Another AFL marquee match will be showcased on the road when Melbourne and Collingwood contest the Queen’s Birthday clash at the unusual venue of the Sydney Cricket Ground.
The current COVID situation in Victoria has temporarily forced the AFL out of the state, with New South Wales coming to the rescue by playing host to several neutral matches in recent weeks.
This includes matches between the Gold Coast Suns and Hawthorn, as well as those between Richmond and the Adelaide Crows, Melbourne and the Brisbane Lions and Carlton up against the West Coast Eagles.
It is similar to how Queensland rescued the AFL season last year after coronavirus outbreaks in Victoria and New South Wales saw the two most populous states shut off to the rest of the country.
Next Monday, it’s the annual Queen’s Birthday clash between the Dees and Pies that will be played on neutral territory, with the SCG providing the backdrop to a match that took on significant meaning in 2015.
That year’s edition was the first to be played since it was revealed that former Melbourne coach Neale Daniher was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in August 2014.
Since his diagnosis, the AFL community has rallied around the man dubbed ‘The Reverend’, who has raised more than $48 million in an effort to find a cure for the disease, which will eventually claim his life.
Sadly, it has been revealed by his daughter that the 60-year-old is starting to lose the ability to communicate, which is one of the few symptoms of the disease.
Many of the older Melbourne supporters will remember his decade-long tenure as coach between 1998 and 2007, during which he took the club to the 2000 grand final where they were outplayed by Essendon, who had been dominant that season.
Successful campaigns have been few and far between for the club since then, with the club’s most recent flag coming all the way back in 1964, 57 years ago.
Perhaps this prolonged lack of success is driving the current class of Dees to succeed this year – and a flag would be the ultimate reward after all the hardships the club has endured in over half a century since.
Not just the dismal on-field results (think the near-record 186-point loss to the Geelong Cats at Kardinia Park nearly a decade ago), but also instability within the club’s board, the tanking scandal, and the deaths of two much-loved figures in ex-president Jim Stynes and ex-coach Dean Bailey.
Presently, the side now coached by Simon Goodwin sit on top of the ladder with 11 wins from 12 matches – though they could so easily have been undefeated if it wasn’t for a controversial one-point loss to the Adelaide Crows at the Adelaide Oval in Round 10.
They have since hit back in the past fortnight, winning their past two matches against fellow premiership fancies the Western Bulldogs (by 28 points) and Brisbane Lions (22 points) to all but assure themselves of just their second finals berth since 2006.
Against the Lions they were made to look second rate in the first half, but solid performances from Christian Petracca, Clayton Oliver, Kysaiah Pickett and Tom McDonald saw them run down the northerners after halftime at Giants Stadium.
On Monday they will start hot favourites to defeat a Collingwood side that has struggled this season, winning only three matches, though they did edge out the Crows by just five points in Adelaide last Saturday night.
The Pies received an exemption to bypass South Australia’s hard border with Victoria, flying in and out of the City of Churches on the same day, but were subject to a hard lockdown in the days leading up to the match.
As was the case last year, when they defeated the West Coast Eagles by a solitary point in the elimination final at Optus Stadium, Nathan Buckley’s side were dubbed the ‘dirty Pies’ due to the fact they were travelling from a declared coronavirus hotspot.
They also had to contend with facing a pro-Crows crowd to claim their first interstate victory for the year, putting to bed a week of unrest and speculation within the club’s inner sanctum.
Another win this weekend, this time over a serious premiership contender in the Demons, could breathe some life back into their stuttering campaign and make their bye round, which follows after this match, somewhat more enjoyable.
While last year’s Queen’s Birthday clash was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the two clubs still met in the regular season, facing off at the Gabba in Round 12 with the Dees winning by 56 points in front of just over 5000 fans.
With Melbourne currently enduring its fourth lockdown in the past 15 months, it was impossible for the match to be staged at the MCG, as it usually would be, in a COVID-safe manner, therefore the decision was made to shift the match up to the Sydney Cricket Ground.
As such, it will be the second consecutive year the two clubs have met on neutral territory, and all interest will centre around whether Sydneysiders will embrace what is typically one of the biggest AFL matches of the season, and the significance surrounding it.
It is the first time both the Dees and Pies face a side other than the Sydney Swans at the SCG since 1981 and 1952 respectively, when those sides played the Geelong Cats and Richmond. Coincidentally, the Pies versus Tigers match in 1952 was also played on June 14.
Last week’s Dreamtime match, which was shifted to Perth with at least a week’s notice, saw over 55,000 fans attend, with Channel Seven commentators suggesting that the fixture should be shared around the country, with last year’s edition having been played in Darwin.
One commercial challenge for the NSW government will be the fact that the NRL also stages a match on Queen’s Birthday, between Sydney rivals the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and St George Illawarra Dragons, across town at Stadium Australia.
Despite the venue change, the Big Freeze, which has become iconic with Queen’s Birthday since 2015, will still take place at an empty MCG with the likes of Daisy Pearce, Abbey Holmes, Ray Chamberlain, Jeff Farmer and Shane Crawford to take part for charity.