A Tale of Two Cities
“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”
A team from Sydney threatens to spoil the dreams of the whole of Victoria by capturing the AFL crown at the spiritual home of the game. A ground, that is to many, the centre of the universe.
The next day a team from Melbourne threatens to shatter the hopes of the Shire, and every Sydneysider who has got on the bandwagon, by stealing the NRL crown at what was once an Olympic Stadium. A ground that is miles away from anything and where, no matter where you sit, you need binoculars to watch the game.
The world is out of whack. Certainties have been smashed and no one knows what the hell is going on. Or whether we are going to hell. Metaphorically, of course.
AFL and Rugby League fans guard their games jealously and are openly contemptuous of their rival codes. In Melbourne they barely recognize Rugby League as existing. In Sydney, while there is a devoted and loyal band of genuine Swans fans, most League fans dismiss AFL as “soft” and way too arty.
In both cities an out of town villain threatens to break the hearts of home grown heroes who haven’t laid their fingers on the silverware in living memory or, in the case of the NRL, ever.
The complications in both encounters are exquisitely labyrinthian. The kind of encounters that have sporting and social commentators in both capitals drooling over their lap tops or mixing too many metaphors.
Victoria owns the AFL. No team better personifies its beating heart than the Western Bulldogs, born in Footscray and representing the much maligned, and often neglected, Melbourne Western Suburbs. They are much admired battlers who have stayed the course against all odds and are pitted against imposters with imported traditions and no real soul. The Western Bulldogs represent everything the true blue Aussie (Victorian) sporting fan admires. A never say die - backs against the wall – true grit approach to the game that captures all our fantasies about ourselves.
The Sydney Swans are the polar opposite. The “Sydney” in their name is enough to send most Victorians to the bathroom. Melburnians don’t dislike their northern neighbours, they detest them and nothing personifies all they detest more than the Swans. Glamorous, showey, self assured. On top of that they boast a player who divided Victorians when he played for Hawthorn and enrages them now he plays for the Swans and almost worse, lives in Bondi.
NSW owns Rugby League. At least it did until Queenslanders were allowed to play for Queensland and the aberration of countless State of Origin losses followed. It may not own State of Origin any more but it does own Grand Final day. Or thinks it does.
Its hopes rest with Cronulla, a team that have yet to win anything except a fight. They hail from the Shire, an area not known for its inclusivity and racial tolerance but, being the last Sydney team standing, adopted by every true blue New South Welshman as their own. Like the Bulldogs they have survived the threat of extinction and, unlike the Bulldogs, drug scandals on and off the field. Their playing roster is hardly loved but definitely feared.
Their opponents are the Storm. Largely ignored in their home town, they have survived salary cap scandals, had premierships stripped off them, wear hideous purple uniforms and still manage to exist. People in Sydney have little in the way of opinion about Victoria and Victorians. They are barely aware of their southern neighbours but they hate the Storm. They regard them as vulgar cheats who play boring football.
Both cities have suffered the ignominy of the loss of their football crown to interstate invaders before. But losing to teams that represent everything they detest may be a cause for revolt.
Most Victorians, apart from the handful of rabid Storm fans, think Grand Final weekend ends on Saturday. They will be blissfully unaware that the gladiators of the NRL will be doing battle on Sunday. They will still be cheering the Dogs over breakfast and ignoring the Swans completely, whatever the result.
In Sydney fans of both codes see a Grand Final weekend as a perfect excuse for a two days on non stop partying with a bit of “football” thrown in for good measure.
Heads will roll in both capitals, new kings will be crowned and the world will oddly keep turning.