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An Aussie rules tradition ends: title match out of Victoria

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — The Australian Football League’s championship match is heading north, ending a 123-year history of playing the top-flight Aussie rules grand final in Victoria state.

One of the highest-rating events annually in Australia will be played at Brisbane in Queensland state, where many of the AFL's regular-season matches have been held since a second wave of COVID-19 infections in Melbourne forced the league to move outside the state.

A night-time grand final is scheduled for Oct. 24 at the Gabba, with the 42,000-seat stadium set to be restricted to 30,000 because of social distancing regulations.

The AFL, formerly known as the Victoria Football League, has played nearly all of its championship matches at the Melbourne Cricket Ground since 1897. The MCG wasn’t used during World War II after the government requisitioned it for the military. In 1991, the grand final was played at another stadium in Melbourne while the MCG was upgraded.

Millions usually watch AFL matches in Victoria during the season. But Melbourne is currently in a lockdown with nightly curfews in an effort to end a spike in infections and deaths from COVID-19. The state reported six more deaths on Wednesday to take Victoria’s total to 576 and Australia’s virus toll to 663.

Queensland has been successful in avoiding a mass outbreak by virtually closing off the state to visitors from Victoria and New South Wales. On Wednesday, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk faced criticism from a New South Wales government official for being hypocritical — shutting off the state to commerce and visitors but allowing hundreds of AFL officials to fly in.

Palaszczuk, clearly pleased with winning the hosting bid for the grand final over two others states — South Australia and Western Australia — referred to the Brisbane match as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“It would be an honor to safeguard that for one year knowing that Victoria’s gone through a really, really difficult time," she said ahead of the announcement.

The game will be an early evening start, prompting one social media parody account to suggest that time slot was because AFL players, used to playing most of their matches in cold conditions in Melbourne in the middle of the southern hemisphere winter, wouldn’t be able to see the football in the strong afternoon sun of sub-tropical Brisbane.

The tweet wasn't far from the truth. The cities are some 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) apart as the crow flies.

Average daily temperatures in October between Melbourne and Brisbane can differ by up to 8 degrees Celsius (about 15 degrees Fahrenheit). So players will definitely notice a difference playing potentially in temperatures of 27C (81F) instead of the usual predicted high of 19C (66F) in Melbourne.

Damien Hardwick and his defending champion Richmond squad has been based in Queensland for the past six weeks. Currently in fifth place and likely to be part of the playoff picture, he hopes the Tigers will be around for the grand final. The 15th round of the compressed 18-week home-and-away season is being held this weekend, with a rest week for all teams before four weeks of playoffs.

“We love it up here ... they’ve embraced us,” Hardwick told Australian Associated Press. “We’re very fortunate to be up here playing great footy in this great state. And I think it’s incredible for the growth of the game.”

Kevin Argus, a marketing lecturer at RMIT (formerly the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology), tried to put the big move pragmatically into perspective.

“Relocation of the grand final from the MCG to interstate will be viewed as a temporary god-send,” Argus said. “They won’t care where it is played, as long as it is played.”

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AP Sports Writer John Pye contributed.

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More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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