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Converts from AFL celebrate Storm win

This was a victory for the true believers.

Not those who remained committed to the Melbourne Storm through the dark days of salary cap rorts and stripped Premierships, when the Victorian club became a byword for systematic cheating and the exploitation of sporting loopholes.

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Thousands of fans gathered at Gosch's Paddock to welcome home Melbourne Storm, the newly crowned 2012 NRL premiers.

No, it was more like a triumph for those true believers who have retained their (these days) politically incorrect view that Australian sport should be an expression of machismo toughness.

As the spring rays of a Melbourne sun glazed Gosch's Paddock, the training venue seemed to have been turned into a purple haze of contented Storm supporters.

The DJ pumped up the atmosphere (he had to work overtime as the flight out of Sydney was long delayed) but the crowd waited patiently and in well-behaved fashion for their heroes to attend their local coronation, all willing to convert any doubters who had strayed in to see what was taking place.

The Age played devil's advocated with a small sample.


Why was their team so good, and why, in this, the heartland of AFL (with Collingwood's HQ a hundred metres down the road and the MCG in close proximity ) did they follow this code.

The first question was easily answered: Smithy, Billy, Coops and Bellyache (coach Craig Bellamy) were the universal replies, referring to the three big-name players around whom Bellamy has built his team.

The second (admittedly from a wholly unscientific poll of half a dozen randomly chosen fans) was perhaps more interesting.

All — save the for dyed in the wool rugby man who had flown from NZ to Sydney for Sunday night's final and for whom attendance at yesterday's rather truncated public celebration was mandatory — had been AFL fans earlier in their sporting lives but were now committed Leagies.

Mainly, they said, because NRL seemed to still give fans the feel and the atmosphere, the cultural experience and the physical thrills that footy once did in those rather less sanitised days of the 1970s and 1980s.

Adam Thompson and his pregnant wife Maria Laura said that the NRL gave them the physical hit that footy no longer did.

"We started coming last year. Its a great sport. We are not from Sydney, but we just got sick of the AFL and thought we would try something different. Its a great game and we got into it," said Adam, a 32-year-old carpenter from Taylors Lakes.

"In AFL there is a lot of stuffing around with the rules. The rugby players seem to be more down-to-earth. The AFL players seem a lot more distant. After every game they come round to the fence, high five everyone, say g'day. I used to be an Essendon fan but not much really now. This is a blokey, mate's game. Its like what footy was like in the '70s and '80s, when they had moustaches and beards."

Maria, a customer service manager, concurred. "The boys aren't hard enough any more. At least with rugby they get stuck in, sometimes punch on and it's exciting. It's also got to do with pricing. AFL has got a lot more expensive. As members here its $190 each for the whole season."

Blind since birth, Chris Bertuch has never seen a pass thrown or kick converted, but the Australian international blind cricketer — who said he was due to visit India for a blind cricket 20/20 World Cup this year — was happy to be among the crowd as the music thumped.

"I have got a lot of mates who are into it, mainly the boys down at the cricket who follow it. There are a couple of blokes from NZ, but its mainly Melbourne guys. I just like the atmosphere with the game and it seems to be a lot more straightforward than other games."

Sisters Julie and Kellie Grayson were soaking up the sun and waiting for the Premiers. Both admitted they had been introduced to NRL by their husbands, but it was now their game.

"I was working in Sydney for 13 years," said Julie. "I took up NRL because I was up there, I do follow Essendon but I like this now. I didn't like NRL when I first went to Sydney. My husband (Bill Armstrong) once played 16 minutes for the Rabbitohs in the 1990s and I suppose that's what got me into it."

Kellie added: "My husband is a big NRL man, so I guess I just adopted his team. Aussie Rules, when you watch it, its more of a free-for-all with no structure. It seems all the time to be a scramble for the ball. It's like stacks on the ball."


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