Football grand finals are a time of pomp and pageantry both real and contrived, as we attempt to add layers of significance and gravitas to the most important game of the season and also justify the hefty price of admission.
In the attempt to provide, ahem, “Super Bowl-style entertainment”, the NRL has a better record of matching hype with expectation and has even created the odd iconic moment such as Macklemore’s rendition of One Love.
The AFL tends to lurch between cringeworthy Meatloaf misfires and The Killers belters.
Far more emotionally connected with the game and the occasion are those symbolic moments when the players stand in line and the crowd falls silent.
It used to be just the national anthem and, at the AFL grand final, the anthem of the United Suburbs of Melbourne, Mike Brady’s Up There Cazaly, which will echo around an empty MCG on Saturday evening.
Now we also have Welcome to Country, a fitting moment of Indigenous recognition and a belated acknowledgement of 232 years of false entitlement.
Together, the Welcome to Country and the national anthem form a sort of package of national recognition, a patriotic double-header if you like.
And yet, from this isolated armchair, during these finals the pairing has also created a sense of discord; a feeling that we have two moments tailored for different audiences instead of one organically connected national ceremony.
This is in no way to diminish the importance of Welcome to Country, much less suggest it is not an integral part of our public gatherings — be it a local council meeting in a municipal hall, or a grand sporting event viewed by millions.
As players stretch their hamstrings and trade impatient glances, I have heard it suggested that the elongated version of Welcome to Country followed by the national anthem forces competitors to stand motionless for too long, thus compromising their warm-up.
I would suggest athletes who can’t stay fit and focused during these significant ceremonies would probably do better making their living as shepherds than playing an elite sport.
Rather than any sort of inconvenience, Welcome to Country merely heightens the sense of what is missing from the national anthem that follows — the recognition of the Indigenous heritage that has just been acknowledged.
This feeling is never more obvious than when Australia plays New Zealand or South Africa, nations with anthems that powerfully and melodically intertwine their ancient and modern heritage and languages.
If your tear ducts don’t twitch when you hear Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika before the Springboks play, then your sense of South African history is about as well developed as Sir Les Patterson’s sense of fashion.
You might think New Zealand needs God to defend it because it can’t afford a decent lawyer. But everyone knows the Wallabies are seven points down before the first whistle when they play the All Blacks, such is the lopsided nature of the battle of the anthems.
The feeling of disconnection created by Advance Australia Fair has been felt by Indigenous athletes for some time; so much so, the anthem was dropped from the pre-game ceremonies at the NRL’s Indigenous All-Stars game.
Predictably those such as South Sydney star Latrell Mitchell who have stood silent during a national anthem that recognises a “young and free” nation, not one with a 70,000-year history, were vilified in some quarters.
Pundits who labelled Mitchell “divisive” wilfully failed to recognise that Indigenous athletes, and others, are merely asking to be included in their anthem. Much in the way native African and Maori and Islander experience is celebrated in the anthems of South African and New Zealand.
The Black Lives Matter movement has popularised the symbolic protest of taking a knee during the anthem. As it is, Australia’s Indigenous athletes could be forgiven for reading a book until the game begins and they are again included in proceedings.
Some have suggested adopting the catchy jingle “I am, you are, we are Australian” as an inclusive anthem. The more ambitious wonder why we can’t have the kind of soaring anthem that brings the many strands of a multi-racial nation together.
Why is this relevant now? Because of all the times the national anthem is played at public events, rarely is the moment itself — as opposed to the actual anthem — more poignant than during those precious few seconds when a grand final crowd falls silent.
I suspect that silence will be a touch heavier this weekend. Not because the stadiums will be half-filled; because of the sense of isolation and dislocation and the real hardship the pandemic has created.
For supporters of Richmond, Geelong and Melbourne Storm particularly, these will be distant grand finals played beyond closed borders by teams they have not seen for long months. In living rooms, pre-game emotions will be charged.
How wonderful it would be if the crowd’s contemplative hush was followed by a stirring rendition of an anthem that spoke for every Australian.
Offsiders will have a special one-hour AFL grand final review/NRL grand final preview show this Sunday at 10:00am on ABC TV.