FOURTEEN years ago, Australian rugby league gave Super League a concept called the grand final. Britain is now giving the NRL something back – the sense of occasion.
Rugby League Week has tracked down two Australians who played in the very first Super League grand final in 1998 to discuss all that has happened since – and reflect on a 20th Englishmen appearing in one of the antipodean sport’s great institutions this Sunday.
The grand final is, in many ways, a successful Australian cultural export.
We haven’t exported Australian Football that widely. Vegemite can now be found in English supermarkets but most shop attendants put it in the wrong aisle because they don’t know what it is. Pavolova? The world shrugs. Violet Crumbles? You have to pay a whole week’s worth of lunch money for just one bar of it in overseas shops.
But the grand final (a completely Australian invention – it’s one step up from a final, you know!) packs Old Trafford every October, the cacophonous noise heard for blocks around, the M62 a parking lot for hours before and after.
In the realms of Australian cultural exports, it’s on the way to being up there with Neighbours and AC/DC. Even golf’s Challenge Tour has a grand final, while rugby union’s Magners League toyed with one for two years in 2010.
It started logically enough: if you finished first but lost the final, then you had the right to challenge the team that beat you to one more game which would decide the title. For that reason, grand finals were not held every year.
(The term ‘grand football match’ first appeared in the Melbourne press in 1858)
Why does it work? What excites people about the spectacle we are about to see this weekend? And have the Brits done a better job of elevating it as an occasion than we have?
Marc Glanville and Mark Bell were among those who “took” the concept to Old Trafford, playing in the first Super League grand final for Leeds and Wigan respectively in 14 years ago. Some 21 Australians have been winners at Old Trafford since then.
“Yes, it was the first year they had it – and the pommies didn’t know what it was,” said Bell, who represented Canberra in the 1991 grand final defeat to Penrith after being named on the bench but failing to take the field in the 1989 and 1990 deciders
“They had first-past –the-post and the Cup. It was new – but they just loved it.
“I mean, I grew up in Canberra so those grand finals for Canberra meant a lot and will always be very special to me. But it was John Monie who gave me the chance to go and play at a famous club like Wigan and I will always be grateful to him.
“I finished my career at Old Trafford. That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?”
The Championship and the Challenge Cup had previously been the twin goals in the British top flight, with the premiership – decided after end-of-season play-offs – third in terms of prestige. Without the Super League War in Australia, there would not have been Super League in the UK and – perhaps – no grand final.
No player stood astride these massive changes on both sides of the globe to the extent that Glanville did, if by sheer serendipity. In September 1997, Glanville had played in Newcastle’s unforgettable 22-16 ARL grand final win over Manly.
When he headed to Leeds to finish his career, he was coached by the man who had led the Knights’ bitter cross-town rivals, the Hunter Mariners, Graham Murray and was joined by one of the defunct club’s players, Brad Godden.
From the last non-NRL grand final to the first English grand final, in just 12 months.
“It was a big time of my career. I sort of took a lesson from what Chief (Paul Harragon) had said to us the year before,” said Glanville, who is now a radio sideline eye among other things.
“When we got to the hotel in Manchester, I had a little chat to them about what it would mean for the club – which had not had much success for a while – and to the town of Leeds.”
Across town, we now discover, Mark Bell was giving the same speech.
“The club knew how important the game would be – they knew how much money was at stake,” said Bell, now coaching in Yass.
“But the players, there seemed to be feeling of “if we lose, there’s always next week”. That was the case with the Challenge Cup final – it was in the middle of the season of course.
“Myself and Robbie McCormack, because we had been there in Australia, we tried to tell them that there is no next week. That you have to take your opportunities in grand finals and that some people never get to play in one.”
Wigan, of course, won 10-4 with Jason Robinson starring. While there are arguments to this day that the play-off system has not been embraced by English fans, any doubts about whether the grand final would be accepted was erased when the two team buses arrived at the ground.
The hierarchy had decided this was how the title was going to be decided from now on – and 45.533 fans got on board immediately.
According to Bell, that’s something that slightly more cynical NRL fans can learn from their English cousins – and from other grand finals within Australia.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to go to the last five AFL grand finals and I always go down for the week, for the parade,” he says.
“That’s something I’d really like to see the NRL do – have a parade throught the centre of Sydney in the lead-up to the game. That would be great for the players.
“In England, they just love an occasion – moreso than people in Australia, I would say.”
The NRL is to take a step in that direction this weekend with a footy festival around ANZ Stadium on grand final day. There are more functions than ever in grand final week, with the Men Of League ball tomorrow night to announce the eighth Immortal.
But still, there is room for improvement – more to learn from the people we exported the concept to.
Unless the matches themselves involve controversy or upsets, most of us reflect on grand finals here as being the conclusion of seasons or finals series. We look at Parramatta dominating 2001 but failing at the final hurdle. In Super League, the games are islands – it’s the 80 minutes that everyone remembers, regardless of what happened before.
That comes from beeing weened on knock-out cup competitions.
“They move on more quickly over there,” Bell observes. “They don’t worry about refereeing decisions for ages, they just focus on the football.”
The pioneers on October 24 1998, who took the grand final to the world, were Bell, McCormack, Danny Moore, Tony Mestrov, Glanville, Godden, Martin Masella and Jamie Mathiou.
Since then, grand finals have popped up in the United States, Jamaica, Norway, the Cook Islands and elsewhere.
With the ‘GF’ comes another great tradition – the celebrations afterwards. Manly’s English import Phil Lowe once got up after winning a Sydney grand final to find team-mates asleep in a flower bed down the street.
Here again, the night after the concept made it’s international debut in 1998, the Australians had to teach the locals a few lessons.
“They celebrated,” says Bell, “but not as hard as they had after Wembley.
“…which was unusual – the season was over following the grand final and after Wembley, we had to play again the next week!”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK