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A means to an end: AFL, NRL play title matches in Australia

The championship matches in the biggest football leagues Down Under will be played this weekend to end seasons unlike any others.

The Australian Football League will have its grand final on Saturday at Brisbane in the so-called Sunshine State, ending more than a century of tradition. It has been moved from its regular home at the 100,000-capacity Melbourne Cricket Ground because of a coronavirus pandemic spike in Victoria state, where the top-flight grand final has been staged ever since the game of Aussie rules was invented.

While the National Rugby League final will be played in its regular Olympic stadium location in Sydney on Sunday, only about 40,000 spectators will be allowed in the 85,000-seat venue because of continuing social distancing and crowd restrictions.

Josh Mansour of the Panthers, center, and teammates take to the field during an open training session and fan day at Panthers Stadium, Sydney, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. The Penrith Panthers will take on The Melbourne Storm in the 2020 NRL Grand Final this Sunday. The final will be played in its regular Olympic stadium location in Sydney, only about 40,000 spectators will be allowed in the 85,000-seat venue because of social distancing regulations and crowd restrictions.(Dan HimbrechtsAAP Image via AP)

The AFL final will feature two Victoria-based clubs, the Geelong Cats and the Richmond Tigers. To keep their season going, the Cats had to spend nearly three months at a bio-secure hub in Perth, Western Australia -- 3,300 kilometers (2,030 miles) from their home stadium near Melbourne.

Similarly, the Melbourne Storm, who will play the Penrith Panthers in the NRL final, spent four months away from the Victorian capital. They were based on the Sunshine Coast north of Brisbane in Queensland state. And while they played most of their “home” matches at a small stadium there, they also made fly-in, fly-out trips to Sydney for matches that resulted in the team often not arriving back at their hub hotel until 3 a.m.

But those tough stints away from home appeared to help galvanize their teams and get them to their respective grand finals.

Geelong’s championship hopes didn’t look good when they had won just one of their first three matches in Western Australia. But Cats captain Joel Selwood said a six-game winning streak that helped them secure a spot in the top four came because of the team’s bonding on their seemingly endless road trip.

“We started playing footy that I knew we were capable of,” Selwood said. “It was probably off the back of that stretch of footy that I thought, ‘we’ll get on a run here.’”

The Storm’s motto for the 2020 NRL season was “adapt and overcome” and prop Nelson Asofa-Solomona says the team has certainly done that.

“It’s something that was brought up at the beginning of COVID in the meeting room,” Asofa-Solomona told Australian Associated Press. “We talked about a lot of the potential obstacles that we were going to face.

“It made the job a lot easier when a lot of us boys didn’t complain — we all knew what we wanted, which was to get to the grand final and to be victorious."

In the past 10 weeks they’ve only been permitted to move outside their strict biosecurity bubble for just 24 hours. Asofa-Solomona said such adversity would make a grand final victory even sweeter.

“We’ve had a few obstacles along the way but we’ve chosen to run straight through those walls,” said Asofa-Solomona, one of 11 Storm players still in the squad from the 2018 grand final loss to the Sydney Roosters. The Roosters defended the title in 2019 but were beaten in the playoffs two weeks ago to end any chance of a three-peat.

Richmond will hope to successfully defend its 2019 title at the Gabba — instead of the MCG — where the crowd will be limited to 30,000. The Melbourne-based AFL, known as the Victorian Football League before its national expansion, has played nearly all of its championship matches at the Melbourne Cricket Ground since 1897.

The MCG wasn’t used during World War II after the government requisitioned it for the military. In 1991, the grand final was played at another stadium in Melbourne while the MCG was being upgraded.

As for any crowd comparison the last time Richmond and Geelong met in a grand final, well, there really isn't any. In 1967 at the MCG, a crowd of 109,392 watched Richmond beat Geelong by nine points — 16.18 (114) to 15.15 (105).

One person delighted with the grand final location is Brisbane-based Ash Barty, the world’s top-ranked women’s tennis player and self-described Tigers No. 1 fan.

She’s been asked by Richmond president Peggy O’Neal to present the trophy to coach Damien Hardwick and captain Trent Cotchin if the Tigers win their third AFL title in four years.

“I was surprised and very honored when Peggy asked me to present the cup,” Barty said.

Barty won’t have to face the ignominy of presenting the trophy to Geelong captain Selwood if her beloved Tigers should lose. That duty will be handled by 72-year-old former Geelong captain Ian Nankervis.

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