On Saturday, millions of footy fans around the country will be guaranteed a fairytale ending whichever way the 2021 AFL Grand Final goes, writes Ronny Lerner.
IF THERE IS one thing better than a great sporting story, it's one that's full of romance.
And if there's one thing better than a romantic story, it's a real-life one, rather than a scripted tale.
On Saturday, millions of footy fans right around the country will be guaranteed a fairytale ending whichever way the 2021 AFL Grand Final goes.
In one corner, we have Melbourne, hellbent on ending the league's longest active premiership drought which currently stands at 57 years. In the other, we have the Western Bulldogs who finished outside the top four and had to travel from Melbourne to Tasmania to Brisbane to Perth to Adelaide and back to Perth again on the way to booking their against-the-odds berth in the premiership decider.
The Dogs looked to have shot themselves in the foot when they lost their last three games of the home-and-away season to cost themselves a double chance by finishing fifth on the ladder after spending 20 consecutive weeks in the top four.
Meanwhile, minor premier Melbourne has left no doubt as to why it is the favourite among the bookmakers to hoist the premiership cup on Saturday with two comprehensive finals victories over Brisbane and Geelong.
But, will having two weeks off during the finals - and therefore playing only one game in a 28-day period - work against the Demons? Because there's no doubt that playing back-to-back-to-back games seems to have not only galvanised the Bulldogs but got them incredibly match hardened at the right time of the year. Time will tell.
The beauty about this year's grand final is that both combatants are Cinderella clubs in their own way and let's not forget that up until recently, the Bulldogs were the owners of the dubious title the Demons currently own. But that all ended in 2016 when they snapped their 62-year success-starved stretch with a famous 22-point grand final win over Sydney.
And there are definitely eerie parallels between 2016 and 2021 for the Doggies, considering they also finished outside the top four five years ago, and managed to pull off a stunning flag win the hard way from seventh spot.
The Demons' 57-year premiership drought is the fourth largest in the history of the VFL/AFL and, as legend has it, it came about as a result of the sacking of their legendary six-time premiership coach Norm Smith in 1965 - just a year after their last flag.
And while Smith was quickly reinstated shortly after, the damage was done and the "curse of Norm Smith" was born.
It, therefore, seems rather cruel (and perhaps fitting, given how much heartbreak and misery their team has caused for them in recent years) that Demons fans could very well see their side finally achieve premiership success in Perth rather than the hallowed MCG, where 112 of 124 premierships have been decided.
Could the Norm Smith curse be so strong that it even prevents Melbourne-based Demons fans from witnessing a momentous slice of club history first-hand from the stands? Harsh, indeed.
Melbourne will have its work cut out for itself if it is to salute, however. Although the Bulldogs finished fifth, it wasn't an accurate reflection of how brilliant they had been for most of the year and it's quite obvious that we have this season's two best teams playing off for the flag, which doesn't always happen.
There are stars on every line for both teams. The Demons boast Clayton Oliver, Christian Petracca, Max Gawn, Steven May and Jake Lever while the Bulldogs have the likes of Marcus Bontempelli, Jackson Macrae, Aaron Naughton, Bailey Smith and Tom Liberatore at their disposal.
For the first time in league history, the season's showpiece match will be staged outside of Victoria in back-to-back years with Perth's state-of-the-art Optus Stadium playing host, following on from the Gabba decider in 2020.
And for the first time since World War II, the grand final will be played away from its spiritual home the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) in consecutive seasons.
But while those facts serve as a devastating body blow for Melburnians who are grappling with their protracted sixth COVID lockdown, the match promises to be an absolute classic which should make up for the lopsided affairs that the preliminary final weekend produced.
Melbourne by 16 points.