THE Sydney Swans will play in Melbourne's grand final. The Melbourne Storm will play in Sydney's.
At a time when the AFL and NRL are engaged in a turf war, two clubs that have fought long and hard behind enemy lines last night proved their resilience and durability with impressive victories in their respective preliminary finals.
The Swans broke an 11-game losing streak against Collingwood to beat the AFL giant by 26 points at ANZ Stadium – a sequence that, coincidentally, dated back to their last premiership of 2005. Sydney's victory was built on a brilliant defence which strangled the Magpies, who were unusually flat the day after they buried former teammate John McCarthy, who died on a football trip in Las Vegas.
After dominating for almost three quarters, the Swans were made to work hard for their victory. Four consecutive Collingwood goals narrowed the margin from 42 points to just 20 in the last quarter. But Sydney held their nerve and moved into a grand final against the winner of today's MCG match between Hawthorn and Adelaide.
Electrifying midfielder Lewis Jetta provided the highlight for the Swans, kicking one goal with a brilliant 100-metre dash that would not have disgraced Usain Bolt and curling another between the posts like a frisbee. Victory provided the perfect celebration for midfield warrior Jude Bolton, who toiled productively in his 300th game and was jubilant after kicking a late goal.
The Storm ended local hopes of an all-Sydney grand final with their emphatic 40-12 victory over the defending premiers. Despite dominating in the early stages, poor conversion meant Melbourne held just an eight-point lead after 60 minutes. But their relentless pressure against the unusually fragile Sea Eagles eventually blew down the door, the win sealed by a brilliant solo try by flying full-back Billy Slater.
For the Storm, to win a third grand final under coach Craig Bellamy would be an act of vindication after their 2007 and 2009 titles were taken away when the club's salary cap rorting was revealed. Melbourne consequently lost several players, including superstar Greg Inglis, and endured a soul-destroying 2010 season when they played without the incentive of competition points. To win a title two years later would demonstrate the club's strong culture, and Bellamy's astute guidance, were as responsible for their success as the infamous second set of contracts.
This week, former Manly great Max Krilich threw gasoline on already raging fires when he suggested Storm players should be forced to return the premiership rings they had been allowed to keep even after the trophies were taken from the club's cabinet. Regardless of whether that provided further motivation last night, the Melbourne players now have the chance to win a title that would be both indisputable and against the odds.
The Storm play the winner of tonight's match between South Sydney and Canterbury Bankstown which will draw up to 70,000 fans to ANZ Stadium. That crowd, and the occasion, will represent the latest big step in the Rabbitohs' renaissance after they were excluded from the NRL in 2001 and 2002. A tale that is romantic, star-studded and, for those still bearing the scars of the club's civil war, bitter-sweet.