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Major thrills as 2023 football season winds up in Australia

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Collingwood claimed victory at the AFL premiership, defeating the Brisbane Lions (Screenshot via YouTube)

Australians this year got a football season jammed with sensational close contests and commemorated two sensational celebrities — cheering on Sam Kerr and mourning Ron Barassi.

Dr Lee Duffield writes that the contests provided mighty distractions from the “real” conflicts over prices, mortgage rates and rents, the Voice, climate, China and so on.

World Cup: Great team, great party

The women’s football World Cup hosted in Australia and New Zealand became a national party. It proved the capacity of female sports to draw capacity crowds at stadiums up to 70,000, enjoying the relief from ordinary stress in exchange for over-excitement in the stands and pubs.

The home team, Matildas, rated tenth globally at the start of the tournament, got into the final four. On the way they contested hearts-in-mouth matches, making the players, already including several from top-line European clubs, into household names.

None more than Sam Kerr, the captain and star Australian forward – star also at Chelsea – whose sudden exclusion from the first two games with a calf injury, then recovery, and down-to-earth “Australian” style of handling her celebrity made her a hero of the era. Millions with no background in soccer sat up and took notice; the code launched a recruitment campaign to build on its already-known strengths at community level.

Scandal

Spain won the World Cup, getting some additional notoriety through the kissing scandal involving the sport’s national football president, Luis Rubiales. Apart from seizing the mid-fielder, Jenni Hermoso, his manhandling of virtually the whole team, one by one, on the podium in Sydney had the Australian participants – Governor General David Hurley and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese – looking a little dour and surprised.

It would have seemed more normal for the victorious players to run up to one another, to loved ones at the game, even the coach — incidentally a handsome younger man. But a man in a suit, who seemed to think it was about himself? He resigned on 10 September.

England were runners-up in the competition losing the final to Spain 1-0, on 20 August; Sweden had defeated Australia 2-0 for the bronze medal one day before in Brisbane.

Brisbane's wild-time Saturday night

Teams in the “major codes” got eclipsed in the attention stakes for the duration of the World Cup, losing out where they had televised games in competition with the round ball events  — but came roaring back at finals time.

Brisbane had a wild Saturday night on 23 September when its home teams in both the Australian Football League (AFL) and National Rugby League (NRL) won their preliminary finals, back-to-back at the city’s two large stadiums, getting into their respective grand finals. The Brisbane Lions defeated Carlton 11/13 (79) to 9/9 (63); the Brisbane Broncos defeated the New Zealand Warriors 42-12.

Both had come out of long droughts, getting a crack at the premiership long overdue, which stirred up the capacity crowds, each 50,000 strong, even more.

Building national competitions

One point about the Brisbane teams making it to the final showdown was that when it got to finals, both the AFL and NRL demonstrated their success in building national competitions out of, respectively the “old” leagues based in Melbourne and Sydney.

In the AFL (which prior to the national competition did have strong followings in Adelaide and Perth), half the eight qualifying teams this year were from outside Victoria, the same proportion as in the competition overall — nine clubs from Victoria and nine from other states.

Finals: Collingwood, Brisbane, Port Adelaide, Melbourne, Carlton, St Kilda, GWS Giants (Greater Western Sydney), Sydney. Final four: Collingwood, Brisbane, Carlton, GWS. Grand Final: Brisbane, Collingwood.  

In the NRL, where nine Sydney clubs are in the 17-member competition, the finals ended up with four clubs from Sydney and four from “outside”: Penrith Panthers, Brisbane Broncos, Melbourne Storm, New Zealand Warriors, Newcastle Knights, Cronulla Sharks, Sydney City Roosters, Canberra Raiders. Final four: Panthers, Broncos, Storm, Warriors. Grand Final: Brisbane, Penrith.

In the end, both Brisbane teams missed out in Grand Final clashes that had crowds roaring and commentators declaring they had barely seen the like. In the AFL Grand Final on Saturday 30 September in Melbourne, the lead changed ten times. Collingwood, trailing minutes before full-time, won by four points, 12.18 (90), to 13.8 (86); in Australian Rules kicking one goal gets six points.

In the NRL, the next day in Sydney, the Broncos scored four unanswered tries in the second half, obtaining a 14-point lead, to be then eclipsed by three dramatic tries and a late-late, tight-tight victory, from Penrith, 26-24 — mostly off plays by the well-supported star player and co-captain, Nathan Cleary. It cemented the Panthers’ reputation as a phenomenon of the century, their third premiership in a row, out of appearances in the last four Grand Finals.

Origin

The Rugby League showcase tournament, State of Origin, played much earlier, was all but forgotten in the melee and excitement, at least in New South Wales which continued its losing form in the annual tournament: defeated at Adelaide 18-26 on 31 May and Sydney 6-32 on 21 June; getting consolation from a good win in Brisbane 24-10 on 12 July.

The Women’s Origin competition was played over two games for the first time and was decided on a count-back, after Queensland won the first game at Western Sydney on 1 June, 18-10, and NSW won the second at Townsville on 22 June, 18-14. Sydney were the defenders having won the single game played in 2022 and celebrated awkwardly after winning a game but this time losing the series. Much pressure is now on the Rugby League to set up a three-match Women’s State of Origin.

Women’s premiership series were being played out at finals time in parallel with the men’s. The Women’s NRL, with eight teams in the competition so far, had their Grand Final ahead of the men’s on 1 October. The 2022 premiers, Newcastle Knights, did it again, snatching a late win off the Gold Coast Titans, who’d had a good lead in the second half. Newcastle won 24-16. The AFLW competition, which has built up to include all 18 clubs since it started in 2017, runs on up to 3 December.

Australian rugby getting mauled

In Rugby Union, the hapless Wallabies faced missing out on a place in the World Cup Finals, which had never happened before over the quarter century the competition has been played. Their drawn-out run of bad form, after being defeated by Fiji for the first time in 69 years, 22-15, at St Etienne in France on 18 September, came to a nadir on 24 September, defeated by Wales 40-6 at Lyon.

They were left with an outside chance of still scraping in, after the tallying of points from a few remaining games in the lead-up to finals. Damage done, at best nobody would be placing bets on the Australian side.

Some uncertainty for Australian ball sports also this coming summer with the Australian cricket team suffering series defeats in One Day International competition by home teams: in South Africa 31 August to 17 September (2-3, though the visitors cleaned up the preliminary T20 contest 3-0) and in India 22-27 September (1-2).

Do cricketers play too much and jet around too much, dividing their time between playing at home and in overseas competitions, especially the lucrative commercial circuit in India — the India Premier League? Can they properly remember where they are and where they come from?

The Cricket World Cup runs in India from 5 October to 19 November. The Australian women’s cricket team held onto the Ashes in England, 22 June to 18 July, after tying with England on points, 8-8. The team marked its return to Australia with a T-20 win against the West Indies on 1 October in Sydney.  

Postscript — vale Ron Barassi

The Australian Rules Football “legend”, to employ an actual title conferred by the Australian Football Hall of Fame, Ron Barassi, died in Melbourne on 16 September aged 87, after suffering a fall. A story was put around, unconfirmed, that he’d been watching semi-finals football — Port Adelaide and GWS.

Barassi’s dazzling status in the then-innovative role of ruck-rover was reflected in his record, playing in six premiership-winning sides in the 1950s and 1960s. He was identified strongly with the Melbourne club and played also for Carlton. He had a successful career as a commentator and as coach of both Melbourne and Carlton, North Melbourne and the Sydney Swans.

More than that, his fame transcended his involvement in the one football code, becoming one of the so-called “greats” of sport remembered over the generations. He’d be named and hailed by Australians who’d never seen an Aussie Rules game, let alone having played in one; keeping company with the likes of Don Bradman in cricket, Jack Brabham in motorsport, Margaret Court in tennis, or Dawn Fraser in swimming.

Ron Barassi was accorded a state funeral.

Among his vast journalistic experience, Dr Lee Duffield has served as ABC's European correspondent. He is also an esteemed academic. He is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Pacific Journalism Review.

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