The AFL’s disappointing September crowds and poor TV ratings over the year can be explained away by all manner of possible alibis and paper-thin excuses — Geelong’s dominance, the Olympic Games, Sydney’s fickle form, WA’s two teams not firing a shot, ticket prices, food prices, the A-League’s success — but there’s an elephant in the room no-one has been brave enough to point out: the game is becoming dull.

It’s that simple. The once free-flowing spectacle, that dazzled all who came within its orbit, is slowly turning into a dreary, vanilla, homogenised, sanitised, over-regulated, over-umpired bore.

The problems are manifold but they start with coaches stifling the creativity out of the contest — and it hasn’t helped that three of this year’s finalists, St Kilda, Sydney and Adelaide, are among the worst offenders. Why would any neutral fan in their right mind even think about watching Adelaide v St Kilda on the telly? You must be joking. I’d take Vasili’s Garden Show on Channel 31 any day. Or a poke in the eye.

Players are now so fit, and capable of covering so much ground in the course of a match, that there is less room to strut their stuff and show off their balletic skills, in the way that Robbie Flower and Keith Greig and Doug Hawkins used to do in the acres of space down the MCG wings. Some commentators, such as Tim Lane, have suggested reducing the number of players on the ground to free up the congested mess that often passes for a match. The idea has merit.

And the umpires, presumably under instructions from league headquarters, have anaesthetised the game into a stupor. The most minor infraction is penalised and it often takes the replay to be shown on the big screen before the crowd understands what the infraction was. Even then, they’re sometimes none the wiser.

On top of that, there appears to be a growing disconnection between game and fan. The sport is drifting too far from its suburban roots. Maybe it’s because I’m of a certain age, but the experience of sitting under a closed roof at Telstra Dome in the middle of the afternoon, where sushi and salads and focaccia are served, does not feel like footy to me. It feels like an afternoon at World Youth Day. Or watching day-time TV with the blinds pulled down.

These issues have been underscored, and writ large, in this finals series. Collectively, it has been a shocker. Eight games have been played and none of them are in any danger of featuring on the AFL-endorsed season-highlights DVD. The closest, and best, of the eight was the Bulldogs-Geelong match last weekend which ended in a 29-point win for the Cats. Otherwise, the finals have been one-sided and almost completely devoid of tension.

Contrast this with the NRL finals series, which has produced a highlight reel that will be played down the ages, brimming as it does with spectacular tries, big hits, underdogs getting up and, yes, passion.

Whoever had the privilege to see the Melbourne Storm’s win over Brisbane last weekend will know what I’m talking about. Some veteran league observers have described the match, decided by a Greg Inglis try in the last minute, as among the best they’ve seen.

That came a week after the eighth-placed Warriors inflicted similar heartache on the Storm in the dying minutes at Olympic Park. The Warriors, with the talismanic Ruben Wiki leading the way in his farewell season, upset the reigning premiers then steamrolled the Roosters last week.

Every finals series needs an inspiring underdog story, something for the unattached to latch on to, and the Kiwis have provided the NRL with one, in spades. Shame the same can’t be said about the AFL where the top four sides routinely filled the four preliminary final berths.

I never thought I’d say this, (in fact I’ve got an appointment with the doctor this afternoon because I think I’ve come down with something serious) but the NRL, for all its player defections and appalling off-field behaviour, is growing on me. And I’m hoping it’s just benign. This year, I have found myself getting more worked up and involved watching an NRL game than I do with the AFL. Why is that? I don’t know but I’m hoping the quack can diagnose the problem, and prescribe the necessary antibiotics.

Certainly, NRL has stayed truer to its fans. There are standing-room sections at its grounds and, unless I’m way off beam, I doubt sushi is served at Mt Smart or Parramatta Stadiums.

That’s why, for the sake of the code, the AFL grand final on Saturday needs to be a good ‘un. We need a memorable game to redeem the finals series and remind us why we love the game.

In Geelong and Hawthorn, the two standout teams are playing, so that’s a good start. They’re both in powerful form, with all their good players — apart from Luke Hodge, with cracked ribs — in peak condition and near the top of their game. And, importantly in these worrying times, they like to play the game by attacking and moving forwards, not backwards and laterally like three of their fellow-finalists.

A reprise of their 1989 grand final classic is too much to hope for, but something to stir the passions, get the sap rising and set the pulse racing would do just fine.

Peter Fray

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