Grand Finals: the cruelty of the big one
The referees were left with tough questions to answer following the Storm's win over the Broncos on Friday night. (AAP Image/Action Photographics, Colin Whelan)
It’s nothing new to say that sport is a cruel mistress. In fact, sometimes sport doesn’t really seem like a mistress at all, it seems more like a home invader who bashes your face in with a golf club and steals all your plates.
The Adelaide Test of 1993, the Edgbaston Test of 2005, Australia versus Italy in the 2006 World Cup, Mark Philippoussis, all of these are prime putter-to-the-nose material.
But it’s at grand final time that sport becomes crueller than ever. Not just ordinary, lying-on-the-floor-sobbing cruel – although that is very much involved – but so cruel that its cruelty becomes like a virus, and infects all in contact with it.
At grand final time, it is not just sport that is cruel – it is sports lovers themselves.
My history of lost grand finals is rich and epic. I remember well the 1989 rugby league grand final, Balmain versus Canberra.
I was a Balmain boy – not literally, but in my heart – and after being beaten underdogs the year before, this was the Tigers’ day.
They led early. They led at halftime. They led in the second half. They led a minute from fulltime. And then, suddenly, they stopped leading. And it was extra time. And there was a field goal, and there was a try, and Garry Jack, the safest fullback you’d ever hope to see, dropped a kick.
And that was after Wayne Pearce spilled the ball with a try in sight, and after Benny Elias’s drop goal bounced off the crossbar, and by the time Mal Meninga hoisted the trophy, it had become clear that at the tender age of ten, I was already hated by god.
That day I snarled at my sisters and lashed out at the world, kicking my ball with rare fury in the front yard as I attempted to bash the feelings out of myself.
I remember the 1996 AFL grand final too. A nubile teenager not long initiated into the pleasures of the indigenous game, it seemed destiny was on our side. The Swans had topped the ladder, they were powered by Lockett and Kelly and Roos, they’d knocked off the Hawks and the Bombers with last-minute kicks to get there – the gods were on MY side this time.
And then they ran into Wayne Carey and Glenn Archer and it all fell in a soggy red and white heap, and that dream was over, though the real tragedy wasn’t felt until a few years later.
Just like Balmain’s failure to win the big one in the 80s only really hit home when it became clear that Pearce and Elias and Jack and Sironen would never win a premiership, so the Swans’ loss assumed greater significance with the realisation that those magnificent warriors Lockett and Kelly and Roos wouldn’t play in a flag-winning team.
It just seemed so damnably unfair.
Several years later, Balmain were no more, and I moved to Melbourne and took up with the Storm. There were some years of joy. But too good to last.
In 2006 both my teams made the grand final – the Storm choked horribly and the Swans lost by a point, the cruellest cut of all.
It’s all a bit of a haze, but I’m pretty sure I kicked the cat that day. I know I didn’t kick the dog, because I didn’t have one, and I didn’t kick my son, because I knew if one day I wrote an article about it, it would look bad. So no doubt the cat copped the brunt.
In 2008 Storm lost, dreadfully, to a Manly side inspired by their departing hero Steve ‘Beaver’ Menzies, the finest footballer ever to be named after a vagina.
And then in 2010…we found out the 2007 and 2009 wins weren’t, and I discovered that if it was difficult seeing your team lose on grand final day, it was even worse watching your team lose a grand final two and a half years after the grand final was played.
The curse that had haunted me since Steve Jackson barrelled over in 1989 was surely back. And the ledger of those 21 years of grand finals seemed to be definitely in the red – more heartache than pleasure, more agony than ecstasy.
And here we are again. Like 2006, my teams – interstate aliens in either code – have reached that last day. One itching for redemption, one dreaming of against-the-odds glory. Both of them carrying my fragile mood upon their shoulders.
Because if things go badly this weekend for me, it will be cruel. Horrifically, nightmarishly, and completely unjustly cruel. I will wallow in my grief. I will drown in my anger. I will bawl in my deep, dark hatred for the opposing side.
And how unfair is that? I assure you that at 5pm Saturday, if Sydney loses, any Hawthorn supporter alive will be my mortal enemy and I shall be sworn to strike them down. And this time, my son actually is one, so he won’t get off so easy.
At 8pm Sunday if Melbourne goes down, the same goes for Bulldogs fans, though to be fair they’re pretty much always my mortal enemies. If both of them lose, I won’t be responsible for my actions, nor for my dropping of the C-word on Twitter.
And this is why grand finals are so cruel: not just because they set our nerves on edge and bring us to the edge of sobbing delirium, and not just because the pain of defeat seems so much more intense than the euphoria – or relief – of victory, but because they make us enemies of each other.
Good, decent, reasonable people will hate each other this weekend for what are, literally, incredibly stupid reasons.
It’s a sad and distressing aspect of human nature, and yet it is, perhaps, the purest and most wonderful essence of everything about sport that makes us want to obsessively follow it without actually being involved in it in any way.
This weekend, if you are not with me, you are against me. And who would have it any other way?
Ben Pobjie is a writer and comedian writing weekly on The Age, New Matilda and The Roar, whose promising rugby career was tragically cut short the day he stopped playing rugby and had a pizza instead. The most he has ever cried was the day Balmain lost the 1989 grand final. Today he enjoys the frolics of Wallabies, Swans, baggy greens, and Storms. Ben is also the author of the books Surveying the Wreckage, Superchef, and his latest, The Book of Bloke, available from Momentum Books.