting cliché, for Adam Treloar. He featured in Collingwood’s close 2018 Grand Final loss, has been open about his mental health, was criticised for prioritising partner Kim Ravaillion’s netball career, with Collingwood trading him to the Bulldogs at the very end of the 2020 trade period. If you’re wondering about the Magpies’ fate, they sacked their coach Nathan Buckley this year and finished one spot above the wooden spoon.
Treloar is emblematic of the Bulldogs’ scrappy, fighting spirit, and his coach notably stood up for him after an indifferent performance in the semi-final win over Brisbane. He returned the favour with his preliminary final performance.
If you’re looking for a Kiwi connection, you could do far worse than the bearded Max Gawn, born in Greymouth, who still supports the Blackcaps and Crusaders, and whose father still thinks of as a lock rather than a ruckman.
The AFL’s Grand Final entertainment frequently comes in for criticism, and is usually not a patch on the following week’s NRL extravaganza. Just type “Meatloaf AFL” into your favourite search engine to see why. This year, Western Australia is featuring its own Birds of Tokyo, and no AFL Grand Final would be complete without Mike Brady strumming his guitar and singing the classic “Up There Cazaly”. In 2020, Brady stood alone in the empty MCG, a strong visual metaphor for 2020 if ever there was one.
At the start of the AFL finals series (the first in five years not featuring my beloved Richmond Tigers, the reigning Premiers), I tweeted my prediction: “Heart says Dees, head says Cats”. So take what I say with a grain of Himalayan rock salt. Either Melbourne or the Western Bulldogs will be worthy 2021 Premiers. But now, both my heart and head say that, much like the New Zealand housing market, the landlords have the upper hand.
The 2021 AFL Grand Final will be broadcast live on Saturday 25th September, on Sky Sport 8, with coverage starting at 8.15 pm (NZST). Centre bounce is at 9.15 pm NZST.
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