I’ve lived in Melbourne my whole life, which by extension means I’ve loved Aussie Rules my whole life. And under the auspices of my Hawthorn-supporting father, I’ve been taught to hate any game with the word “rugby” in the title.
Dad has never understood rugby, of the league or union variety. He has variously described it as a sport where brain-dead idiots run into each other for 80 minutes, and a “sport for dogs”, given the players’ propensities to “sniff each others’ arses”.
When Mum’s sister and her family moved to Queensland over a decade ago, they embraced rugby league (though I’m too young to remember if they loved it before they left Victoria). So every time the State of Origin rolls around, there’s always a bit of friendly banter over text messages and phone calls between the families.
So you can imagine Dad’s shock when I announced I was going to State of Origin I at
Docklands Stadium Colonial Stadium Telstra Dome Etihad Stadium on Wednesday night.
But the truth is I’ve never really hated rugby league. Granted, it pales in comparison to the great game of Aussie Rules, but I watch the State of Origin clashes and the Grand Final every year, and like every sports-mad Melburnian I love Billy Slater, even if I couldn’t care less where Melbourne Storm finish.
The idea of New South Wales playing Queensland in a rugby league clash in Melbourne sounds a bit ridiculous, but Slater, Smith, Bellamy and co put the game on the map here, and didn’t we just love the way the Storm went about the remainder of the 2010 season once they’d been stripped of two premierships and the right to earn premiership points for that year.
And so, on Wednesday night, the city takes on a strange quality. Walking down to McPherson’s on Collins St around 5:30pm, the atmosphere feels different. Ghastly maroon and sickening blue jumpers can be spotted everywhere. New Zealand accents increase at an alarming rate. Words such as “Billy”, “seven” and “go/fuck the Maroons/Blues” are being thrown around with scant regard for AFL enthusiasts.
Spencer St Station Southern Cross Station to Etihad would feel claustrophobic for non-rugby league fans. The tension, the drama, the buzz, the excitement is palpable, and even as sooks are bemoaning the fact Origin is being held in Victoria, it is fair to say the greatest city in the world has embraced the event. Luckily my friend bought our tickets about a year ago – yes, you read that correctly – as it had long since sold out and scalpers were getting two or three times face value as desperate (or curious?) fans tried to get their hands on some.
Sort of like soccer clashes in Europe, the supporters of both teams are split into sections, easily recognisable by the crappy maroon and blue jumpers and wigs that came with level one tickets. Maroons fans outnumber Blues fans impressively, no doubt due to the Storm influence on the Queensland side, and the fact Victorians and New South Welshmen are mortal enemies.
Pre-match entertainment is something I have always hated in sport. Not only is it fraught with the potential to be jaw-droppingly awful (Angry Anderson in the Batmobile, Meat Loaf and the Penis T-Shirt Launcher) but no one is there to sit through forced musical performances. Tonight, everyone’s new favourite love-to-hate pop star Delta Goodrem plays her
Arcade Fire cover new song “Sitting on Top of the World” and the unbearably awful “In This Life” before thankfully leaving the stage. Inexplicably, “C’mon Aussie C’mon”, the cricket theme song from the 70s, is then played on the screen, complete with the film clip and all the references to Lillee and Marsh, despite the fact this is a clash between two very Australian states, and not Australia and another country. The announcer on the ground makes an attempt to get the crowd to sing the chorus, failing spectacularly.
After the national anthem, the chants begin. We are sitting in the Maroons area, behind the goal at the Lockett End. It takes me a while to figure out our chant – “QUEENS-LAND-AH! QUEENS-LAND-AH! QUEENS-LAND-AH!” – not because it is difficult, but because I can’t believe in years and years of origin the Maroons fans haven’t come up with something better. Our mascot seems to be a cross between a dinosaur, a lizard and a cane toad (you’re not meant to be proud of those Queensland), but is still far more appealing than the Blues mascot, which is apparently a cockroach (yes, really) but looks more like an alien from a crappy 1990s video game.
The game begins and NSW are dominating play early, maintaining possession and looking dangerous as they near ever closer to the try-line. At the six-minute mark Blues winger Akuila Uate nails a try. Signs are not good for the Maroons but soon Michael Jennings is sent off for the Blues after he comes in to help his teammates in a brawl by punching a few blokes in the head and is sin-binned, leaving the Cockroaches a man short.
A minute later Darius Boyd scores his first of two tries for the night and Johnathan Thurston’s conversion puts Queensland up 6-4. A minute before half-time I decide to go to the toilet, and I’m barely at the top of the stairs when Boyd runs in another try, Thurston converts, and the Maroons take a 12-4 lead into the break.
The Blues hit back early in the second, and the score remains locked at 12-10 for most of the half, with both sides making errors and trading six tackles. Then, at the 73-minute mark, drama strikes. Storm hero Greg Inglis appears to drop the ball going in for a try, but still celebrates as if he has scored. I’m in the dark, not knowing the rules, and all the necks in the ground crane to see the replay on the scoreboard. NSW fans are adamant Inglis has knocked on; Queensland fans say Robbie Farah was the last one to touch it, so when Inglis slaps his hand down on the ball half a second later, it’s a fair try.
The video referees watch it a number of times before their decision is revealed – TRY. There’s less than seven minutes to go when Thurston converts for a third time, putting the Maroons an unassailable eight points ahead. And sure enough, the siren sounds at 80 minutes – the Maroons have won, 18-10, and take a 1-0 lead in the three-game series, aiming for their seventh straight Origin success.
Walking out of the stadium at a snail’s pace, and much more drunk than we realised, time crawls as we wait for the packed, stopping-all-stations Werribee train. But it’s a small price to pay for a brilliant night out.
Joe Hildebrand wrote a very funny piece on how out-of-towners might survive Melbourne. We welcome the State of Origin – this is, after all, the sporting capital of the world – but once a year is enough. Aussie Rules is our game and Northerners are a different breed. Time to watch some of my Geelong premiership DVDs.