Radical move required to keep grand final at Optus Stadium
The most radical fixture change in WAFL history is required to maintain the integrity of this year’s grand final and make sure the match is treated with the respect it deserves.
The loss of Optus Stadium to an international cricket match has disrupted planning for the finale of a season that has been the closest and most hard-fought in recent memory. But rather than shift the location of the grand final to a suburban ground – most likely the decrepit Fremantle Oval, distant Arena Joondalup or rundown Leederville Oval - the WA Football Commission should bring the match forward two weeks to guarantee it remains at Burswood.
The WAFC does not need to admit it made a mistake by scheduling the grand final in cricket season at the State’s major cricket venue but it does need to introduce a drastic fixture shift to complete the full home-and-away season. And that means every club would have to play a midweek match – probably under lights on a Wednesday night – to get through the season.
That is not entirely unprecedented: several WAFL seasons in the 1930s featured all teams playing day games on both the Saturday and Monday of the Foundation Day long weekend – while the rationale is straightforward.
It is not unreasonable to suggest that a potential derby grand final between arch-rivals and current top three teams South Fremantle and East Fremantle could draw the biggest WAFL crowd of the AFL era – exceeding the 38,198 who saw Claremont beat South at Subiaco Oval in 1989.
Last year’s Optus crowd of 29,879 certainly proved the venue’s ability to draw big numbers to the State league decider. That makes it untenable to move the grand final to a WAFL ground where capacity is limited to 10,000 or so.
The 2020 grand final was played at Fremantle under Covid restrictions but that crowd of 10,179 stretched the ground almost to breaking point. The atmosphere was outstanding but logistics were challenged. Adding 5000 more spectators to that crush would be absurd.
Leederville and Joondalup, which is already unavailable for the preliminary final due to a music festival at the ground that weekend, are even smaller. There was some merit in the WAFC’s bid to extend the season so that the grand final was played the weekend after the AFL version – they wanted to build on last year’s successful Festival of Football while delaying the start to minimise the Covid risk – but circumstances have changed dramatically in recent weeks.
Covid is on the march which makes it more urgent to bring the season forward.
And drop-in pitch preparation means football cannot be played at Optus after the AFL preliminary final weekend – which would require the WAFL decider to be moved to Sunday, September 17, two weeks before the current October 1 commitment.
How to finish the home-and-away season? Each club has one bye scheduled across either round 15, 16 or 17 but one week could be gained by abandoning those byes and bringing the next match forward.
All grounds are available and there are no complications with that fixture change.
The biggest issue is fitting in the 18th qualifying match which is why the radical proposal to play during the week comes into play. Integrity and fairness means it would be untenable to simply abandon the final round while the very real prospect of a Supreme Court injunction should a team miss out on finals through percentage makes it imperative that the full fixture list is completed.
That means that one round would have to be played midweek, probably the last round when player recovery would be easiest to manage. The top team will get a bye at the start of finals while the five bottom teams would not be required the following week.
Finding enough grounds with lights is an issue but, as the famous Greek sporting administrator Hippocrates once suggested, drastic times call for drastic measures. Maybe some teams might have to give up a midweek home game but if the prize is premiership victory in front of 40,000 people at Optus, that might not be a high price to pay.
Wednesday hero: If you want to see one of the plays of the season, go to the AFL website and track down the replay of the recent South Fremantle-Swan Districts match. Scroll to the 7 minute mark of the last quarter when Swans defender Tony Stephens charges more than 60m after goal-bound Caleb Datson and launches such a desperate tackle that the Bulldog sprays his kick into the goalpost. Stephens has played just 52 matches after making his Swans debut 11 seasons ago but his poise and ferocity make him a first-choice player and one of the reasons that his team is threatening to have a decent say in September.