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The Game Cairns Had To Have

  • Sunday, June 13 2021 @ 12:03 pm ACST
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Make no mistake. For Cairns to remain a viable AFL destination it needed a catalyst match to build a future on. It came last night when their 2021 AFL premiership match saw St Kilda hosting the Adelaide Crows. Whilst skill level was questionable at times, the excitement of a grandstand finish made up for that – setting Cairns alight.

It is already well enough documented that Cairns lost its annual premiership match after their Round 1 fixture in 2018 was almost washed away. Southern rival, Townsville, was handed the 2019 match and Cairns had to pray for miracles to get their match back. It came in the form, ironically, of COVID-19 when the AFL was forced to relocate four premiership fixtures to a new hub and Cairns was ready, eager and determined to grab opportunity when it knocked.

(Image Credit: The Age)
The job done by Cairns last year, hosting four matches featuring Melbourne, Sydney, Fremantle and Brisbane, saw the city rewarded with last night’s match. However, if things did not go well for the Cairns’ Cazalys Stadium (weather, crowds, revenue) their ability to host future matches could well have been back on the line.

So, the match began. St Kilda played two and a half quarters of dominant, near finals worthy footy. In greasy conditions (pre-match rain left a coat of moisture on the surface, making handling more difficult), the Saints were cleaner, more accurate and more driven. Adelaide were there, though at times you wouldn’t have known it.

Then, just as the Saints got away to a six-goal lead, they left. At least in a metaphorical sense. The Adelaide Crows rattled on the final seven goals of the match to steal the lead with a minute left on the clock and won by a goal at the siren.

The match had everything. Huge physical clashes that saw Hunter Clark leave the field with a broken jaw and Bradley Hill bury a Crow somewhere beneath the surface of Cazalys. It saw Paddy Ryder turn back the clock and fly for a screamer right in front of me. He dropped it. In his prime he would have swallowed that ball. Now he really just gargles and spits. But it was exciting on a night not really ideal for high flying.

What kid doesn’t dream of kicking the premiership winning goal? Probably none. But not far behind is the dream of kicking a match-winning goal on the siren. Riley Thilthorpe’s kick back over his head from 15 metres out was what kids practice and hope for from the day they get their first footy. The roar when Thilthorpe’s goal went through – putting the Crows in front for the first time all night, and a lead they would not lose – was spine-tingling.

The Adelaide faithful who had been giving the umpires endless support with advice all night, including wonderful interpretations of the “holding the ball” rules and most others, suddenly had something else to be vocal about: they’d won! Saints supporters shook their heads in disbelief and could barely speak. But Cairns locals had seen a rip snorting finish to game which will be talked about for years – much like the Karmichael Hunt “after the siren” win for the Suns back in 2012. That is vitally important for the future of games in Cairns.

Cazalys Stadium is wonderful venue. Cairns is a tremendous location and such an attractive destination. But these factors alone do not guarantee the future. Local grassroots footy needs the annual visit from elite professionals to boost numbers and maintain support. But without the turnstiles ticking over, the rest remains at risk.

For last night’s game to have a crowd of just under 6000 spectators is invaluable. Whilst it is far from the halcyon days of crowds above 10 000 when the Tigers, Dogs and Suns were in town, it was still significant. In fact, it was the largest AFL crowd at the venue since 2017. It wasn’t an unlucky 13th premiership match for the venue – quite possibly the opposite. Significantly, it wasn’t too far short of the Townsville pre-COVID match in 2019.

It means that the Far North Queensland city has hosted five premiership matches in less than a year (nine months, to be more accurate) with last night being the best attended, and certainly the most exciting of them all.

Walking back to the car, most people were talking animatedly about that finish. St Kilda supporters were still essentially speechless. There was certainly a positive vibe – unless you were a Saint on the footy equivalent of novocaine. Riley Thilthorpe was the new hero for local kids. The fact that it took 15 minutes to drive 300 metres to leave the area proved that there was a significant crowd. There was so much to like about last night.

And that is just what Cairns wanted the AFL and the nation to see. It really was the game that Cairns so desperately had to have.