Will the AFL grand final return to its home at the MCG?

ADAMANT: The AFL has always been intransigent on an MCG grand final. Photo: Darrian Traynor/AFL Photos/via Getty Images

ADAMANT: The AFL has always been intransigent on an MCG grand final. Photo: Darrian Traynor/AFL Photos/via Getty Images

For a second year running, the AFL is facing a massive decision about the venue for the most important game of the year. And right now, it appears a tougher call than last time.

In 2020, the decision came relatively early and appeared quite simple, Victoria not having hosted any games at all by then for two months, Queensland COVID-free and not only the location of a majority of matches, but having been a temporary home for the bulk of the competition.

With just over seven weeks until the scheduled grand final date of September 25, the AFL is still hoping the MCG will get the gig.

That, of course, however, will depend not only upon Melbourne's lockdown having ended, but just how small a crowd the league considers acceptable, weighed against potential alternative venues like the Gabba, Perth's Optus Stadium and Adelaide Oval and their own health statuses.

It's a difficult decision. Would a grand final played between two Victorian teams played in front of a maximum of, say, only 25,000 fans at the MCG be better than playing the same game in Perth before 60,000?

Such a decision needs to take into account a whole range of factors. There's the ability of the fans of the competing clubs to attend. The goal of providing the teams involved the sort of preparation to which they're entitled, perhaps competing with the chance to get a full house away from Melbourne. The broadcasting logistics. And, of course, that perennial source of debate, the timeslot.

Having played a first grand final at night at the Gabba last year, will the AFL feel emboldened in sticking with that? But would game broadcasters even want a night game in Perth, given the time difference to the east coast and the accompanying late finish in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane?

Perhaps, though, a second straight grand final away from the MCG would raise another interesting question. And that is around the principle of the grand final even having a permanent home.

Of course, it's just a hypothetical. The AFL has always been intransigent on an MCG grand final. And in 2018, it signed off on an agreement for the MCG to host the game until at least 2057, now 2058 after the necessity of using the Gabba last year. But that doesn't mean the philosophical objections to the grand final being locked in at the MCG have been muted. And given recent grand final history, you can understand why.

Had Dom Sheed's famous last-minute match-winner for West Coast against Collingwood on grand final day 2018 not happened, a Magpie premiership would have been the fifth year in a row in which a grand final had been won by a Victorian team playing against a team from interstate, which had been ranked higher in the finals pecking order.

In 2014, it was Hawthorn upsetting Sydney, which had finished on top and won straight through to the big one. The following year, West Coast finished higher than the Hawks, whom it beat in a home qualifying final before losing to the same opponent on grand final day.

In 2016, Sydney again finished on top of the ladder and lost the grand final to a Victorian team, the Western Bulldogs, which had finished seventh. And in 2017, Adelaide thrashed Richmond at home during the home and away rounds, also finished on top, and won both finals before being upended by a Richmond side not only playing in its home state, but on its home ground. That last one really set off a storm in South Australia. Adelaide served up a damp squib of an effort in the big one against Richmond, and who knows whether that might have changed all that much even had the game been played at Adelaide Oval?

But it's pretty hard to argue philosophically that the way we determine premiership winners is as fair as possible if a team with not just the better record across the season of the two competing sides, but the best record of any team, is forced to play its most important game on the home ground of its lower-ranked opponent.

If equality really was the main aim when it came to determining premierships, that would have been addressed by now. Particularly seeing as for the past 10 seasons, eight teams, almost half the competition, have hailed from beyond Victorian borders.

Last year's Gabba grand final might have boasted only one-third as many spectators as usual, but it wasn't found wanting for spectacle. Nobody who has witnessed a showdown or even a South Australian team playing a big Victorian club in Adelaide could possibly have felt short-changed for atmosphere.

And the fact Perth was able to draw a full house of 60,000 for the transferred Essendon-Richmond "Dreamtime" clash a couple of months ago, and the brilliant atmosphere which ensued, was the best CV the WA government could have prepared for its grand final hosting job application. All are quality venues capable of holding the most important AFL match of the year. And if one of them gets the job in 2021, there will be double the evidence on the table that grand finals and the MCG don't necessarily have to be synonymous.

A deal is a deal, of course, and the MCG grand final contract has the weight of a state government behind it. But political and public pressure can be powerful weapons, and compromises sought and found.

It's a tricky situation for the AFL. One of those grounds beyond the Victorian border may again get the league out of a hole this September. But that also may be more motivation for those other football states to keep fighting the fight for grand final integrity. And once that genie is out of the bottle, getting it back in might prove a lot harder than some assume.