For the all-inclusive Australian football follower this past week was a joy, and it was a slog. Australia’s two biggest sporting leagues – the Australian Football League and the National Rugby League – both had their first week of finals. Each league has eight finalists, meaning four finals each during this week and eight finals in all. You can’t hope to watch all of them live in their entirety – particularly if you actually attend one or two of them – but you can still fairly well gorge yourself on men chasing cowhide. Of course, if you think that one or other of the codes is rubbish then you can watch and tweet and shout at your TV (and shout at Twitter) through all four finals without interruption.
I’m not one of those people. For me it would be slightly more helpful if one of the codes moved their finals schedule by a week, particularly since the second week of the AFL finals is usually a yawn and can often be skipped. (The second week of finals in NRL, which has more upsets, is generally more interesting.) If anyone’s fault it’s probably the AFL’s, as the NRL has established its Grand Final on the night before the October Labour Day public holiday in its heartland of New South Wales. For the past couple of years the AFL has departed from its iconic ‘one day in September’ phrase, holding its Grand Final on an October date.
Still, I get a jingle of excitement before the first finals weekend. Compared to most regular season matches the finals matter. This may seem an obvious point, but the point may be obscured a bit by the commentary and hype around some of the regular season outings. Most regular season matches, contrary to the message of many pre-match build-ups, aren’t going to change a team’s premiership chances by all that much. In finals your premiership chances can plummet to zero in a single afternoon. Regular season matches are mainly there to fill out the journey. Finals are rare and significant – they make up 1/23 of the season in AFL and 3/67 of the season in NRL – they are the big pay-off to the months of football you followed before it.
This year’s first week of finals also had a vast geographical spread – each Australian state and territory which has a team in at least one of the leagues got to host a final or two. In the 1990s – soon after the leagues had expanded from being state competitions of Victoria (AFL) and New South Wales (NRL) – this may have seemed more significant, but in 2016 the nationality of the two leagues is now well established. East, west, north, south, day, night, it doesn’t faze us now; for our first final of the week, we started out west …
AFL: West Coast Eagles (6) v Western Bulldogs (7)
Domain Stadium, Western Australia, Thursday 8 September, 6:10pm
A final on a school night, aided by the AFL’s decision to take a week off before the finals series started. Last year’s runners-up the Eagles had gained some form in the last few matches of the regular season, handily beating three-time reigning premier Hawthorn, and putting about as much of a dent in Adelaide’s premiership chances as a team can in a non-finals match. The Dogs meanwhile were limping towards the season’s end, missing captain Bob Murphy for most of the season, and several important players for decent chunks of it, though most had returned for this match.
Yes, finals were here … But I soon found, after waking up that morning, that not everyone in my family had the same jingle of excitement I had at this time of year.
I shall not forget this familial betrayal.
The Bulldogs stayed pretty much where they were in terms of ladder position this season but, thanks to comedian Danny McGinlay, they have really taken the lead in terms of the banners that each AFL team runs through before a match. The Dogs’ banner when travelling to play the Sydney Swans, which made fun of Sydney’s alcohol ‘lockout’ laws, was a bona fide classic. Once again, out in resource-rich Western Australia, they started the match off right.
The Bulldogs started the better of the two sides in general play, but they missed their first three shots at goal, including a couple of relatively easy attempts. Meanwhile the Eagles converted their first couple of shots on goal, and it seemed like the Dogs may have missed their chance. But they soon re-established their dominance in play and within the first half had moved a few goals clear.
The Eagles fell further away as the match went on, as the Bulldogs seemed to keep going over the top of their defence. It was clear nearing the end of the third quarter that the Eagles – once clear favourites – were now unlikely to win. Bulldog midfielder/forward Liam Picken popped up with several useful plays. High-priced Bulldog recruit Tom Boyd had what seemed like his best match yet, roaming the ground as a quasi-ruckman. Though when you actually look back over Boyd’s statistics – 14 disposals, 5 marks, no goals – they actually weren’t all that remarkable. I think role players get more notice in finals and playoffs, as it seems like they have come through in vital moments, even though a team’s most productive players are probably still driving its performance. In this match I remember Boyd, but it was probably a player like Luke Dahlhaus that was much more important to the Bulldogs’ win.
When the final siren went the Bulldogs, remarkably, were eight goals in front of a club that had won 73 per cent of its matches (16 out of 22) during the regular season, on its home ground. I had planned on saying that for the Dogs, losing on a Thursday night about 3,000 kilometres away, that the finals would have felt like they were over before they even really started. Instead they had their best win for several years, and now have another final back in Melbourne next week.
Western Bulldogs 99 defeated West Coast Eagles 52.
AFL: Geelong Cats (2) v Hawthorn (3)
Melbourne Cricket Ground, Victoria, Friday 9 September, 7:50pm
Was this the best AFL match I have ever attended? Two big, bitter Victorian rivals, and the two most successful AFL clubs of the past ten years, in a significant final that was decided by a shot for goal after the siren? I was not there for the great run of Grand Finals the AFL had from 2005 to 2012, so it has to be up there … In the end, after the excitement had faded, I think I’d still go for the 2007 Preliminary Final between Geelong and Collingwood – the combination of a then-premiership-starved Cats side (they had not won the flag for 44 years), and a finals-starved Melbourne crowd (no Preliminary Final between two big Victorian rivals for six years) gave that match an atmosphere that will not soon be replicated. But this one set a new benchmark for first week AFL finals that will be hard to beat.
My sister and I went along together to this match, and we definitely had a pro-Cats/anti-Hawks sentiment. Hawthorn has won four of the past ten premierships, including the past three, though the Cats have won three of the past ten themselves. So from the standpoint of ‘I’m sick of watching this team win’ there isn’t that much between them based on recent years. However those three premierships are Geelong’s only three in the past 50 years, while the Hawks have won nine – freaking heck, NINE! – premierships in our 30+ years of life. Further, when we think of Geelong we think of players like the lovable Jimmy Bartel and the charming, fantastic Patrick Dangerfield. When we think of Hawthorn we think of roughhouses like Luke Hodge and Jordan Lewis, and the over-exuberant commentating man-love for Cyril Rioli. Plus, we just find Geelong more fun to watch. Hawthorn has basically ‘solved’ Australian Rules football with their emphasis on short, accurate kicks, which may be hugely effective but it’s not as exciting as Geelong’s more open approach.
The match itself didn’t really take off until halfway through the third quarter. That was when the Cats pulled back the lead Hawthorn had opened up with three quick goals to put the match basically back on even terms, and it felt like this was on. From then on the two clubs essentially traded goals, with no side able to get more than a goal ahead. The Hawks held a one goal lead for a fair share of the final quarter, but then Geelong’s Josh Caddy kicked a goal to put his team up on points with a few minutes left. For the last two minutes the Cats tried to work their way to kicking a goal to seal the victory, while they and everyone else was mindful that one bad kick and Hawthorn might sweep it down the ground to win the match.
Which is kind of what happened – Cat Steven Motlop attempted a difficult shot with about a minute left which only scored a behind and gave possession back to the Hawks. A few well-placed kicks and the ball entered Hawthorn’s forward line – Hawk Luke Breust got the ball, had his kick smothered, retrieved it, and then unerringly kicked it over to teammate Isaac Smith for a shot at goal from inside 50 metres. The final siren blew – a goal by Smith would win it.
I thought that Smith was a really good chance of making the shot. It turns out he only had a slightly better-than-even chance of kicking a goal based on long-term conversion rates from that spot.
As the kick went towards us fans stood up and cheered but at first I couldn’t tell which fans they were. I thought it was probably the Hawks’ fans. Then I realised it was the Cats’ fans. Then I saw the Cats’ players celebrating. The Cats had won…!!!
‘Tough luck Hawthorn!’ I shouted, unsporting. Truthfully though they had put in a good performance in what was a great game.
Geelong Cats 85 defeated Hawthorn 83.
NRL: Brisbane Broncos (5) v Gold Coast Titans (8)
Suncorp Stadium, Queensland, Friday 9 September, 7:55pm
Attending Geelong-Hawthorn meant that I could only catch the Broncos-Titans match on replay, and I only watched the five-minute highlights, but this was one of the matches I was less interested in anyway. I expected that the Broncos would comfortably win this, with the Titans not widely expected to even be in the finals, and winning less than half of their regular season matches. This means I have spent far more time writing about this match than I did actually watching it, but isn’t that often the case with sports coverage…?
This was the first time that all three NRL sides from Queensland – Brisbane, North Queensland, and Gold Coast – had made the same finals series. I think this was sort of a big deal for Queenslanders. Flicking through Queensland’s Sunday Mail newspaper when I was up in Noosa Heads last week they had even gone as far as to shout ‘C’MON YOU RAIDERS’ on the front of the sports section, when a Canberra Raiders win was needed to ensure a finals berth for the Titans. Coming from Melbourne I am used to the rivalries being quite bitter, and some AFL fans including myself would sometimes take a perverse joy in a big Victorian club missing the finals. Even when the North Queensland Cowboys beat the Broncos in last year’s NRL Grand Final in just about the most devastating way possible some Brisbane fans seemed to be reasonably OK with a fellow Queensland side winning it. Perhaps Queensland v New South Wales trumps all else when it comes to rugby league.
Anyway, most of the tweets I read back over regarding the match complained about some of the decisions that had been made by the ‘Bunker’ – the NRL’s centralised video review room which isn’t well-loved by fans in any case – and that those decisions had all gone against the Titans. Looking back over the highlights the decisions, taken collectively, didn’t seem to me quite as bad as they had been made out to be, though I can understand that fans’ anger would build up in real-time as these occurred.
One controversial call was the penalty try awarded to Brisbane after Titans player Konrad Hurrell kicked the ball out of Jordan Kahu’s hands as he was reaching for the try line. But it did actually look to me like Kahu would have scored if Hurrell hadn’t deliberately lashed out with his leg, and it sounds like the Titans’ coach Neil Henry kind of agreed with that particular decision. More dubious to me were: a) the non-call against Brisbane’s James Roberts when he kicked a Titans player during a passage of play that resulted in a Broncos try; and b) the decision that Broncos’ winger Corey Oates had been put in a dangerous position as he leaped to catch a kick, when it looked to me like Oates was the one to put himself in danger.
Did these possible referee mistakes ultimately change who won? Probably not. Still it’s a shame that one team got the worst of it.
The good part about the result though was that it potentially set up another Cowboys v Broncos final. These two teams played two of the greatest rugby league matches you will ever see in last year’s finals series, making another final between them a mouth-watering prospect. For that to happen I had to hope that another result, which I had the most investment in over this weekend, fell the way I wanted it to.
Broncos 44 defeated Titans 26.
AFL: Sydney Swans (1) v Greater Western Sydney Giants (4)
ANZ Stadium, New South Wales, Saturday 10 September, 3:20pm
Four of the eight finals were on the Saturday, starting with AFL minor premiers the Sydney Swans playing their ‘younger brother’ the Greater Western Sydney (GWS) Giants. This was the Giants’ first ever final in their five years in the AFL.
GWS had been the most remarkable improver of the 2016 season. Their first four seasons had been: awful, awful, slightly less awful, merely bad, and then suddenly they were a really good side. Generous draft concessions given to them by the AFL in their first few years meant that they had stockpiled a bunch of talented young players who had now picked up as they moved towards their peak years. But they had also been a bit smarter about the assistance they had been given than fellow ‘expansion’ side the Gold Coast Suns. Unlike the Suns they had used their special recruitment entitlements when they were first established to target younger players – co-captains Callan Ward and Phil Davis, and former number one draft pick Tom Scully. While this meant they got belted by even more to start with these players have effectively functioned as additional high draft picks when the rest of their list matured. They have also topped up well with productive players that for various reasons had been pushed out of other clubs – Heath Shaw, Shane Mumford, and Steve Johnson, two of which would increase their notoriety during this match.
The first half of this match was pretty brutal. Johnson hit star Sydney midfielder Josh Kennedy with his shoulder and Kennedy had to leave the field for a concussion test, though he later returned. Nevertheless Johnson was booed by Swans fans at every opportunity. Mumford meanwhile laid a tough tackle on Sydney forward/ruckman Kurt Tippett in the second quarter. Even putting those incidents aside it was a hard-fought match. It was almost even at half time, and GWS looked to be in every bit as good as shape as their cross-city rivals.
That turned out to be the least of it. My memories of the second half are somewhat vague as Ms Wheatley was out for the afternoon and the night, leaving me in sole care of our Little Miss. My daughter is a delight, but at about two years of age can be rightly classified as a household pest. In between shooing her away from items she knows not to touch I saw GWS take control of the match, with forward Jeremy Cameron kicking three goals in the third quarter. Soon it was clear that the Giants were going to win this one and move straight into a preliminary final on their home ground.
Though the result was apparent early in the final quarter I watched until the end, both because it was a historic occasion for the AFL’s newest club, and to hear its excellent theme song. Herald Sun music expert Cameron Adams got it right when he said it had an ‘old-school vibe’ but didn’t ‘sound exactly like something your grandparents listened to’.
GWS Giants 91 defeated Sydney Swans 55.
NRL: Canberra Raiders (2) v Cronulla Sharks (3)
GIO Stadium, Australian Capital Territory, Saturday 10 September, 5:35pm
After the Giants’ theme song had finished I flicked the TV over to Raiders-Sharks, which meant that I missed the awesome (if appropriated from Iceland football) Viking Clap that the Raider fans did before their boys came out for their first final in several years. When I turned it on the Raiders had built up a 6-0 lead, and scored another try soon thereafter. Their wingers and centres that had torn up the league over the second half of the season looked to be burning past the Sharks’ defenders, and I thought that they could be on their way to putting 30 or 40 points on the board before the match’s end.
Admittedly, I was also a bit distracted watching this – I was getting ready to go to the Storm-Cowboys NRL final in Melbourne that evening, and getting Little Miss Wheatley ready for her adoring grandparents to look after her for the night. I did catch Cronulla get a handy try back just before the half time break. I then put Little Miss Wheatley in her pyjamas, handed her over, and walked out into the Melbourne rain while listening to the second half on radio, thinking about the match I was about to see and about not getting my ticket wet in my jacket pocket.
But Canberra couldn’t seem to score. And then I heard there was just over ten minutes left and the scores were still tied. Then with five minutes left Cronulla got a penalty goal, which put them two points up with time for only a few more possessions. The Sharks, who had won 15 straight matches during the regular season but had sputtered in the final weeks, were going to beat the league’s hottest team.
I felt like this result lifted some of the pressure from the night’s match. If my team the Melbourne Storm lost they would be on the side of the ‘draw’ in which Cronulla would host a final. Given recent form, and how handily the Storm had beaten the Sharks last week, I feared a preliminary final against the Sharks less than I feared one against the Raiders’ backs. Still the Sharks had just beaten the Raiders. And I still wanted a home preliminary final for the Storm. I still wanted to win.
Sharks 16 defeated Raiders 14.
AFL: Adelaide Crows (5) v North Melbourne (8)
Adelaide Oval, South Australia, Saturday 10 September, 7:10pm
Attending Storm-Cowboys meant that I could only catch this match on replay, and I only watched the seven-minute highlights. But I expected that North Melbourne, who lost 10 of its last 13 matches in the regular season, didn’t stand much of a chance against a very good Crows side on their home track. Since this went pretty much as expected, unlike the Broncos-Titans match, I’m going to summarise this game in a way that is more commensurate with the actual time I spent watching it.
Crows got first goal. Crowd was fired up. Adelaide forward Eddie Betts did something spectacular. North Melbourne stayed in it for first quarter and a bit. Betts did something spectacular again. Adelaide ran away with the match in the second half. Eddie did something spectacular again, to put the icing on the cake. Four North Melbourne veterans, including AFL games record holder Brent Harvey, exited among tears.
(Actually before we move on let’s dwell on Harvey for a moment. He played 432 matches over 21 seasons in what is a fairly physical sport. The NRL games record holder, Darren Lockyer, played 355 matches over 17 seasons. If you split Harvey’s career in half he would have made the AFL team of the year twice in both careers, and won two club champion awards during his first career and three during his second. He averaged well over 20 possessions per match over the second half of his career. In other words Brent Harvey had two pretty good careers in one career. That’s worth a little reflection at least.)
Adelaide Crows 141 defeated North Melbourne 79.
NRL: Melbourne Storm (1) v North Queensland Cowboys (4)
AAMI Park, Victoria, Saturday 10 September, 7:55pm
A few minutes after the Raiders-Sharks match finished I joined up, sans Ms Wheatley, with my in-laws in our usual seats at the Storm’s home ground. For big matches the NRL make it generally worth getting there before kick-off, with fireworks and other pyrotechnics aplenty. But one of my favourite parts of attending a Storm match is the few minutes before the team, adopting the AFL tradition, runs through their banner onto the ground. In those minutes AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’ plays at high volume over the speakers, with Angus Young’s wonderful, high-speed guitar riff repeating over and over again, along with the boom of the phrase ‘THUNDER!’, right up until the moment that captain Cameron Smith and his team burst through the banner. Then the last line of the chorus – ‘You’ve been … THUNDERSTRUCK!’ – blasts out, the guitar riff ends, and the two teams get into position for kick-off. It’s a great nod to the Storm logo, which is itself (in my potentially biased opinion) a clever nod to the city of Melbourne and its weather patterns.
There was some trepidation going into this match, as the Cowboys had beaten the Storm when Melbourne hosted them in a preliminary final last year, though the Storm had won both matches against the Cowboys this season. The Cowboys also have probably the league’s best player, Johnathan Thurston. But the Storm had performed better than expected this year, particularly after losing superstar fullback Billy Slater. Slater had been ably replaced by the wonderfully-named Cameron Munster, while the Storm’s other superstars Smith and Cooper Cronk had been well supported by Melbourne’s seemingly never-ending supply of talented recruits. Once again the Storm were minor premiers, about three or four years after most people assumed their run of success was ending.
There is another part of my regular Storm-watching experience that I want to convey. About a block of seats away sits a large, bald-headed, bearded man. Several times a match this man will yell out the following, in a rough, throaty, foghorn voice:
One time, going to the bathroom, I could hear him out in the corridors. For a few moments I thought he may be just wandering the corridors, yelling out ‘STOOOOOOOORRRRRRRMMMMM!!!!’ as he wandered about. I was disappointed to work out that he was not indeed haunting the area; it was just that I could still hear him in his seat.
For the first twenty minutes or so he was a bit quiet, with neither team scoring a point. The Storm got close to their try-line a few times in a row. Then the Cowboys had four consecutive dropouts (thus getting another set of six tackles each time), which were each stopped by the Storm’s terrific defence. The first score was actually a penalty goal to the Storm – Smith just looking to get some points on the board, which given how often tries are scored in league, seemed a wise move.
Around this point in this game we were introduced to the decibel meter on the scoreboard, which asked you to ‘SCREAM FOR YOUR TEAM’. I did wonder how the meter was able to differentiate the screams of Storm supporters from those of Cowboys supporters. Perhaps a microphone had been situated near the largest block of supporters for each team (there was an identifiable patch of Cowboys fans near one goal end), in which case the screams of most supporters were effectively useless. And why wasn’t our very loud neighbour joining in? I also wondered what NRL fragrances, being advertised on the sideline boards for $19.95, smelt like – the sweat of a front rower?
There are two things you could perhaps point to as driving the six-point difference in scores at the end. One of them is that the Storm were awarded, and converted, three penalty goals. The other is that Storm rookie Suliasi Vunivalu scored an unlikely try by intercepting a Cowboys pass and running half the length of the field (although I think Smith missed that particular conversion). Vunivalu, a tall Fijian-born player who has been playing for two years, is another example of the Storm’s ability to pluck stars out of seemingly nowhere. His intercept lent further support to my theory that the aim of rugby league is primarily not to stuff up.
It was a nervous final few minutes even with a six-point lead that meant, if the Cowboys scored late, the Storm at least could not lose in regular time. There was a couple of ‘heart-in-mouth’ moments where the ball fell loose, but the Storm didn’t stuff up and generally looked rock solid.
When the siren went we were happy and relieved, and looked forward to a home preliminary final in two weeks.
Storm 16 defeated Cowboys 10.
NRL: Penrith Panthers (6) v Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (7)
Allianz Stadium, New South Wales, Sunday 11 September, 4:10pm
For the past three years the Sunday of the first week of the AFL finals had been occupied with me going off to watch the AFL club I support – Richmond – play off in an elimination final. This year there was no Richmond in the AFL finals on Sunday, and no AFL finals at all. Instead I got to sit comfortably in my armchair and watch this coda to the first week of Australian football finals in the NRL’s usual free-to-air TV timeslot late on a Sunday afternoon.
For the first half hour neither team could find a way to break through. Three times in a row the Panthers were stopped on their set of six tackles without putting up a kick. Amongst the inaction Ms Wheatley commented a couple of times on how the stadium was only half full. Then quietly Bulldogs half back Moses Mbye found a gap and scored the first try of the game against the general flow of play. The Panthers got a try back but still trailed 6-4 at the half time break.
However in the second half the young Panthers – including fullback and captain Matt Moylan, winger Josh Mansour, and centre Tyrone Peachey – broke loose. Some observers, including one of the commentators on the broadcast, reckon that Moylan is currently in better form than any player in the competition. Penrith was regularly running for long gains in metres and the Dogs looked like a team whose time had come and gone.
The Panthers’ win now sets up an encounter with another team with a bunch of in-form backs: the Canberra Raiders. The Bulldogs and their fans, their season over, were left to trudge off into the Sunday dusk.
Panthers 28 defeated Bulldogs 12.
In each of those past three years of September Sundays Richmond were eliminated from the finals in the first week. As was probably the case for those Bulldogs fans, in each year there was a definite sense of an ending, of a season being over. Last year I began the first finals week jumping around my lounge room as the Melbourne Storm upset top-placed NRL team the Sydney Roosters. I ended it in disappointment as Richmond lost to eighth-placed North Melbourne by a couple of goals. In contrast there was nothing this year to give me that sense of closure.
Endings feel rarer in sport nowadays. Both sets of finals will continue next week, and my team the Melbourne Storm will be playing again in a couple of weeks. The next morning I would get up early to watch Cowboys and Giants of a different kind – Dallas and New York in America’s National Football League. The Major League Baseball playoffs will be on next month. When I came home from the Storm-Cowboys match I switched on the Manchester United-Manchester City derby in the English Premier League. The European football league seasons will go on for several more months, if indeed association football/soccer ever really stops. And before those end the Australian football leagues will start up again for 2017.
With access to almost every sport in some form or another, and media coverage of the major sports continuing throughout their off-seasons, nothing really ends nowadays. Unless perhaps you are the type of person who just watches your footy team on the weekend. Maybe in that case if your team was already out for the season you left the TV off, didn’t check your Twitter feed, opened up your front door, and went and did something else instead.
 There is a top four and a bottom four – the losers of the bottom four in the first week go out, the winners of the top four earn a bye, and we are essentially left with a six-team knockout tournament to play out over the remaining three weeks.
 Though given I just called Dangerfield charming and fantastic you might say I’ve shown some man-love too.
 My favourite NRL team names: Melbourne Storm, Brisbane Broncos (a fearsome bit of alliteration), and for its uniqueness South Sydney Rabbitohs.