Well, if you do not like football – in its various incarnations – you wouldn’t really want to be in Australia at this moment. September in Australia means Finals (or playoffs in American sports vernacular) in the two most prominent football leagues – the NRL (premier league of the code of Rugby League) and the AFL (premier league of the code of Australian Rules football).
Not only are the NRL and AFL leagues in their penultimate week with four challengers battling out in the two Preliminary Finals in each respective league but the ‘game they play in Heaven’ Rugby Union’s celebrating its own climatic event – the World Cup – played once every four years, this time just across the ditch in New Zealand. And, yet, if you’re still not satisfied there’s soccer’s A-League which is about to start with renewed vigour given the signing of heavyweights Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton to the Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC respectively.
But, first I’ll have a glance over the NRL finals, where they’re at and what’s likely to happen henceforth. Just four teams remain in the running for the grand prize – the NRL Premiership – they are the New Zealand Warriors, Brisbane Broncos, Melbourne Storm, and Manly Sea Eagles – the sole remaining and almost unanimously loathed Sydney club.
This Friday night sees the Manly Sea Eagles take on the Brisbane Broncos at the Sydney Football Stadium for the right to compete in the Grand Final. Manly, runners-up in the minor premiership to the Storm, will go into the match with the advantage of playing in their home city despite being at a neutral venue away from their home at Brookvale and will be hoping to draw on neutral fans’ loyalties as the sole remaining side between the Tweed and the Murray. Brisbane, having played their hearts out in extra-time on the back of retiring captain (and all round hero in these parts) Darren Lockyer will go into this match desperately seeking to get one more over the line in the hope that their beloved captain, and most capped player in league history, will be sufficiently recovered from a fractured cheekbone to have the one last run in the Grand Final and go out a true champion in a fairy-tale that would make even Cinderella blush. Brisbane FTW, just, and the opportunity for the impossible to possibly occur, Lockyer to take part in the Grand Final.
The all-powerful Melbourne Storm will host New Zealand’s Warriors at their mini-cauldron at AAMI Park on Saturday night. New Zealand, whilst no doubt happy to be there and pleased with their efforts thus far finishing sixth and knocking off the Wests Tigers last week to get here, will no doubt give if all they’ve got and have a smallish yet solid number of proud supporters rallying them. But, it’s hard to see them getting over Melbourne. The Storm have fire in their belly, points to prove and sufficient motivation to make this club of talent throughout not only win, but win comprehensively. They have bigger fish to fry and will give it everything they’ve got to make the Grand Final in the aim of having David Gallop’s head on a platter – having been striped of their two most recent premierships due to salary cap breaches - come Sunday evening next week.
Now, the AFL finals. The Melbourne Cricket Ground Friday night sees the all-conquering, star-riddled colossus of Collingwood take on worthy opponents, Hawthorn. The Hawks will be buoyed and quietly optimistic going into this one given they accounted for Sydney the following week, and will – they’re still hoping – have a fully fit and firing ‘Buddy’ Franklin facing a Magpies outfit that has started to reveal slight sides of vulnerability in their armour of the past month – since their demolition at the hands of Geelong. Collingwood, with a record of 20 wins 2 losses in the home and away season were indomitable for the bulk of this season and whilst by no means shaky, are not quite the same feared outfit they were just a few weeks ago. Hawthorn will seek to play on this and will rely on their midfield and forwards to put in sublime performances in the hope that will be enough to get them across the line. Somehow, I think the Magpies class and talent across the board will rise to the surface and come last Friday evening will be awaiting their opponents in the big one Saturday week.
Meteoric West Coast Eagles will face the mighty Cats of Geelong Saturday afternoon at the MCG to determine the second entrant for the Grand Final. Finishing dead last in the previous 2010 season, no one expected the Eagles to be where they are now, truth be told not even the Eagles. But, throughout the season they have time and again proven to be worthy and cumbersome opponents, just ask Carlton who they managed to knock off at home last week in a tight one. The Geelong Cats, dominant side of the past five years, will be seeking to add a third premiership in half a decade and will approach this match will the skills, technique and precision, not to mention – toughness – that have made them the benchmark of the competition over the past five years. With a new coach and ageing list, most predicted a downward slide coming in this season but the Cats have had other plans. This should be a strong, hard, rugged match – think of a backyard barney between two local toughs – neither will give an itch nor expect one taken. Geelong though with relative home advantage, finals match hardness and sheer tenacity will eventually wear down the Eagles and win this by a 20-30 point margin to face Collingwood in the Grand Final.
Last, but not least, the Rugby World Cup being played in New Zealand. Australia, suffering a jarring, ego-sapping defeat at the hands of the Irish will give it all they can this Friday against the US to prove the Ireland match was simply an aberration. Regardless of the result, and the Wallabies should win, it could all prove to be but futile given the wider picture and the very real chance now of them facing both South Africa AND New Zealand for the right to make the Cup Final. The Wallabies will know they’re up against it from now on and it will be true testament to their character if they can indeed rise against these odds. Given the current circumstances it seems unlikely, as deep down many Wallabies fans, and possibly the players themselves, would admit. But, time will tell and Ireland are most definitely not a sure thing against Italy, and if the Italians get over the line in that match it will open everything up again in Group C.
In other notable matches, the Springboks will destroy Namibia, England will have to come out to play but should have no real problems against Romania, and match of the weekend – New Zealand should be too composed, skilled and determined for the French.
Vive le Footy, in all her carnations!