An Aussie rules tradition ends: title match out of Victoria

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — The Australian Football League’s championship match is heading north, ending a 123-year history of playing the top-flight Aussie rules grand final in Victoria state.

One of the highest-rating events annually in Australia will be played at Brisbane, Queensland state, where many of the AFL’s regular-season matches have been held since a second wave of COVID-19 infections in Melbourne forced the league to move outside the state.

A night-time grand final is scheduled for Oct. 24 at the Gabba, with the 42,000-seat stadium set to be restricted to 30,000 because of social distancing regulations.

The Melbourne-based AFL, known as the Victoria Football League until 1990 after it started expanding nationally, 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.

“The COVID pandemic has meant we have had to take the game outside of Melbourne,” AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan said Wednesday, ending weeks of debate over the venue for the premiership decider. “For this year only before it returns home to the MCG in 2021.”

Melbourne is currently in a lockdown with nightly curfews in an effort to end a spike in infections and deaths from COVID-19. The state reported six more deaths on Wednesday to take Victoria’s total to 576 and Australia’s virus toll to 663.

Queensland has been successful in avoiding a mass outbreak by virtually closing off the state to visitors from Victoria and New South Wales. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk faced criticism from a New South Wales government official for being hypocritical — shutting off the state to commerce and visitors but allowing hundreds of AFL officials to fly in.

Palaszczuk, clearly pleased with winning the hosting bid for the grand final over two others states — South Australia and Western Australia — referred to the Brisbane match as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“This is a historic day, it’s a historic day for the AFL, it’s a historic day for Queensland,” Palaszczuk said. “If it wasn’t for that strong health response and the fact that every Queenslander has been part of that, this would not have happened.”

The game’s expected early evening start prompted one social media parody account to suggest that time slot resulted from AFL players, used to playing most of their matches in cold conditions in Melbourne in the middle of the southern hemisphere winter, wouldn’t be able to see the football in the strong afternoon sun of sub-tropical Brisbane.

The tweet wasn’t far from the truth. The cities are some 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) apart as the crow flies.

Average daily temperatures in October between Melbourne and Brisbane can differ by up to 8 degrees Celsius (about 15 degrees Fahrenheit). So players will definitely notice a difference playing potentially in temperatures of 27C (81F) instead of the usual predicted high of 19C (66F) in Melbourne.

Damien Hardwick and his defending champion Richmond squad has been based in Queensland for the past six weeks. Currently in fifth place and likely to be part of the playoff picture, he hopes the Tigers will be around for the grand final. The 15th round of the compressed 18-week home-and-away season is being held this weekend, with a rest week for all teams before four weeks of playoffs.

“We love it up here … they’ve embraced us,” Hardwick told Australian Associated Press. “We’re very fortunate to be up here playing great footy in this great state. And I think it’s incredible for the growth of the game.”

Former VFL team South Melbourne moved to Sydney in 1982, with the Swans becoming the first non-Victorian club in the league and paving the way for expansion clubs from Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia.

West Coast was the first interstate winner of the AFL title in 1992, the first of the Perth-based Eagles’ four premierships. The title has gone to a club outside Victoria only 12 times, including the Adelaide Crows’ back-to-back victories on 1997 and ’98 and the Brisbane Lions three-peat from 2001-’03

But Melbourne remains the spiritual home of the Australian-made game. And because of that, the Victoria government has said Oct. 23, the eve of the Grand Final, will remain a public holiday in the state where the game was invented in the 1850s.

Kevin Argus, a marketing lecturer at RMIT (formerly the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology), tried to put the big move pragmatically into perspective.

“Relocation of the grand final from the MCG to interstate will be viewed as a temporary god-send,” Argus said. “They won’t care where it is played, as long as it is played.”

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AP Sports Writer John Pye contributed.

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More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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