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AFL navigates choppy waters to WA decider

·3-min read

As he gazes out at Optus Stadium on a sunny September morning in Perth, AFL supremo Gillon McLachlan admits he's pinching himself to be there.

The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on the competition for a second year, forcing teams to spend months on the road, officials to reschedule games at the last minute and the MCG to again relinquish the grand final.

But in two days' time - touch wood - more than 60,000 fans will flock to Perth's shiny new stadium on the banks of the Derbarl Yerrigan to watch Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs face off under lights in the biggest game of the year.

Even if a last-minute scare involving an infected truck driver - since confirmed to be an isolated case - has created some pre-game nerves.

"We're not counting on anything until the final siren at the end of the game," McLachlan says.

"But I feel what we are looking forward to is going to be an incredible event.

"I just think we've got the two best teams of the year, we are here in a state that is absolutely buzzing and a great venue, sold out, great lineup of Australian and West Australian artists.

"If you'd said 'this is where we're going to be, you can't play the MCG and what's the alternative', I think we're pretty happy to be here."

That the AFL has found itself here is a testament to the flexibility that has become a league mantra, the discipline shown by players, staff and their families under trying circumstances and WA's success in keeping the virus out.

And perhaps a realisation from the McGowan government, which showed little interest when last year's grand final was up for grabs, that a love of Australian rules football runs deep in the state.

That much was obvious when a sellout crowd flocked to Optus Stadium for the Dreamtime game between Essendon and Richmond earlier this year.

Premier Mark McGowan, whose tough stance on domestic border closures has proven hugely popular among locals, boasted that his government had "played a bit hard to get" in talks with the AFL about last year's grand final.

It was little surprise when the game ultimately went to the Gabba.

This time around, McGowan has taken a more conciliatory tone, although he insists the state hasn't shelled out a single dollar to secure the hosting rights.

Instead, WA's chief selling point - along with its world-class stadium - has been its COVID-free status at a time when Victoria and NSW are being ravaged by the virus.

"This will be a marvellous, magnificent, incredible event for Western Australia - the first time ever in our state," the premier said on Thursday.

"It'll be a celebration of football and a celebration of Western Australia and the fact that we are doing so well and COVID-free and can hold these great events."

With WA's borders closed to Victoria, it's a fair bet many of the fans attending on Saturday night won't be Demons or Bulldogs diehards.

Exemptions to enter WA have been few and far between. The AFL has brought over a contingent of 22 essential staff, while about a dozen media representatives have also travelled across and completed hotel quarantine stints.

The competing teams also went through quarantine, with McLachlan hailing their efforts to see it through to the pointy end of the season.

"We're here in part because of their resilience and their discipline," he said.

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