Australia

A Queensland spin to end the season that almost never was

If all it took to break the cruel drought that has turned side walks to dust in southern Queensland was for a pandemic to force the AFL to move the majority of its season north, then host the grand final at the Gabba, why didn't anyone think of it sooner?

The miracle of a final at the Gabba prompted the miracle of the heavens opening. Blessed were the rains, even if it meant a slippery Sherrin for the showpiece, and blessed were the faithful who were lucky enough to be seated within the walls of Brisbane's much-maligned bowl of concrete and speckled seats.

Even after everything we have seen this year - uprooted teams, bio-bubbles, Queensland somehow becoming the intensive care ward for sport that remains a genuine curiosity to so many locals - this night still had an unshakeable surrealism that clung to its being.

Did it feel like a grand final? From afar, probably not. This has been a Melbourne affair, tried and true, and remains a sacred day for Victorians. The venue was different. So very different. So was the time, which appeared to be as pleasant as a COVID swab for traditionalists, even if dusk settling over the Gabba made this ground look as pretty as a picture, if just for a few moments.

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The game seemed to reflect the odd circumstances. Within minutes both teams had lost a key man, with Patrick Dangerfield putting an elbow through the face of Richmond's Nick Vlastuin and sending him to the canvas. Accidental as it was, that's 10 in the sin bin and a report any day of the week in this neck of the woods.

Then Gary Ablett was gone with a shoulder injury, cradling the damaged joint like a newborn child as he left the field in distress. Then, the revival. He would return, presumably after raiding the nearby Princess Alexandra Hospital's emergency department of enough anaesthetic to complete a week's worth of hip replacements. You only retire once.

Everyone up here could feel the wistfulness arising from Victorians as the day unfolded. There was a sense of yearning and longing that flooded social media, broadcasts and conversations. It was understandable, relatable even; most Queenslanders experience mild heart conditions when a State of Origin gets sold to the highest interstate bidder.

Yet to say everything about this night was off, or skewed, or just plain wrong misses some important points, for this really was a once-in-a-lifetime reward for the tribes of true believers beyond the Tweed River that keep the candle burning for the sport, even when the tempest of the dominant winter code, the NRL, threatens to snuff it out.

The AFL loves to think itself a national sporting powerhouse, a Golden God whose eventual conversion of every state remains but a formality. Up here, at least, it's simply not the case, for rugby league reigns supreme and will do long after the grand final returns to its rightful place.

That is precisely why this season and this night mattered so much for the coaches at Kenmore Bears, or the canteen staff at Southport Sharks, or the secretary of the North Cairns Tigers. And for the small but active Geelong and Richmond diaspora, who populated pubs, then the stands, before one of the greatest nights of their lives. They lived and breathed this as much as any Melbourne native.

Before the game, Simon Black would escort the premiership cup to the middle of the field. He remains a household name in Brisbane, a hark back to the glory days of the early 2000s Lions, when they were for a time the hottest ticket in town.

It was a reminder that the sustained success of the new Lions (and the Suns, to a lesser extent), not the extended sugar hit of a transplanted season and its frenetic finale, will ultimately see the elite version of the code flourish in the long run.

Afterward, they would all flood into the The German Club, or The Pineapple, to talk about how two teams from 1400km away would play for their lives on a field normally getting ready for Test cricket in a season that almost never was. Nobody is likely to forget it in a hurry.

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