Double treat for Aussie sports fans: AFL, NRL grand finals

Sports fans Down Under have two major reasons to be looking forward to this weekend – the championship matches in both Australian rules football and the National Rugby League.

The double-barreled action gets under way on Saturday afternoon when an expected 100,000 spectators at the Melbourne Cricket Ground will watch Hawthorn attempt to win its third Australian Football League grand final in a row. The Hawks are playing the Perth-based West Coast Eagles.

On Sunday night, the NRL grand final at Sydney’s Olympic stadium will feature two teams from Queensland state: the six-time champion Brisbane Broncos and the North Queensland Cowboys, who are based in Townsville, 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) north of Brisbane, and are aiming for their first league title.

Here are some things to know about the championship matches in Australia’s two biggest spectator sports:

BUSY HAWKS: Hawthorn is playing in its fourth grand final in a row but has done it the tough way: under the AFL’s ”second-chance” playoff format for teams finishing in the first four spots during the regular season, Hawthorn has already lost to the Eagles – by 32 points in a qualifying final at Perth. That win gave the Eagles a bye while Hawthorn played in the second round. The last team to win the title by playing every week of the playoffs was the Eagles in 2006, but Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson isn’t concerned. ”It could be an important factor for us,” Clarkson said this week. ”We’ve played a lot of footy. Routine is a good thing.” Hawks midfielder Shaun Burgoyne, who will be playing in his sixth grand final, adds: ”A week’s a long time in footy, let alone two or three.”

NOT SO FAMILIAR: West Coast hasn’t played in an AFL grand final since 2006 and only three players in the Eagles squad have won titles. Defender Sharrod Wellingham, who won an AFL championship with Collingwood in 2010, says his team’s win over Hawthorn earlier in the playoffs will be a huge boost. ”That will be a big factor in the boys’ minds knowing that we can take it up to them,” Wellingham said. ”We’ve got enormous confidence in ourselves.”

SUPER COACH BENNETT: Broncos coach Wayne Bennett, who nurtured a host of future international players while coach at the Queensland Police Academy early in his career, has seven league titles – six of them in six attempts with Brisbane, a team he left at the end of the 2008 season to join St. George Illawarra but returned to this year. Broncos forward Sam Thaiday expects Bennett to maintain his tradition of quoting hit movies to motivate the team before Sunday’s final. ”He likes to steal movie quotes,” Thaiday told Australian Associated Press this week. ”Whatever the movie is out at the moment. I am sure we will get an inspirational speech from `Straight Outta Compton’ or something. But the bottom line is he knows how to get the best out of someone.”


KEY PLAYERS: Brisbane captain Justin Hodges was cleared to play in the grand final after beating a ”dangerous throw” charge at a judiciary hearing on Tuesday. Hodges successfully challenged his one-match ban for a tackle on Aidan Guerra in last week’s win over the Sydney Roosters. It will be the 33-year-old Hodges’ last NRL match before he retires. North Queensland’s Johnathan Thurston was in the news this week for a more positive reason – he won the Dally M Medal as NRL player of the year for the fourth time. Thurston previously won the award in 2005, 2007 and last year when he was co-winner with Jarryd Hayne, who has since left the Parramatta Eels to play in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers.

IMPORTED ENTERTAINMENT: The NRL has consistently gone with Australian acts for their grand final entertainment – this year it will be veteran rockers Cold Chisel and their Glasgow-born lead singer Jimmy Barnes. The AFL, controversially at times, has gone with overseas acts. In 2011, American rocker Meat Loaf was heavily criticized for the way he sang a 12-minute medley of his best-known songs, but new and old British performers Ed Sheeran and Tom Jones were well-received last year. The AFL has again received criticism of being ”un-Australian” this year by booking Canadian Bryan Adams and American crooner Chris Isaak along with English singer Ellie Goulding, who had a worldwide hit with ”Love Me Like You Do.”