I don’t know about you but I’m pleased to see the rugby league grand final going back to Brisbane after 24 years.
I can understand the AFL’s loyalty to Melbourne because the MCG really is the citadel for their decider (all but seven grand finals since 1902 have been played elsewhere – all in Melbourne).
In Sydney we’ve actually used fewer venues – the Sydney Cricket Ground, the Sydney Football Stadium and Homebush – but because Homebush is much newer than the MCG, it doesn’t feel like it has such a spiritual underpinning as the grand final venue.
The 1997 Super League grand final was held in Brisbane because of a belief – like many of the philosophies that became supercharged by Rupert Murdoch’s money – that things could and should be more American in the Australian sports market.
Why shouldn’t cities bid for the big games like they do in the States? There was a street parade and a gala dinner and in the end they had to put in extra seating to accommodate the 58,912 crowd. Steve Renouf scored three tries in the rain as the Broncos beat Cronulla 26-8.
Of course, we have since learnt that some American sporting maxims do not work in Australasia. Suburban teams have become enshrined in popular culture and the geographical area they occupy is not as important as the psychological real estate they command in our heads.
But the NRL is actually quite a parochial organisation, pandering to the prejudices of its rusted-on fans by baiting the Aussie rules authorities from time to time and the decision to move the preliminary final kick-off time to accommodate their decider was actually something of a surprise to me.
So even if the current contract with NSW – which extends to 2046 – was to be superseded by events, you could not expect the NRL to sell off the grand final to the highest bidder. That would alienate too many people.
By the way, ‘superseded by events’ is not that unlikely given that the 2020 and 2021 deciders were supposed to be at the SCG and the 2022 one at the SFS before moving to a refurbished Stadium Australia in 2023.
Things do change.
In the case of more unforeseen circumstances, perhaps this year’s grand final being in the Sunshine State would make Melbourne or Auckland more palatable. Auckland certainly deserves some reward for the sacrifices the players and their fans have made to keep the competition going over the past two years.
Oh, one more thing…
By the way, if the first sentence of this column grates on you then that’s a good sign for someone like me, who is writing a book about 1997.
It’s absolutely fascinating that people still get emotional about the fact there were two grand finals that year and every time I argue about this on social media, pre-sales for Two Tribes go up.
A rebel comp that doesn’t count? We have seven teams from that competition currently competing in the NRL – and only five stand-alone teams from the 1997 ARL.
Being in that rebel comp, if you were a Sydney team, seems to have guaranteed you stand-alone existence into the next century.
The 1908 competition was a breakaway too, from rugby union. We acknowledge it because the rebellion stuck.
It’s an uncomfortable fact that this rebellion stuck too – the ARL was removed from outright control of the sport in this country.
But to win you back as fans – the authorities in ’98 had to convince you the NRL was some sort of continuation of the ARL (even though News had to pay the ARL’s legal costs at the end of ’97, it was so broke).
The Super League War taught the game’s administrators it needed the rusted-on fans more than they thought and the game did not translate anywhere near well to new people as they thought.
So the NRL logo was very similar to the ARL logo, Neil Whittaker stayed on as CEO and expansion teams, the World Club Challenge and the Tri-Series were culled.
But behind the spin, the new competition was at least – at least, and that’s charitable – half Super League.
The 1997 grand final at Brisbane’s ANZ Stadium was not the aberration you were sold it as. It was the beginning of what we have today. Super League didn’t return but neither did the old ARL.
And with next December the 25th anniversary of the NRL’s formation, the return of the grand final to Brisbane reflects the truth of that.