You see the floodlights from the car on the drive in. That’s exciting. You park and walk quick towards the light.
You pass the ticket booth and see the scene in all its glory. The grandstand murmurs, cameras point idly at where the magic will happen, players mill about in purple or red on grass so green it could be a snooker table.The deck is glossy from a day of on and off drizzle, but right now the skies are calm.
You line up for hot chips and sit right near the fence. The players are close but feel somehow far away. You feel like you’re watching real sport. Rob Andrews raises his arm and it begins.
Sydney break big to start the inaugural Australian Ultimate League Grand Final. Deb Lee gets a huge block on some pie in the end zone, and Mark the Shark Evans shoots a backhand huck to Rob probably with his eyes closed. 1-0 Suns.
In reply, Cat Phillips soots one to Weatherall to get the Flames on the board, and then the tango begins. We’re treated to huge hucks and near-misses and drops and miscues, both teams get plenty of possession but struggle to hang on to it. Execution errors give the crowd plenty of opportunity for ooohing and ahhing as we make our way to a 4-2 Melbourne lead.
The point that follows is long. Some combination of extreme defensive intensity, wet conditions and a sense of occasion are at play, perhaps best exemplified by Brendan Ashcroft’s ability to briefly disappear. After a full pace, full extension layout attempt, he slides seemingly forever and does not return to the action for like six seconds.
Sydney score, 4-3. Melbourne hold then break through an Isherwood huck to go 6-3. Wentworth tempers a hectic Tulett backhand blade and steadies the ship at 6-4.
The Suns run down that next pull ferociously. They set up and trap Melbourne on the sideline, holding them to a high, high stall. But Ashcroft’s panicked punt is picked up by the winds and carried gently over everyone to find Alby Evans in a paddock.
Sydney squander two possessions and Egan-Griffiths hammers to Dignam to take half 8-4. Everything’s coming up Melbourne.
You take a deep breath during the break and go get some more hot chips. There’s a twenty minute stoppage for halftime. You look again at the snooker-table grass and the floodlights.
The crowd talks amongst themselves, smiling genially at it all, hoping for a tight second half. You look around at all the colours. People wear the jerseys of their favourite players or direct relatives over the top of jumpers. Amateur graphic designers have superimposed Mark Evans face onto the body of a shark. Rosie Dawson has her own fan club. And all of it under lights.
It feels like the players are a part of some strange new world of frisbee. People you know and have seen play for many years look somehow different in red or purple. They’re far enough away from you to be slipping and sliding on this green, green grass, on this professional sports ground. But they’re still close enough to hear and self-consciously smile at super niche heckles from the bleachers.
Lochie Wise raises his arm and right knee and it begins again.
Melbourne start strong with an easy hold, then comes the rain. In the chaos of 9-5, a Cat Phillips backhand drifts out the side of the endzone, and Brendon Ashcroft sees a rare opportunity to get on ESPN. He jumps out after it, catches, turns and chicken wings into the pack.
There was not a single person in that grandstand, or anywhere in the country or the world, irrespective of Sydney Suns affiliation, who did not want to see that Greatest come off. Rob Andrews and his heads up defence cost us a spot on the news.
And away went the Suns, winning over both the crowd and the momentum to get themselves back in it. A huge Blakeley block and Parson’s deep cut takes it to 10-8, and Sydney start to think they can do it. Enter: Alex Prentice.
Seb Barr loves an agreeable downwind look as much as the next guy, how could he ever say no to a streaking deep receiver with separation? That the throw was floaty trash was, really, of no consequence, because Alex Prentice is good. She held her ground against Wentworth and Blakeley and said, “Yep, I’ll take that pie Sebbo, thank you very much.”
The Suns stay in it to 11-9, then find themselves with an opportunity to break. They zig zag the disc down the field to the hands of Tulett, who decides to shank a hammer up and over to Rob Andrews. It’s still a fairly safe bet in normal conditions, but Tom ‘The Difference’ Deller is a big game player. He gets the block, and after a few more possessions either way, the Flames hold to go 12-9.
The chips are down here for Sydney, the home town team are in trouble. We can see from the sideline that they need something, some spark, some play, to get them back in it…
Dani Alexander’s middle name is actually ‘Oh my god can you believe that I just caught that?”. Incredible foresight from her parents. Incredible trailing edge, full extension catch from Dani. 12-10.
You look around and everyone is smiling in various states of disbelief. You cop the rain and stand right near the fence. You chant ‘Daaaaaniiii! Daaaaaniiii!’ with everyone else.
There was a brief moment, after Tom ‘The Difference’ Deller’s block, that your allegiances were unpledged. You may or may not have removed your Suns jersey and been absorbed by a small Melbourne contingent. Things were looking bleak at 12-9, afterall.
But Dani Alexander puts some sense back in your head. You are a Sydney Suns supporter and you will not apologise. You put on the purple and white and you cheer for your team. You have, like everyone else at Leichhardt Oval, become incredibly invested in these last few points. You’re yelling a lot, heckling Melbournites where appropriate and trying to make a break happen with the power of your mind.
You are watching real sport.
The crowd oohs at every pump fake, it ahhs at every half-chance, and it whoops at every turn. Sydney get right back in it with a break, and it’s suddenly 12-11. They fight desperately for every disc, willed on by the crowd, by the posters with their faces and shirts with their names on the back. We’re screaming for the storybook ending we feel the AUL deserves.
We forgot to give Mikky Dignam the script. She gets a zippy, intelligent runthrough D and the Flames break to go 14-11. The tension is palpable. Everyone is yelling. Sydney hold and call a timeout at 14-12.
The Melbourne Flames have shown all season their ability to stay cool under pressure. They ride rising stall counts, hit challenging resets and take critical grabs in the final point.
Brendan Ashcroft clap catches the first ever Australian Ultimate League Championship.
The crowd applauds and you do too, they earned it. The medal ceremony is nice, the bow is neatly tied on the season, and you walk away from the Leichhardt flood lights excited to go again.
The AUL faced a great many challenges in its debut season. The weather, the sponsorship arrangements and more admin than your tiny mind can imagine. But you walk to the car thinking that was a great way to spend a Saturday night, and that you’ll probably be buying a Dani Alexander jersey next season.
Written by: Gus Macdonald
Photography: Scott George