The AFL's showcase event is being embraced in Perth, a city with sports woven deep in its fabric

© Provided by ABC Grandstand Final preparations are underway for Perth Stadium to host Saturday’s AFL grand final. (ABC News: Andrew O’Connor)

When Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs take the field for the AFL grand final on Saturday, it will be the second time in two years the showcase event has not been held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

But while that venue remains somewhat of a cathedral to the game, Perth Stadium — boasting an almost fresh-out-of-the-wrapper feel — will do justice to the biggest AFL game ever staged in Western Australia.

Perched on Burswood peninsula overlooking the Swan River, the stadium dominates the skyline around it and has become the home of sport in a city that has footy woven through its very fabric, both culturally and physically.

“I think you probably can’t understate how important it’s [Australian Rules] been as a sport, particularly in forming an identity for the state, both over east as well as within the state itself,” said Ross Chadwick, who curated the WA Museum Boola Bardip’s sporting exhibit, This Sporting Life, which showcases West Australian sporting achievements.

“I think it has been one of those sports that has really driven participation in, and a following of, sport in WA.”

The legacy of Australian Rules football in WA dates back more than 150 years, to the mid 19th century, and played a significant role in unifying the states of Australia.

“Back in the early days, we’re talking the late 1800s, there was a bit of a competition to see what sport, what winter code, would actually be the winter code that the West Australians would follow,” Mr Chadwick said.

“There was a bit of a tussle between association football, which we know as soccer; rugby, which was also a game that was emerging at that time; and Australian Rules, which as we know, was a game that was codified in Melbourne in the 1850s.

“In the 1860s, the three codes were being tested out and tried by various people. And it wasn’t until the 1880s that Australian Rules had taken over as the preferred sport, if you like.

“From that moment, that Australian Rules and that [word] ‘Australian’ [ended p] being quite important in terms of its identity, and an identity for Western Australia, as well as being part of the country of Australia.”

Football legacy deeply woven

Winding around Perth Stadium is a stretch of road used by thousands of commuters every day.

It’s named after one of Australian Rules’ greatest ever players, Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer, in recognition of his success as a player both in WA and Victoria.

Farmer’s legacy extends beyond just football. He established the Polly Farmer Foundation, an organisation dedicated to supporting indigenous children in their sporting and academic pursuits.

Mr Chadwick said the recognition of Farmer in naming the freeway after him reflected the regard with which sportspeople were held in WA.

“I think it reflects both the impact of Polly, particularly on the game, and I think his presence in the game and the contribution that he made,” he said.

“The recognition of one individual man, being named in that way and having that sort of presence here physically, I think that’s quite important.”

Part of the West Australian identity

While the focus this week is on the AFL grand final, sport more broadly has played a significant role in forming the identity of WA.

And the impact wasn’t restricted to just Perth and surrounding areas.

“If you look back at the literature, particularly around the 1890s when the Goldfields were booming, the Goldfields were a major centre of sport in WA and a lot of good people were playing in the Goldfields,” Mr Chadwick said.

Mr Chadwick said sport still played an important role in rural areas.

“It really is what holds communities together,” he said.

“We continue to see that when teams fall apart because people leave town and they just can’t sustain a team, towns which are normally rivals get together and form a team.

“It’s that ongoing process of community life in the country.

“Sport is just one of those ongoing and enduring narratives in WA society, that really does give us a sense of who we are and a sense of this place.”

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