Two cities and four teams all share the same narrative this finals weekend. The heavily backed powerhouses, do battle against the rank outsiders on the wrong side of history.
This weekend culminates in the footy season’s biggest games for both the AFL and the NRL. Two raging favourites clash against two underdogs, the quintessential battlers who have shown true grit during the finals to make the date. Australia’s sporting community, in excess of 4 million, will watch each game over the two days collected at the grounds, on TV, at sporting clubs, pubs and family BBQs, or on their mobiles.
While the Cronulla players will be out to create history, their fans will party like it’s 1999 if their fairy tale becomes fact. The shire is a proud place, yet their trophy cupboard is bare. They have endured two grand final losses in 49 years of trying, one a brutal replay loss to Manly. So the Sharkie fans will be feeling this is their time, their moment in history and they will “own” ANZ Stadium come Sunday.
Ditto the Swans fans who have got tickets to the game against the Bulldogs. They won in 2012, got smashed in 2014 and now it is time to set the record straight. It is their time in the sun once more. Meanwhile, the Western Bulldogs fans will be defending Victorias long held right to own the AFL flag. This is more than just about Footscray and 62 years between drinks. The doggies are defending the pride of Victoria against those Sydney slickers who have nothing more than a harbour to boast about.
First to the AFL. The Swans are raging favourites with 10 million dollar man Buddy Franklin and a fast midfield leading the way against the unfancied local Western Bulldogs who have shown in recent weeks they can win the clutch games. The MCG crowd will want a hometown victory so they will be cheering on the Bulldogs (Footscray) who have not won since 1954, which is a bloody long 62-year drought. They remain the outsiders, but sentimental favourites.
In the NRL, two times premiers the Melbourne Storm will be booed onto the ground in Sydney as they take on the fairytale story that could be the Cronulla Sharks. The Sharkies are yet to win a premiership after 48 years of trying and two grand final losses, and the Sydney crowd will be rooting for them. If Cronulla win, the balloon will go up in Sydney.
So it is a tale of two cities. In the AFL grand final in Melbourne on Saturday, the Sydney Swans are the bad guys, and in the NRL grand final on Sunday in Sydney, the Melbourne Storm will cop a lashing from the crowd. Within the minds of supporters in both cities, there will be excitement, anticipation, blind loyalty, hatred for the opposition and an emotional outpouring that will only end up being positive therapy for a fortunate half.
But let us drill down to the psyche of the individual players in both winner takes all matches. Redemption is a recurring theme across both grand finals. The Swans have experienced both the highs of winning in 2012 and the lows of losing the grand final in 2014, when Hawthorn smashed them. That defeat will be replayed in the minds of those Swans who suffered at the 2014 big dance.
For the Swans’ 10 million dollar man, former Hawk, Buddy Franklin, will be out to prove his worth after missing last year’s finals due to mental illness. The Swans will also be out to show they are the real deal after being thrashed by Hawthorn in the 2014 grand final.
On grand final day, it is the bus trip to the ground where many players in both games will really confront their demons… The mood will get positive as the moment nears to that first run and first tackle. The team who masters these emotions and focusses on doing the simple things will often win.
In the NRL grand final, Cronulla will be out for redemption due to a number of events in recent years such as the ASADA drug scandal of 2014 when coach John Flanagan was suspended for a year, players were suspended and the NRL pushed the team to the brink of existence.
Within their ranks, Benny Barba is out to repay the Sharks for their support after family and club issues in recent years, where he fell from being a Dally M winner to being a member of a losing side in the grand final of 2012, and being transferred by Canterbury and Brisbane before finally finding a home at Cronulla. For hooker Michael Ennis, who also lost to Melbourne in the 2012 grand final, this is his last NRL game.
During the week leading up to a grand final, the mind goes through a kaleidoscope of thoughts and emotion from self-doubt, sleeplessness, a nagging feeling of “Can we do it?” through to quiet confidence. On grand final day, it is the bus trip to the ground where many players in both games will really confront their demons. It will be very quiet, headphones are on, and they are left alone with their thoughts.
Once in the dressing room and in their gear, the mood will begin to get positive, even aggressive, as the moment nears to that first run and that first tackle. This is where the teamship aspect kicks in and they realise they will run through brick walls for their mates. The team who masters these emotions and focusses on doing the simple things will often win because, as history has often proven, the first stanza establishes the winning edge.
This weekend, for all four teams involved, there is much more at stake than just plonking the trophy on the club bar.