A crowd of 89,000 packed the MCG for the Anzac Day clash.
Photo: John Donegan
Anzac Day, an occasion to be shared
THE only argument over the scale of another Anzac Day clash involving Collingwood and Essendon was as to whether a crowd of 89,000 was acceptable. Andrew Demetriou and the AFL weren't happy; Stephen Gough and the Melbourne Cricket Club defended an embarrassing bank of empty seats.
It's the sort of fight that is a luxury item for the administration of any sport. Which of even the global and financial sporting juggernauts would ever complain at 89,000? There have been only eight home-and-away crowds in excess of 90,000 in the history of the AFL or its Victorian predecessor. That 14 years of Collingwood and Essendon on Anzac Day have yielded three speaks of an arrangement that is an enviable and unquestionable success.
It ensures that, despite the annual debate, the Magpies and Bombers are going to play at the MCG on April 25 for many years. The AFL is not given to risking guaranteed windfalls by pandering to public curiosity or sectional interest.
Yet, while any further discussion on the matter is academic, there is a case for the negative. For a start, the two incumbents haven't produced many tight finishes. And lately they haven't brought high-performance stature to the day. In only two of the 14 seasons have both the Pies and the Dons gone on to be finalists. For the past four years, at least one of them has finished in the bottom five. The Bombers currently appear likely to extend that sequence. The low-water mark was 2005 when both teams finished bottom four.
The upshot is that you can leave the MCG at the end of Anzac Day feeling short-changed. Thousands did so on Friday. The sizzle is sensational but the sausage can be a half-cooked shocker.
Of course you can't schedule thrillers. Spectator sport's appeal is built on its unpredictability. There's a difference, though, between the inevitability of an occasional blow-out and a succession of almost inconsequential games that are sold to the public under the banner of "blockbuster". That's what we've had in recent years and this year it was a blow-out to boot.
Collingwood and Essendon don't own the fixture. If moral claims such as that existed within football, North Melbourne would still be playing every Friday night. The question stands, though, as to whether a break from the arrangement of 13 years might diminish crowds and jeopardise the status of the event.
The alternative position is that the Anzac factor is now sufficiently entrenched that a large crowd is guaranteed regardless of who plays. The argument is put that this could have meant that on Friday we got Melbourne. Instead we got Essendon
This debate is now almost as ritualistic as the occasion itself. Nothing is going to change in the immediate future but it doesn't do any harm to consider the possibilities. It is, after all, modern football's nature that its established traditions be regularly challenged. Last week a couple of much older ones, the bounce and the draw, were on the agenda.
It is reassuring that the AFL, often accused of being too quick to institute change, has remained steadfast on these two issues. A centre bounce as crook as Damien Sully's, at a crucial time in the last quarter of the Collingwood/North Melbourne game, guarantees football a flood of criticism. Yet what short memories the complainants have.
Sully's bounce provided sporting karma. When the clubs had last met, umpire Stuart Wenn stepped out his infamous 30-metre penalty that led to what should have been a certain Kangaroos' goal becoming a match-losing poster from Shannon Grant. This year it was North Melbourne's turn to enjoy outrageous fortune. These things don't happen often but in this case there was justice.
As for calling the ball back after a miscued bounce, how can the umpire be expected to draw the line within such a range of angles? The bounce in some form, as I understand it, has been part of the Australian football code since 1891. It helps define the game as a spectacle. It is spectacular. To see it performed well, as Matthew James and Mathew Nicholls consistently do, is to witness high skill.
Then there's the draw. It was in round nine of 1898 that Melbourne stormed home with 1.2 to nothing in the last quarter to share the points with Carlton and provide the VFL's first dead-heat. Draws have been around for at least 110 years.
Again there is a coincidence. It was a drawn game in 1995 that confirmed the Anzac Day blockbuster as an essential on the calendar. On that day, the tie between Essendon and Collingwood felt like a result dreamed up by a battalion of deceased Diggers over a game of two-up in heaven. Everyone went home tingling. Yet last week, because the supporters of two clubs both failed to come away with a win, there was a howl that the only true concept is one of winners and losers.
Speaking of karma, remember how a couple of seasons ago in Launceston the timekeepers let a game go too long, St Kilda levelled the scores before the umpires woke up, and the AFL handed Fremantle the points. On Friday night in Perth the timekeepers short-changed Freo by nine seconds and they lost by a point. The gods have delivered some payback this week. Maybe those old diggers have had a mischievous gleam in their eyes.