Today’s NRL Grand Final deserves an atmosphere worthy of it, however, I believe Sydney is unwilling to co-operate.
Whichever side of the Albury/Wodonga overpass your bills go to, you’ll have to agree that Melbourne has set Sydney a rather difficult challenge to eclipse. Yesterday saw a long-running drought succumb to a downpour of adulation, while another remained arid. One hundred thousand of the longest-suffering victims crammed into MCG to see history change course. As far as narrative richness goes, Bleak City wove a tale worthy of the tradition it deifies.
However as we look further North, and to this afternoon’s NRL Grand Final, and beyond the excitement of the Macklemore controversy, the lead-up has been, well, boring. I’m predicting an afternoon of flat beer and split attention.
A lack of local teams competing is merely a symptom of a larger disease.
Incredibly, five Sydney clubs entered the NRL finals series. It could have been six if St George had beaten Canterbury in the final preliminary round. But no. Ironically it would have been the North Queensland Cowboys, who are now in the grand final, who would have been out if the Dragons had won. Again, incredible.
New South Wales missing out is becoming a habit. Just two years ago it was an all-Queensland affair, as the Cowboys met the Brisbane Broncos. Wind the clocks forward two years and history repeats, before scrawling unreadable new pages. In fact, this year also represents the first in which no NSW representatives will suit up for either team.
But the larger question demands to be asked: what has happened to the NRL in its own backyard?
As I’ve previously illustrated, a lack of quality within the ranks is indeed a problem, as a finite number of players who can swing a match ply their trade in the Premier State. Melbourne have three such players: Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater. The Cowboys have two: Michael Morgan who has blossomed into the game’s best cool hand playmaker, and flying winger Kyle Feldt.
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I believe the other problem is a lack of meaningful narrative. A dominating team from Melbourne meets a team from Far North Queensland, two years removed from their last win, sans their best player. The collective yawn from the disengaged neutrals is palpable. Strangely, I believe the media coverage seems to also reflect this apathy. This time last week, the coverage for the biggest game of the year was strangely mute, the Cowboys eliminated the final Sydney outfit the night before, and suddenly, the collective interest seemed to focus elsewhere. Monday morning brought the Telegraph illustrating favour for the Dally M awards over the Final proper.
It’s almost as if Sydney wants to forget about the whole thing.
Meanwhile, in Melbourne, the locals have witnessed two towering tales in a row. Something to treasure, and mention one day to their progeny’s progeny that they were present that storied day. The Western Bulldogs’ 2016 win was their first since 1956, with Richmond flying their first flag since 1980. That means something. Even the Cronulla Shark’s pioneering win in the same year seems a long way off.
Hope is out, and apathy is in. Be warned, this tradition, or the accepted lack thereof, will bring its own problems.
We’ve already witnessed the beginning of it, with the overtures of the Melbourne Storm boss desiring to relocate today’s final to Melbourne, claiming that they’d bring in an equal number as the AFL Final. And, terrible as it is, I completely agree. The real challenge that has been set is not exclusively about today, it certainly is about tomorrow, and indeed the automatic right to keep the centrepiece of Sydney’s game in their own backyard. If Sydney decides not to turn up to today’s decider, why wouldn’t the administrators of the game seriously entertain the idea to relocate over next door’s fence, where the grass is certainly greener?