No way to stage a big game
I've attended several sporting fixtures in the last almost-five years in Australia.
I've been to Lang Park (aka the Suncorp Stadium) and The Gabba in Brisbane many times. I've been to the Olympic Stadium (in Sydney), but not the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground). Not yet. I've watched The Queensland Reds ('Super Rugby' Union); Brisbane Roar (proper football); Brisbane Lions (Australian rules football); and rugby internationals between old rivals the Wallabies and the All Blacks. Unfortunately I have yet to witness a State of Origin (Queensland vs New South Wales) rugby league clash: it's pretty difficult to get tickets. Oh, and I've endured two days of Ashes cricket, one in a good year, and one in a bad.
On Saturday night we were at Lang Park to see the third and final game in this year's Bledisloe Cup between the fierce Antipodean foes. The first match in Sydney had finished 12-12; and the All Blacks had thumped the Wallabies 51-20 in the second in Auckland. The Aussies couldn't have prised the Cup back from holders New Zealand even if they'd won in Brisbane, because a victory would have produced a series draw. They played better than they've done in a while: they scored the first try, and were 10 points clear well into the second half. But the All Blacks came back, in the dying moments of play, when it didn't seem possible. They scored a try in the last three seconds before the clock stopped, and the conversion was made in the 81st minute. 28-29. The Aussie agony was palpable. New Zealand have won 43 titles, against Australia's 12.
I was supporting the All Blacks, because I've admired them for years; as long as England aren't their opponents, of course; but even then I harbour more than a sneaking admiration. My friend was supporting our host nation, although ostensibly he was 'there to watch a good game of rugby'.
Since Colin Slade converted the last New Zealand try after the bell, huge numbers of Wallaby supporters streamed from the stadium immediately. We waited. A podium was hastily erected on the pitch; there were a couple of interviews, and Wallaby Adam Ashley-Cooper was presented with his hundredth cap.
And we waited… A couple of All Blacks came over to the stand below us to sign autographs, and a couple of Wallabies ran the length of the pitch – to keep warm? We'd seen the Cup at the opening ceremony, big and bright and, we assumed, ready for the presentation. Well, apparently not. We waited in vain to see each of the teams mount the podium and the All Blacks be re-presented with the Cup. Just because they are current holders doesn't mean they're not presented again, does it? We assumed officials were waiting for the end of ad breaks on the commercial channels covering the match.
We waited, and waited, and the crowd thinned out more and more. We had to conclude eventually that the event was over. No lap of honour; no lifting of the Cup by the winning side; no supreme moment of jubilation for their fans; just the fizzling out of a memorable match into disjointed uncertainty. What an anticlimax. And how unbefitting. I guess what we were hoping for happened at Eden Park in August. (We were on the Outback trip and only caught brief glimpses of the match in the RSL in Moree.) But if so, I think that took away from the last match and the culmination of the series. Fans have expectations.
On the subject of last matches… Something we just can't grasp here is the idea of several 'finals' leading to a 'grand final'. Final means ultimate, the end. There are playoffs between the top teams in the lower English leagues, for example, but they are semi-finals up until the last one, the final, the conclusion.
The creation of a great atmosphere at games here is somewhat thwarted by incessant, loud, often inane popular music blasted out right up to, and sometimes beyond kick-off, and then at every subsequent brief interlude – twixt try and conversion, during a drinks or injury break. And obviously throughout half-time. In Europe prior to a game, the crowd gees itself up by chanting. In the die-hard supporters' stands, the level of ingenuity and wit of the lyrics is impressive; and new material is often quickly created in response to incidents during a match by dedicated minds. Here, it's usually 'Bris-bane… [clap clap clap] Bris-bane… [clap clap clap]' or 'Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi, if you're lucky. On Saturday, it was 'Wall-a-bies, Wall-a-bies'. I think I may have heard something different, once, when the Roar played Gold Coast United… a jibe about the beach being closed.
When we went to watch our team, Manchester United, play the A-League All-Stars in Sydney last year, it seemed as if most of the 82,000 capacity crowd were red. But you couldn't hear a peep out of them prior to the whistle because of the loud musical drivel we had to endure. Actually, I don't think the Aussie United fans would have chanted anyway. It just doesn't happen in the same way here. I was so looking forward to being in the Stadium, and being United in our support, but instead the whole experience (apart from the final score, 5-1) was massively underwhelming. If I wanted to listen to loud music, I'd go to a different venue, thanks.
In our early experience of watching the Queensland Reds at Lang Park, we were surprised that the crowd had to be urged over the public address system to shout their support. They were chatting to their mates, eating chips, making social arrangements, on their phones, trying to locate people. Not long ago, however, we watched the A-League Grand Final between Brisbane Roar and Western Sydney Wanderers. I was supporting Brisbane, naturally, but I couldn't take my eyes off the Sydney supporters, the so-called Red and Black Bloc. They were far more impressive than any of the action on the field, which was a bit Second Division to be honest. There was perfectly co-ordinated flag waving and soaring voices, in unison, and a large repertoire of material. They stood up, sat down, turned around as one; and they never stopped. The best fans I've seen here by a long chalk.
Some of best supporters I've seen in Europe are Spanish football fans. They often have a band accompanying them to maintain a constant and motivational beat behind the chanting. Camp Nou, home ground of Barcelona, prides itself on its 'wall of sound'. In the English football league, it is sometimes the smaller teams' fans who supply the best vocals, for clubs such as Portsmouth or Plymouth.
Some fans are clearly obsessive. They stand in inclement weather, and sing their hearts out; they travel huge distances and spend vast amounts of money; they wait in line for tickets for hours, their phone-cradling shoulder frozen; they suffer massive disappointment and go back for more; and there is no option other than to support their team. But these people can create atmosphere by their very presence. And inspire others, both on and off the field.
I've got glimpses of that here. I think live State of Origin is essential for my further research. And I should probably spend more time in Melbourne.