Disney didn’t lie; fairy tales apparently do come true. And so congratulations if you’re a Western Bulldogs or a Cronulla Sharks fan.
In a magical 24 hours, the Sharks and Bulldogs bucked the prevailing thought that hardened finals and premiership experience counts for everything in grand finals. In the AFL, the Bulldogs fielded 22 players who had never played in a Grand Final before.
In the NRL, the Sharks carried the weight of history. Their respective combatants the opposite – grand finals and premierships galore; the Bulldogs and Sharks a combined 112 years of zero success. Yet both those sides drew deep from within, were brilliantly coached, and played the game of their lives to defeat their more-fancied rivals.
The Bulldogs prevailed by 22 points, 13.11 (89) to 10.7 (67), in a pulsating contest in front of 99,981 fans at the MCG on Saturday, ending a 62-year premiership drought, the first team to do so from seventh position on the ladder. On Sunday, the Cronulla Sharks held on to win a thrilling contest 14-12 in front of a heaving crowd of 83,265 at ANZ Stadium to win its first premiership in its 50th year.
People pay good money to see good things. It is often heard that football fans would pay good money just to watch Lance Franklin play. Western Bulldog Joel Hamling was actually paid good money to do just that, in a roundabout kind of way.
Hamling had one of the best seats in the house on Saturday when he stood next to Franklin at the MCG. His specific role was to wear the superstar like a glove and to curb his brilliance.
In just his 23rd AFL game, Hamling did exactly that. His intercept marking and and spoiling rendered Franklin, who pushed through valiantly with an injured ankle, largely ineffective. Hamling’s dominance over Franklin was such that the big forward was kept to a modest 16 touches, and kicked just 1.1 for the game.
Franklin’s eight marks were nowhere near goal so his impact was minimal. When he was in range, Hamling employed the spoil to great effect. It became such an issue for the Swans that by the final quarter Franklin was moved to the middle. A concession like that is like robbing Peter to pay Paul. And so the Swans were left without their focal point up forward, freeing up space for the rebounding Dogs in a riveting final quarter.
The Bulldogs never gave the Swans an inch: wrap-up tackles on the ball-carrier, close-in pressure on the fast-start midfield, efficient clearances from the backline, effective conversions when inside 50, and judicial use of their key-position players.
Jason Johannisen’s trademark rebound, run and carry from the backline sparked several forward forays for the Bulldogs. The Swans’ Josh Kennedy was a monster in the midfield, willing his side onward in the second quarter when he played direct roles in four goals that turned a 16-point deficit to a half-time lead.
But the momentum turned the Bulldogs’ way in the final term and they weren’t to be denied. Perhaps the pivotal moment came midway through the quarter when Franklin was tackled blindside with the ball in the middle. The spill resulted in the Bulldogs’ possession and goal to Tom Boyd and there was no looking back from there.
In the end, a fitting end for an AFL season that was the most even in recent years. A fitting premier, too; a well-deserved win to a club that will savour every moment in the Sun.
As far as the NRL is concerned, the Northern Territory had its moment in the Sun during the Grand Final on Sunday when two of its home-grown stars playing key roles for their respective sides.
Darwin-born Ben Barba will forever be remembered as Cronulla’s first try-scorer in its first winning grand final when he crossed at the 15-minute mark to give the Sharks the early lead. The diminutive star continued to put his body on the line as the Sharks pressed for the ascendency in an absorbing contest.
On the flip side, Nhulunbuy’s Will Chambers will wonder what could have been had he raised his eyes when the game was in the balance.
The Storm’s Chambers was also first-scorer for his side, but it was a key moment late in the second half that will be remembered, or wanting to not remember if you’re a Storm fan.
Chambers created a neat play down the side that saw him execute a grubber kick and re-gather. A split-second look to his left would have spied team-mate Cooper Cronk wide open and in space. A pass would have sent him over the line. The try would have handed the Storm the premiership. But to his regret Chambers took a step too far and ran into the Sharks defence, and with that any chance to score and take the lead.
Built like a key-position Aussie rules player, Chambers was terrific for Melbourne. Like his side, he weathered much of what the Sharks put up and despite his lapse can hold his head high.
Like in the AFL, the NRL gets its fairy tale winner. A feel-good end to a long season. A generation of disheartened supporters now basking in the warm afterglow of a premiership. Their boys now forever champions. The trophy cabinet finally with something to show for all the blood, sweat and tears.