The extraordinary NRL final that should rattle the AFL
As the AFL basks in the afterglow of another sensational season, capped by a grand final that will stand forever as a contest for the ages, its arch-rivals at the NRL are dealing with a different set of circumstances which every sporting administrator, marketing analyst and media commentator failed to forecast.
And it’s this - league’s not dead after all. Not even close. League’s going gangbusters. Somehow, the year which was hailed as the death-knell for league has somehow turned into one of its best on record. Even the NRL didn’t see it coming.
The resurgence has been led out of its western Sydney powerbase, crowned with a qualifying final last Friday between heartland clubs the Parramatta Eels and the Canterbury Bulldogs, which in terms of crowd attendance, TV ratings, and the intensity and passion with which it was played, was every bit as good as Saturday’s Cats-Saints blockbuster.
And possibly even better, as it was a wholly unpredictable match-up which pitted two sides who had been rightly written off earlier this year, the dysfunctional Dogs as 2008’s wooden-spooners, the hapless Eels sitting at six wins from 15 starts two-thirds of the way into the 2009 season, but which through momentum and self-belief found themselves in a sudden-death contest for a place in the grand final.
It’s a massive psychological and tactical boost for the NRL, as it steels itself for one of the biggest wars in the history of Australian sport as the AFL audaciously attempts to plant its 18th club smack-bang in the middle of rugby league territory.
It’s for this reason that the NRL is now turning its mind to the lessons from Friday night’s game and the surge in support for its clubs out west, looking at how it can maximise every opportunity across marketing, memberships, corporate support and community programs, to establish a beachhead against the marauders from down south.
If one match can synthesise the best elements of a sport, Friday night’s come-from-behind, 22-12 victory by the Eels demonstrated everything that is great about league.
It was an awesome combination of grace and brutality.
Dally M winner and reborn league bad boy Jarryd Hayne pirouetting past two, three, four Dogs defenders, playing with the lightness of a AFL centre like Andrew McLeod or Paul Kelly, to set up what would be a match-winning try. The beautifully-named Fuifui Moimoi barrelling forward like a human refrigerator, somehow keeping his feet, and the ball alive, to offload for a try. Nathan Hindmarsh repelling about 30 minutes’ of attacks from the Dogs’ forward pack, the ball millimetres away from the Canterbury line. Hayne inadvertently knocking out Bryson Goodwin with two knees to the back after the Bulldog scored.
At the end, the emotionally-spent crowd standing as one to farewell Lebanese Muslim Hazem El Masri from the game he’s given more too as a community leader than from any of his many, miracle feats on the park.
And for a code that’s often teased about empty stands, there wasn’t a spare seat left at the ANZ stadium with a record finals crowd of 74,549, which is as good as capacity at Homebush when the stands are set up in their league configuration.
Daily Telegraph executive sports editor Phil Rothfield has seen more than a few league games in his life and he says that Friday’s encounter even eclipsed State of Origin for the passion of the fans.
“It really was unbelievable,” he said today. “The atmosphere more like a European soccer match, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Punch sports columnist Luke Mcilveen, who was also out there, describes the game as “a heaving, medieval mass made up of blue and white and blue and gold.”
“Every try, every goal, every mistake, every hit was met with either joy or foaming condemnation that shook the concrete underfoot. The only means of communicating above the din was the high-five. You high-fived your mates, the six-year-old kid behind you, hell, you even high-fived the guy with the Cornettos around his neck. The 80 minutes flew past like a feverish dream. I wish I could say the same about the traffic jam in the carpark afterwards.”
I watched it on TV, on delay and knowing the score, in our hotel room in Melbourne where we’d gone to see the GF, and even then it was still electrifying. It was sport at its absolute best.
And given the eight months rugby league has just had, it’s bizarre that the conversation on the eastern seaboard is about how well league has gone, when a few months ago the consensus was it was close to being gone altogether.
Space permitting, a potted history of some off-field lowlights of 2009:
It was the year which started with the face of league’s 2009 marketing campaign, Manly’s Brett Stewart, charged with sexual assault; the year which saw the shaming of Channel Nine’s much-loved Matty Johns over his adulterous role in a group sex scandal exposed by Four Corners; the year the NRL itself commissioned secret research as to whether its brand was so debased that it should change its name.
The year which ended with a coach – not a player, but a coach, South Sydney’s Jason Taylor - sacked by his board for getting into a drunken fight with one of his own players at the club’s end-of-year Mad Monday celebrations.
The year when the league bible, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, became so fatigued at covering the repeated off-field dramas that it badged its sports pages “scandal-free zone” in an almost desperately optimistic gesture aimed at getting back to writing about the game.
The year when every key sponsor was holding crisis talks about whether to sully their reputation by associating with a code which was now being covered by sports reporters armed with police radios.
Bizarrely, and with one massive game still to be played in season 2009, the NRL finds itself in a position where crowd attendances have gone through the roof, up to 3.046 million for the regular season, the highest since the 20-team ARL competition way back in 1995 and since the inception of the NRL.
TV ratings have also surged, putting the NRL on target for a cash bonanza when it renegotiates the TV rights in 2013.
The thing the NRL is now wondering – and which the AFL should be wary of – is that if league can manage all this when it’s spent most of the year as an alcohol-fuelled, punch-throwing, sexually deviant circus, imagine what it will be like if it gets its act together.
Earlier this year I likened the AFL in western Sydney to the Yanks going into Iraq – a big, powerful, swaggering, cashed-up superpower that’s at risk of waltzing into a war where it is suddenly confronted by a nuggetty local resistance that knows how to fight dirty.
The NRL fired the first major salvo of this battle on Friday night.
Go the Eels.
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