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You call this ‘finals fever’?


Pt. 1 – Storm v Canberra Raiders


I’d been interested in going to a Melbourne Storm game for years. It only materialised last weekend, though – the first of the NRL finals. The timing was such that it might’ve looked as though, in the Storm, I was seeking some kind of escape from the bin-fire of Carlton’s end to the season. I can’t say if that’s true, but won’t deny the round 23 loss is still smarting. There aren’t many similarities between the 21st century Blues and Storm, apart from those fabulated salary cap rorts. It’s tedious to point out the Storm are better viewed as the Sydney Swans of their league – a ludicrously successful franchise in indifferent territory, master-coached, offering players an escape from a News Corp ‘fishbowl’. I’ll concede it did feel nice to attend a final. To be there in support of a juggernaut, alongside purple barrackers that might’ve otherwise been attached to Essendon, St Kilda, Hawthorn, others. All casting aside our differences. A tasteless metaphor, but I’m sure Ben (my brother) and I weren’t the only AFL refugees rushing to the ‘Bubble Dome’ on Saturday twilight. Most of my thoughts about rugby league seem to have an adjoining AFL angle, or they make a comparison.


We missed the pre-match, presumably including a minute’s silence for HMQ, from stalking for car parks near the Tan longer than anticipated. Ben and I raced down the Anderson St hill – McSweyn-pace in reverse – blazing past more patient late-comers. I hadn’t been to AAMI Park since Melbourne Heart were still around, idling for a sheikh-up, a good oil. The building’s striking exterior doesn’t quite hold once inside, but if you’re more often at the MCG you’re at least impressed by the closeness of a battle at the Bubble Dome.


We sat behind the posts at what I think was a ‘river’ end. I was quickly disoriented. And the stadium’s unfortunate design flaw for this match-up became immediately clear. All seats were very green. Just like the opponent. Spurred by this, perhaps, the Raiders initially seemed the more dynamic team. That was only to the naked eye – and mine are truly starkers when it comes to evaluating league. It was hard to mistake that the Raiders scored the first try, at least. They had a couple of Origin stars I recognised. Jack Wighton and Josh Papali’i – although I had to Google both names. To their credit, the Raiders’ fans were excited but relatively benign. There wasn’t much aggression, as I perhaps expected to filter through to supporters of such a combative sport. Some chance, of course, they were just tired from plundering small towns on their trip down the Hume. In fact, I sense they’re moving away from the ‘Viking’ aspect of their identity – perhaps there’s been Twitter commentary pointing-out cartoon-ised war criminals are hardly appropriate figureheads and examples to children. Their mascot is basically the ‘Life. Be in it.’ guy, plus a horned helmet. He’s an archetypal modern slob dressing-up as an old-world barbarian, rather than the real thing.


The Storm’s faltering start helped me to show more early concern than I could otherwise have managed. I downloaded the NRL app for educational purposes, but found it sparse. Barely any individual statistics – either emphasising this is a strictly team sport or it isn’t considered a lucrative market by software developers. According to the stadium screen, it was Xavier Coates who got us on the board. Had he always played for Melbourne? No. Google informed he’d also starred as a Bronco for a few seasons. We’re a destination club! As that first half progressed, I caught myself increasingly using ‘we’ and took it as a good sign, evidence that ‘I’ was properly melding with the purple powerhouse, being invited inside. Excessively, you could liken it to the moment adopters of a language start dreaming in their new tongue. I was looking to combustible Craig Bellamy – sitting behind heatproof glass lest he implode, my first Storm game coinciding with his millionth – as something of a father figure.


Coates’ early tries situated tough, near-sideline kicks for Nick Meaney. He hooked both. At halftime, we were slightly down, and I was ensconced enough to text a friend that things ‘weren’t looking good’. From a ‘fan experience’ perspective, they worsened. I distrust my memory at times, but the chips from AAMI Park are the worst I’ve got on file. Soggy, flaccid, white. Speckled with either chicken salt or straight-to-the-point MSG. If he gets a gap in his schedule, V’Landys ought to investigate. It was well inside the second half by the time I’d worked through the box, and by then, at least, we Storm were in front.


Just after hitting the lead through Coates again, far-off bays of purple supporters erupted in congratulations as the team regathered in their defensive end. But it begged the question: where had this level of noise, of affirmation, been earlier? But for that brief surge of energy – call it lightning – the home crowd didn’t really register. It felt, more often, we were in Raiders territory. At one stage, I spotted Storm’s mascot (think purple Power Ranger) taking photos with kids during the play. To be fair, there’s some chance the Storm crowd were quietened by tension. The second half was a rollercoaster, and at times confusing. Jahrome Hughes was caught with his head ducked, against recommendations for his neck, but the tackle itself didn’t seem any cruder than several which weren’t promptly punished. The experience of seeing NRL live subtracted the car-crash sound effects I was accustomed to on TV, making the game appear milder than in truth. In the stands, if you forget the physics of ‘perspective’, the sport can seem like ‘fun’, and very playable. More so than AFL, the disgruntled supporter can imagine themselves jumping onto the field to ‘show the team how it’s done’, with no real regard for physical disadvantage.


Cam Munster blew the gimme penalty kick that came after Hughes was hurt. All the while, Bellamy brooded behind his glass, matched by his counterpart. I knew Ricky Stuart, head coach of the Canberrans, chiefly from his calling an opposition player a ‘weak-gutted dog’ a few weeks before. Both Bellamy and Stuart have features that give you cause to wonder whether facial structure itself goes almost of all of the way to determining temperament: beady glares, wide foreheads, easily-pursed lips. Munster, with tattoos and hair dye, vouches for the opposite – that temperament is surer created. And despite his effort to get us back in the game, he had a rough time of it in the second half. His missed kick, first, and then he was unduly penalised for flying to contest the ball with a Raider. The Storm’s sole ‘Captain’s Challenge’ (an NRL review feature I hadn’t previously appreciated) couldn’t straighten things out. Not only was the video referee prone to error, they were also questionably sponsored by Bundaberg. I’m sure they’d find a clever way to reject a challenge over the appropriateness of that marketing arrangement, as well. 


The next Munster misadventure was a tricky bobbling ball he couldn’t secure behind the goal-line in time to prevent it being clamped for a Raiders’ try. They got the lead back here and never ceded it. There was no doubt of a Canberra victory once they backed-up with one more ridiculously fortunate score – a Raider’s pass cannoning off his teammate’s iron shoulder (flying, by accident, almost fifteen metres!) and landing in the hands of another to be waltzed over the line. I was sure it was a knock-on, but saw only general confusion when I looked around the stands. The clock wound down persistently. What I’ve always found difficult about sports like rugby (and soccer, and local-level AFL) is the looseness of time. The way every second isn’t properly protected, might be poached by a flopping player, for instance, or some kind of strategic reset. Perhaps the Wallabies suffered last week from an over-correction of this issue – but I lack the nous to go into that. In top-flight AFL, admirably, time is treasured, and the life of the 80-minute game valued as short.


The final whistle, and Ben and I quickly made tracks. This was as much because I didn’t want a parking inspector to add insult to injury, as I didn’t like to witness the fairly benevolent Raiders crowd enjoying victory. Outside, on the footpaths tracking back over the river, there was an atmosphere of ‘getting on with things’. ‘Keep Calm, Carry On’. Call it another Elizabeth tribute. But part of me didn’t like it, even though my own attachment to the Storm had mostly been blown away by the final whistle. I wanted a bit more from those supporters for whom, assumedly, this hadn’t been a first rodeo. Let’s see wallowing in a disappointing end to the season, rather than awareness the world keeps turning, I thought. Let’s have a few moping and crying as they cross the Yarra bridge. I didn’t see this. Across from the Tan again, my gaze latched on a forlorn scarf on the footpath ahead. Yellow, purple, navy. Possible to make out ‘Storm Member 2022’ in the gloom. I hoped it was finally evidence of real frustration – reminiscent of Richmond supporters, circa ’06, heading home to microwave their memberships. I debated with Ben whether supporter rage was really the cause, and whether I should’ve taken the scarf as a maximally-cheap piece of supporter-wear to bring to Storm games next year (me being hooked and all). As it turned out, up the hill, getting close to the cars, I heard a young girl, sweet-voiced, complaining to her likely dad that she’d dropped her scarf. I called-out where I’d seen it, masking my disappointment that it seemed to have been an accident. Maybe we shouldn’t underestimate kids so often, though. Who’s to say, riding her father’s shoulders, the girl hadn’t had a flashback to Munster and the bobbling ball (‘I could’ve grabbed that!’), causing her to toss the scarf, surreptitiously, to the pavement in disgust? Who’s to say, two hundred metres later, she hadn’t reconsidered the gesture, bemoaning after all the loss of wardrobe purple? We can’t know the truth. But what I can say is that I didn’t get a parking ticket. And that, for all my efforts to get attached to the Storm, this reprieve felt like a victory, the main thing. Call me a tight-arse.




Pt. 2 – Cats v Lions


Cultural immersion complete, I returned to the MCG on Friday for the AFL prelim. I was a neutral attendee, of course. I’d said I was going for the ‘atmosphere’, and yet from my perspective this never quite presented. For one, I did get a pang it might’ve been insensitive to revisit the MCG so soon after round 23 – like hanging-out in a building that hasn’t quite shaken the aura of a horrible crime. My girlfriend, not a fanatic, graciously agreed to go with me – but in some ways this required being conscious of her football apathy, mostly talking about things other than the game. In fairness, I was a little apathetic, too.


The game started well – Brisbane hanging in there and looking slick in patches. Still, no strong feelings on my part. Nothing was unlocking for me. I fear I’ve also become attuned to football as a TV sport. In this prelim, I’m simply too jealous of Carlton’s absence, so monogamous I can’t even admit attraction to either team. I’d need slow-motion replays, every camera angle, guttural commentary from league luminaries to climb to any noticeable heart-rate. I could make this all about me, my obsessions and shortcomings, but that would be letting others off the hook.


Brisbane conceded a stiff free kick (and goal) just before quarter time and this inevitably drained some of their belief. In the second quarter, Geelong surged and were soon near ‘thrashing’ territory. After each of their goals, we had to endure tacky NRL-esque fireworks and a videographic showing Dangerfield carrying-on like, charitably, a tool. Throngs of spectators drifted away to ‘beat’ queues for the bar, or to avoid the post-winter freeze that had landed in the special climate of level 4. I noted an ostensibly Geelong-supporting dad giving little comments that suggested he hoped for Brisbane to recover and make it a better game, and appropriately he was scolded by his kid for it.


There were 70,000+ spectators at the ground at one time, but as soon as the result looked foregone, this noticeably drained. Maybe you could understand Brisbane supporters – weather-beaten ‘Pete Murray’-types in city jackets – heading off early, to a bar or something, so that defeat never really had time to sink in. Admittedly, my girlfriend and I decided to follow suit. We left 20 minutes into the last quarter – although by this time we were basically stragglers. Post jam doughnuts, we wandered up to Wellington Parade. Good cheer all around. A very light mood. I’m sure that isn’t just me projecting, being solipsistic.


And at the Wellington Parade tram stop we happened to run into my older cousin, who’s a cop. He was on duty. Showing-off police cap, high-vis vest and a new, improbably excellent moustache. He now looks something like he’s ‘on the beat’ in the 80s. He’s a detective most of the time, but often he garnishes police life by nominating to ‘work’ at major sporting events. Perhaps sees more sport in a year than Gerard Whateley. Always reports that fan behaviour is ‘pretty good’, probably because his eyes are generally glued to the contest. He’d been a proper spectator – Carlton-affiliated – when we sat together in round 23. We chat briefly – myself blatantly proud others are seeing me chew the fat with an officer of the law – about the trauma of that afternoon. Discuss the fact the final siren for a prelim final has just sounded, but thousands of people have already filed past my cousin’s sentinel near the tram stop. The concerning aspect: so many of them Geelong supporters. And don’t give me the crap about having to make an early break for Tailgate Turnpike (a.k.a. ‘The Princes Hwy’) so you won’t be too tired for hometown golf or reiki or Adventure Park in the morning. What does guaranteeing a place in a grand final even mean to you hapless, insubstantial flogs? You do realise that whenever Joel Selwood retires, the spell’ll be lifted and you won’t make another decider until Joel’s actually in a nursing home, not just captaining a figurative one? If I’d been in my cousin’s position – entrusted with safeguarding the values of a decent society – I’d have considered arresting any early-leavers with blue-white merchandise, clear Geelong sympathies, on sight. Charges: grievous arrogance, lack of gratitude, imbecility. Sure, you might let them off with a warning, but you’d have at least given them something to think about. It seemed like there were so many of those scumbags, though, I couldn’t have known where to start.

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