AUSTRALIAN RULES: Melbourne awaits a `grand' final

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The Independent Online
TOMORROW 98,000 fans will pack the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the Australian Football League Grand Final between North Melbourne and Adelaide. The game has generated such excitement this year that the ground's already huge capacity could be doubled or tripled - and still leave thousands of spectators wishing they could get a ticket. Earlier this week, A$77 tickets were changing hands for A$750, and prices are bound to rise further.

Forget about Ashes Test matches, Open tennis or Rugby League finals - the AFL Grand Final is the biggest event on the Australian sporting calendar.

But, like weddings and exams, eagerly-anticipated events can sometimes disappoint. Michelangelo Rucci, the chief football reporter for the Adelaide Advertiser, said: "There hasn't been a good Grand Final for a long time."

But tomorrow looks like it will be different. "The two teams have been nip and tuck all year," said Rucci. "If there was ever going to be a really good final, it would have to be this year."

North, who finished top of the ladder at the end of the home and away round, have won their last 11 matches and, as the Melbourne Age football writer Stephen Riley said: "North are the most physically punishing team in the game, and they are the best combination, too. They have been extremely consistent, not finishing lower than fourth in the last five years."

On the other hand, 1997 premiers Adelaide had a more mixed season, only just managing to get into the finals. Since then, though, despite one early loss, they have had a superb finals round. Riley said: "The Crows seem to have tapered their preparation. They are peaking at the right time. Also, man to man, in terms of skills, teamwork and sheer ability, they are regarded as the best football team in the country."

But eyes will not only be on the players tomorrow. In many ways the contest is a vindication of the talent and approach of the coaches - Malcolm Blight of Adelaide and Dennis Pagan of North Melbourne. Both men are highly intelligent, experienced, inspirational - and successful. Both took over their clubs when they were languishing at the bottom of the table and within a season or two transformed them. As The Advertiser's Rucci said: "Before Blight, Adelaide were a joke. They would play well for a while and then just fold. Then Blight came in and went through the club from top to bottom. I call him the Messiah."

While Pagan is not as charismatic as Blight, he shares his thorough professionalism. Highly disciplined and systematic, he has transformed North's style of play by pioneering the return of the long-kicking game.

And Blight shares his philosophy: "The more you handle the ball the more mistakes you can make," he said. Accordingly, North and Adelaide are the two most efficient teams in the league, handling the ball the least and achieving the most.

All this adds up to the fact that it is almost impossible to tip the winner. But a characteristic of Australian football crowds is that their desire to see a good, close game is almost as strong as their desire to see their team win. If the game is no good, many spectators will just get up and leave.

The 1998 AFL Grand Final will be broadcast live on Sky Sports 1 from 5.30am tomorrow.

Australian Football League website: www.afl.com.au

The Melbourne Age live online coverage of the game: www.theage.com.au/footy98

AFL GRAND FINAL

THE GAME

Australian Rules is played by 18 players on each side (plus four interchange players) over four 25-minute quarters (plus extra time). The ball can be kicked or handballed (punched), but not thrown. Scoring is by goals (six points) and behinds (one point) when the ball is kicked between the relevant goalposts. Beyond this the game is easy to understand, although the interpretation of some rules (such as holding the ball) is not. For football and rugby fans, the distinguishing characteristic of Australian Rules is that there is no offside rule, which means that the ball travels back and forward very quickly, play is open and fast, and scoring is high. A close-fought game can be one of the most exciting of all sporting spectacles.

THE TEAMS

NORTH MELBOURNE

Nickname: The Kangaroos or Roos. Premierships: 3. Last Premiership: 1996. Coach: Dennis Pagan. Players to watch: Wayne Carey, Corey McKernan.

ADELAIDE

Nickname: The Crows. Premierships: 1 (1997). Coach: Malcolm Blight. Players to watch: Andrew McLeod, Darren Jarman, Shaun Rehn.

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