SANFL Grand Final – Port Adelaide v Sturt: see ya at the Arkaba

So, it turns out my parents’ first date was to the 1966 SANFL Grand Final along with 59,415 other people; to the game that is, not on the date. After the match they went out to the Arkaba. It is so South Australian it has an aftertaste of Southwark Bitter about it, but in a good way. Dad even remembers the score (not a euphemism): Sturt 16.16 112 beat Port Adelaide 8.8 56, sealing the deal (also not a euphemism) with a seven goal to one last quarter to deliver an aesthetically pleasing scoreline.

This was the second in a run of four Grand Finals played between the teams. In 1965 Port won in front of an Adelaide Oval footy record (or is that budget?) crowd of 62,543. Sturt went on to win the next three.

The two great coaches, Jack Oatey head to head with Fos Williams. Barrie Robran taking his first steps at North Adelaide while Russell Ebert was taking his at Port. This was the golden age of South Australian football. Lacking the big city clout of the VFL but not yet being raided for all its jewels (Richmond already had a Jewell), the SANFL stood proudly alone.

Forward 50 years – on Friday night the Crows, the SANFL’s composite side, the team of all clubs, qualified for the AFL Grand Final in front of an AFL Adelaide Oval record crowd of 53,817 screaming punters, beating Port Adelaide’s attendance record by 119 (not the first time they’ve been beaten by 119, mind). The SANFL Grand Final seems a quaint amusement by comparison. Yet, the people come once more to see Port Adelaide play Sturt in a Grand Final. Sure, Port’s a reserves side now but the amount of unadulterated black and white merchandise on display shows many Port fans fondly remember their roots. Bloody hell, why wouldn’t they?

As Darryl Braithwaite works his way through some songs that aren’t The Horses and then one that is, the stands steadily fill. The folks have decided not to reprise their 1966 date but the elder statesman, born in Fos Williams’ hometown, has come along as an interested neutral (like there’s ever such a thing when Port is playing). Also to watch his grandson and Barrie Robran’s (different children) go around at half time in the parade of champions as members of Walkerville’s victorious Under 11s team. Any time you can take three generations to a footy match is a privilege to be savoured.

Sturt enter today’s match as underdogs. After narrowly losing the qualifying final to Port they have come the hard way through the first semi and preliminary finals. Port, well, the hardest decision they have to make is which 16 of their 22 qualified AFL listed players to give a run. No great surprises as Krakouer, Monfries, Frampton (all injured), Ladhams, Irra, and Hewett miss out.

Sturt prepare to run through their banner in front of a healthy crowd

After a rushed national anthem that sees players and officials scramble across the ground to get in line (Sturt manage it first and more successfully as Port end up somewhat concave in appearance) the game starts much the same way. Sturt are first to it but Port are effective when they get there. Jake Neade misses a couple of early opportunities that Port would never have missed in the ‘90s and Sturt are quick to levy a fee as former Magpie Kory Beard kicks the first for the Double Blues. Neade finally settles and kicks Port’s first before Mark Evans makes a strong tackle and kicks one from the resulting free kick and Tom Harms snaps a beauty around the body. The unpredictable wind means some kicks are carrying 60 metres and others not at all. Players cannot read it in the air so can’t time a lead. Sturt go into quarter time 10 points to the good.

Football is regularly described as an ‘arm wrestle’ and when people say that they mean the second quarter of this game. As the tackle count passes 100, perhaps it’s just a wrestle. Both teams drop a man back where possible and do everything they can to get quickly into their forward line. Port is doing both things more frequently but they can do no more than fill space as teams trade a goal. Sturt by 12 points at half time.

The teams of champions parade around the boundary as a shouty man shouts into the PA. Thoughtfully, he pauses just long enough for someone to start a sentence before immediately drowning them out again. From the middle of Bay 537 we can see the vague colours (the colours themselves are not vague, just our eyesight) of Walkerville but not make out the individuals. I satisfy myself with the knowledge that one of the dark haired 11 year olds out there is the nephew as they disappear under the overhang of the grandstand.

The grandstand overhang in action

The third quarter starts very much as anticipated. Port are slowly but surely getting on top of Sturt who are desperately hanging on, tackle after tackle. The Magpies lock the ball into their forward line, the Double Blues struggle to find a way out. But as Todd Marshall registers Port’s third behind for the quarter they are in danger of blowing their dominance. The blowing is confirmed 10 minutes later when Sturt muscle the ball down the other end for an Aidan Riley goal. Double Blues by 17 at the final break.

Sturt have the better of early last quarter parries. Riley misses an opportunity to put them up by 23 and almost out of reach. But then Neade finally snaps another, followed by goals to Ah Chee and Gray for the Magpies – scores level. Do they have the sniff of a premiership? Last time they played in a Grand Final, 1998, such a sniff of blood was all Port needed to secure a nine point win. As much as their banner claims they exist to win premierships (which, to be fair, was a darn sight better than its semi-final effort, mocking Woodville West Torrens for being a merged club. Yes, that’s right), they’ve lost the taste. Well, at least in comparison to Sturt.

The Double Blues clear the ball forward once more, as the shrieks of anticipation and regret grow louder, and Kory Beard wins a free kick 15 metres out on a slight angle. Remarkably, a Port player gives away a 25 and makes a certainty of it. Sturt by six points. Soon after, Battersby misses an opportunity to make it two goals but provides instead the proverbial handy point.

More movement, more tackles, more thwarted thrusts and Port get a break. Tom Harms tumbles into Brendon Ah Chee and he brings it back to the solitary with a composed 45 metre kick. The joys of a count-up clock; 24 minutes are gone but no one but the time keepers know how long is left. The count up clock mirrors our own mortality – embrace it.

Port send the ball forward but it is intercepted by Jack Stephens, not for the first time today. Play heads down to the wing where Beard is outnumbered but he lays an incredible diving tackle, bringing the ball back to the contest. Sturt win the next clearance and who else but Beard to win a free kick out on the boundary. His subsequent shot on goal falls well short but the clocks tick… or do whatever digital clocks do. Contest after contest in Sturt’s forward 50 – then siren.

A worthy one point win for the underblues. Is this their greatest Grand Final victory? Probably not; their 1976 Jumbo Prince inspired 41 point upset of Port Adelaide in front of 66,897 would still hold its place in hearts beating true for old Double Blues. But this modern day cracker would not be far behind. Fraser Evans collects the Jack Oatey Medal for best afield, expertly marshalling Sturt’s defence as he has done all season. That the Ken Farmer Medallist did not score a goal is testament to the Double Blues’ defence… and a wind that made reading the fall of the ball more than a tad difficult.

 

 

There is always lots of concern about the AFL reserves teams in the SANFL competition. It’s hard to demonstrate a level playing field when a player on one team earns more than the other team combined. Port has undoubtedly benefited – in the four seasons prior to becoming an AFL reserves side Port won just 34% of its matches. Since then it’s 63% – chalk and very expensive cheese. However, if Port is willing to come to Adelaide Oval and narrowly lose Grand Finals to traditional rivals I think we could come to some sort of arrangement.

Hats off Sturt – you’ve always been good for a date.

About Dave Brown

Upholding the honour of the colony. "Play up Norwoods!"

Comments

  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    One of your best Dave. Go, err, whoever’s playing Port.

  2. John Butler says:

    Terrific report Dave.

    And a terrific crowd to this one. A oncer? Or possible signs of a SANFL revival?

    Cheers

  3. That’s a good ‘un Dave.

    In his excellent memoir Tim Rogers mentions heading somewhere (probably a pub!) wearing his beloved Sturt FC shorts! One of the reasons I really enjoyed his book is that he devotes more words to footy in various contexts than he does to his own band (who I think is fantastic)!

  4. Thanks for the read and the comments. Yep, there was a reasonable number of us ‘neutrals’ there on the day Swish.

    We’ll see crowds like this, John, whenever two of Port, Norwood and Sturt are playing. The 38,000 at Norwood v Port in 2014 was only not bigger because many Port fans had been in Melbourne the night before for the AFL prelim v Hawthorn. Generally, though, SANFL crowds continue their slow and steady decline.

    Just started reading Tim Rogers’ book, Mickey, got it for Fathers’ Day. Loved that it started with the Goldfields Grand Final. Not up to his love affair with Sturt just yet. Brings up the interesting question about which club has the coolest supporters – how do Sturt’s Tim Rogers and Dave Graney stack up against Norwood’s Paul Kelly or Central’s Delta Goodrem?

  5. Nice report Dave.
    It was a great day and a great match.
    Don’t worry, I couldn’t see you perfectly well either.

  6. Luke Reynolds says:

    First date at a SANFL Grand Final. Love it!

    Really enjoyed the report Dave. I’m not up to T.Rogers Sturt following in his book either.

    Like the ‘Borough over here in the VFL, great to see a traditional, standalone club win the flag. Seems Sturt still have a big following? A possibility to be the AFL’s 21st team after Tasmania and Norwood?!

  7. Dave Brown says:

    Sorry, I never responded to this Luke. From memory when they used to survey SA footy fans the followership went something like Port 25%, Norwood 22% and Sturt 20%. In terms of followership very much the big three of SA footy. Still not up to the Sturt bit, but loving every page of the Tim Rogers book.

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