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AFL faces another difficult decision as states jockey for grand final hosting rights

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Wherever the 2020 flag decider is held, the league will set a significant precedent when it comes to issues of competition integrity

Last year’s AFL grand final between Richmond and GWS was played in front of a full house at the MCG. Photograph: Michael Dodge/AAP

Just once in the last 75 years has a VFL/AFL grand final been played anywhere but the Melbourne Cricket Ground. And it is an occasion usually remembered more with a snigger than with pride. The year was 1991, the MCG’s Southern Stand was being rebuilt, wiping out half the ground’s capacity, and thus the grand final between Hawthorn and West Coast was played at the VFL’s little-loved Waverley.

The Hawks triumphed by 53 points. But ask anyone for their recollections and inevitably the first thing mentioned will be the pre-game appearance of rock star Angry Anderson in a car closely resembling the Batmobile to belt out his song Bound For Glory, as a cast of star athletes on the ground openly tittered.

When the AFL in the coming days announces officially that 2020 will be only the second time since the second world war that the grand final will not be at the “G”, Angry’s performance will surely be dragged out and dusted off once more. And the AFL will be immediately preoccupied with how to avoid a repeat of such ignominy.

Really, it should not be an issue. The major venues in Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, and Sydney are anything but B-grade, all regularly hosting major sporting events, and all doubtless eager to please given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to host one of the Australian sport’s most famous occasions.

Indeed, the jockeying between them for the honour might be the only unseemly bit. But for the AFL, it is another difficult decision with potentially long-lasting ramifications. In a year which has already been full of them.

The practical considerations are many. For example, Perth’s Optus Stadium, with a capacity of 60,000, is an attractive proposition. But Western Australia premier Mark McGowan announced this week that his state’s current Covid-19 restrictions would apply until at least 24 October, one of the AFL’s two possible grand final dates.

That, obviously, cannot be set in stone. The WA government has already backtracked on a previous vow that a capacity crowd would be able to attend the WA derby between West Coast and Fremantle last month. If social distancing measures were still to apply, a maximum of only 30,000 would be able to attend.

The other consideration would be quarantine; clubs from the eastern seaboard have been required to isolate in quarantine hotels for 14 days before playing games. That would most likely necessitate a pre-grand final bye for the competing teams.

Those complications do not exist for the other states in contention. But with time running out, South Australia is still developing its submission for the possibility of an Adelaide Oval premiership playoff.

The problem for New South Wales, meanwhile, appears primarily the potential venue of ANZ Stadium, arguably the most roundly despised venue at which AFL football has been played. It has not been used for AFL football since 2016 and has been the subject of innumerable complaints about its dimensions, its surface, its sterile atmosphere, and its unfriendly location in the western suburbs of Sydney.

Brisbane’s Gabba, meanwhile, is attracting significant weight behind its bid to host, a campaign enthusiastically embraced by premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, whose government continues to forcefully lobby the AFL. Whilst, not a traditional Australian rules state, Queensland is hardly a stranger to the game, particularly this year when the Gabba and the Gold Coast’s Metricon Stadium have to date hosted no fewer than 42 of the 104 games played and provided clubs with the domestic hubs necessary for those games to take place.

That is the nub of the moral argument the Gabba grand final campaign’s supporters are citing, and it is a reasonable call. But this will be a decision which has to be about more than repaying favours. And one which will set a very significant precedent when it comes to issues of competition integrity.

The historic agreement in 2018 between the AFL, MCG, and the Victorian government, which locked in the grand final at the MCG until 2057, came as debate about the rights of non-Victorian clubs to host grand finals when they were the highest-qualified team had reached a crescendo. It is a deal worth an estimated $500m and appears watertight. But it was also one which (not surprisingly) did not account for a global pandemic and the MCG having to forego its traditional role within two years of being signed.

Whichever ground ends up being the setting for the 2020 grand final, a relatively smoothly-run operation and an at-least respectable crowd (as opposed to completely empty stands at the MCG) would no doubt lead to the fairness argument from the non-Victorian AFL forces being pushed harder than ever before? That is the pressure the AFL can do without at any time, let alone now as it continues to grapple with the logistics of having football played at all.

First, however, it has to get the basics right. And that means wherever the 2020 AFL grand final is, whichever teams end up playing in it and whoever wins, every last detail needs to run like clockwork and to impress. Which, if nothing else, means you can probably forget about seeing a diminutive bald-headed rock star belting out a contemporary hit from the back seat of a cartoonish car.

 
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