BRISBANE, Australia (AP) – A championship match in the biggest soccer league down Under will be played this weekend to end the season like no other.
The Australian Football League will hold its grand final on Saturday in Brisbane in an area called the Sunshine State, ending a tradition of more than a century. It has been moved from its regular home at the 100,000-capacity Melbourne Cricket Ground due to the surge in the coronavirus pandemic in the state of Victoria, where the top-flight grand finals have been held since the Australian rule game was discovered.
While the National Rugby League final will be played at the site of the regular Olympic stadium in Sydney on Sunday, only about 40,000 spectators will be allowed in the 85,000 seat venue due to continued social distancing and crowd restrictions.
The AFL finals will feature two Victoria-based clubs, the Geelong Cats and the Richmond Tigers. To sustain their season, the Cats have had to spend nearly three months at their bio-secure hub in Perth, Western Australia – 3,300 kilometers (2,030 miles) from their home stadium near Melbourne.
Likewise Melbourne Storm, who will play Penrith Panthers in the NRL finals, is spending four months away from the capital city of Victoria. They are based on the Sunshine Coast north of Brisbane in the state of Queensland. And while they play most of their “home” matches at the small stadium there, they also make a flying trip to Sydney for matches which results in the team often not arriving back at their liaison hotel until 3am.
But the tough task away from home seems to be helping to revive their team and lead them to their respective grand finals.
Geelong’s championship hopes did not look good as they won only one of their first three games in Western Australia. But Cats captain Joel Selwood said the six straight wins that helped them secure a place in the top four came because of the team ties on their seemingly endless run.
“We started playing the footy which I knew we could do,” said Selwood. “Maybe it was on the back of the leg that I thought, ‘we’re going to run here.'”
Storm’s motto for the 2020 NRL season is “adapt and tackle” and backing Nelson Asofa-Solomona said the team definitely did.
“It was something that was raised at the start of COVID in the meeting room,” Asofa-Solomona told the Australian Associated Press. “We talked about the many potential obstacles we will face.
“It makes work a lot easier when a lot of us boys don’t complain – we all know what we want, which is to reach the grand finals and be winners.”
In the last 10 weeks they have only been allowed to escape their strict biosecurity bubble for only 24 hours. Asofa-Solomona said such difficulties would make a grand final victory even sweeter.
“We ran into some hurdles along the way, but we chose to run through those walls,” said Asofa-Solomona, one of 11 Storm players still in the squad from the 2018 grand final defeat to the Sydney Roosters. The Roosters retained the title in 2019 but were beaten in the playoffs two weeks ago to end a three-peat chance.
Richmond will hope to successfully defend its 2019 title in Gabba – not at the MCG – where the audience will be limited to 30,000. The Melbourne-based AFL, known as the Victorian Football League before its national expansion, has played nearly all of its championship matches at the Melbourne Cricket Ground since 1897.
The MCG was not used during World War II after the government requested military assistance. In 1991, the grand final was played at another stadium in Melbourne as the MCG was upgraded.
As for the audience comparison the last time Richmond and Geelong met in the grand final, there really isn’t. In 1967 at the MCG, 109,392 spectators watched Richmond beat Geelong by nine points – 16.18 (114) to 15.15 (105).
One person excited about the location of the grand final is Brisbane-based Ash Barty, the world’s top ranked woman and a fan of the Tigers No. 1 which describes itself.
He was asked by Richmond president Peggy O’Neal to present the trophy to coach Damien Hardwick and captain Trent Cotchin if the Tigers win their third AFL title in four years.
“I was surprised and felt very honored when Peggy asked me to present the trophy,” said Barty.
Barty will not face the disgrace by presenting the trophy to captain Geelong Selwood if his beloved Tigers are to lose. That task will be handled by Geelong’s 72-year-old former captain, Ian Nankervis.
More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports