After years of hoping and talking, an AFL premiership points match finally arrives in Ballarat.
The city is turning red, white and blue to welcome the Western Bulldogs in their new second home as they take on Port Adelaide.
Below you will find out everything you need to know about the biggest day of football to ever hit Ballarat.
This is a crunch game for both teams, but Western Bulldogs’ president Peter Gordon questions what better way is there to christen Ballarat for AFL.
Mr Gordon said when Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews first mooted the government’s vision for AFL in Ballarat it seemed great but a long way off. In a final pre-game visit to Mars Stadium with the premier, Mr Gordon said the Bulldogs had increasingly become a team for Ballarat and its people. Now, the reigning premiers arrive with a twist.
“Port Adelaide is struggling to stay in a really competitive race for top-four and we’ve really got our backs to the wall to get our preferred business position of seventh, which is where we usually like to start finals,” Mr Gordon said. “I couldn’t think if a better game (to start in Ballarat).”
The match is the first in a five-year deal the state government led to bring AFL action for points to regional Victoria. This included an initial $15 million commitment to redevelop the stadium at Northern Oval.
Mr Andrews said the government had delivered exactly what it promised in a move to boost jobs, tourism and a chance to watch sporting heroes in Ballarat. He said AFL game day would be a great moment for Ballarat with elite football in a country atmosphere – even he would pack away his Essendon scarf temporarily.
“We’ve very grateful to the Western Bulldogs as (AFL) premiers but I think even more importantly than that, as a footy club that lives its values,” Mr Andrews said. “That’s exactly what this project is all about.”
Victorian Regional Development Minister Jaala Pulford has keenly watched the project unfold.
“Ballarat is a footy heartland and deserves the biggest games,” Ms Pulford said. “AFL premiership season matches will bring visitors from all over the nation."
Ballarat MP Catherine King made a tribute to the historic event in federal parliament earlier this week. Ms King said it was incredible how much the city had got behind the Bulldogs.
“Even though throughout the year we may barrack for different team, this week all of Ballarat will be more Bulldog,” Ms King said.
AFL executive Travis Auld, responsible for the league fixture, said the whole city had done a tremendous job for what would be the first AFL game played for premiership points in regional Victoria, other than in Geelong, for more than six decades..
“The AFL is keen to strengthen the ties between the elite game and regional areas, who have supplied so many of the game’s champions,” Mr Auld said. “A match for premiership points is a major step to go along with regular pre-season matches across regional Australia.”
This is a homecoming for three Bulldogs that had for so long seemed improbable. When they arrive for AFL game day, they say this will be historic not just for Ballarat but for all western Victoria.
Tenacious midfielder Liam Picken, who hails from Hamilton, and ruckman Jordan Roughead, a Lake Wendouree export, will run out for Western Bulldogs on Saturday on the ground they once owned as Rebels in TAC Cup under-18s.
Mars Stadium is now officially their kennel.
Picken spent time with in 2004 with the Rebels, whose territory stretches into the Wimmera and western district. He was rookie drafted from Victorian Football League club Williamstown four years later. So much has changed since then.
“I’m excited to play at the stadium again- it’s been a while since I played there with the rebels so I’ll definitely feel a bit nostalgic,” Picken said. “We’re all pretty excited to get up to Ballarat. It’s become a home away from home for us so we’re really keen to finally play up there for premiership points”.
Former Rebels coach Chris Maple has watched the stadium evolve in his hometown and has been impressed with the grandstands size and the modern fit-out in coaching and media boxes.
Maple, now Bulldogs’ football general manager, will be right next to head coach Luke Beveridge on game day.
Originally from Ararat, Maple’s coaching journey has also gone via Tatyoon, Buninyong and Ballarat High School. For the two seasons Maple was head coach, 2007-08, he did not think he would see AFL played for points at Northern Oval.
“At the time it was a fantastic facility for football in country Victoria. It shows the evolution of the game when the AFL and state government are prepared to back the game in regional Victoria,” Maple said.
“This is great for the town and the whole western corridor, which we see as our area. Hopefully, we can get a bit more funding and get everyone a seat...make it a real boutique stadium.”
Maple has seen support for the Bulldogs grow across Ballarat. Winning the AFL premiership last year has helped, but even before capturing the league’s Holy Grail, there has been more red, white and blue on show. The club has made a big investment in community development with health, literacy and leadership programs in Ballarat the past two years.
Maple looked forward to the development and impact the stadium itself would have on country football, particularly for western Victoria’s emerging talent in the Rebels’ squad – the chance for young players to have access to an AFL ground.
“Undoubetedly, it will be great but it really doesn’t matter whether juniors are on Mars or other grounds that have been redeveloped about Ballarat,” Maple said.
“The surfaces now are fantastic for development of players, and I’m already noticing the difference now compared to playing on poor, muddy surfaces on grounds before. But, the Rebels have a great home and hopefully they’ll do really well on it.”
How to get there
Footy fans attending Ballarat’s first AFL game have been warned of tight parking conditions at Mars Stadium on August 19.
For all the public transport information, follow this link.
Food on offer inside Mars Stadium will have a distinct Ballarat flavour on Saturday.
Homegrown Dinkum Foods will oversee catering for game day and is drawing on local vendors and food to ensure this event is very much a celebration of Ballarat. The family-owned food truck business beat out the AFL’s usual food sources, winning over home club Western Bulldogs for the chance to be part of history on Saturday.
Dinkum Foods director Adam Pearce said Ballarat had such a vibrant food truck culture, this was a perfect chance to show what this city could serve up on a national stage.
“The Doggies’ were pretty keen on that idea,” Mr Pearce said. “Ballarat has plenty of great food places and it’s been great to work in the local vendors and to work with a range of other local food.
“We’re proud to showcase Ballarat food truck and mobile food scene."
The Forge Pizzeria, Ballarat Meat Company’s sausages and East India Trading Company are among those on show with a range of local wine, coffee and upmarket fare mixed in with traditional football fare.
Dinkum Foods, most known for their doughnuts at the Ballarat Market, has had their baker busy cooking up about 6000 jam doughnuts to help warm people up at Mars Stadium.
There will also be about 2000 pies, sausage rolls and pasties ready to go with hot dogs and cheese burgers.
Mars Stadium is expected to be at capacity with 11,000 fans filling the new grandstands and standing on the mound.
This will be the first full-run for vendors at the redeveloped stadium, with trucks mostly found underneath new stands.
Mr Pearce said they had most probably over-catered for the event, but it was better than running out of food at a party.
“Obviously there’s never been a football game this size in Ballarat before and we want to ensure there’s plenty of food and drink so the whole game’s a success,” Mr Pearce said.
Businesses across the city have been adding a touch of red, white and blue to make sure Ballarat is dog-friendly for Western Bulldogs’ arrival.
The Hop Temple team has got caught up in football fever and changed Hop Lane into what they now call Bulldog Lane. Even their trademark umbrellas above the laneway have changed into Bulldogs’ colours.
Hop Temple is calling on the city to join them in Bulldog Lane on Saturday morning, wearing their Bulldogs gear, for a Be More Bulldog Ballarat photo. The group picture will be taken at 10.30am, leaving plenty of time to get to the game.
Venue manager Zac Hill said they were keen to create a sea of red, white and blue on such an historic day.
“We’re excited to see Ballarat host its first AFL match and who doesn’t love the Western Bulldogs? We wanted to get into the spirit and show our support,” Mr Hill said.
Meanwhile, Mars Stadium neighbour Selkirk lit up its iconic chimney overnight in Bulldogs’ colours, brighter than the Bat-signal.
Official Western Bulldogs cheersquad leader Harvey White had hoped to have arrived at Mars under less tense circumstances. There are a lot of pre-match nerves due to the Bulldogs’ tenuous finals predicament.
That makes to need to turn Ballarat into snarling home-ground advantage even more important.
“This is our home ground and you never want to give that advantage away,” Mr White said. “This is also a really important match, because it’s the last home game for Bobby (retiring captain Robert Murphy) and we want to make it special.”
Mr White said the Bulldogs’ cheersquad tickets sold out fast. The squad has about 100 seats allocated, but could appear larger and more imposing if surrounded by a lot of Bulldogs’ supporters – they will not know this until the crowds arrive.
Most squad members are looking forward to the trip, though Mr White said there were still some who still always preferred Etihad Stadium in Melbourne.
The squad considers Ballarat a home kennel, but just to make sure, they have planned a bit of interior decorating early in the morning. Extra flags ready to hand out to fans coming through the gates at Mars Stadium.
Mr White travelled to Ballarat last night, towing a trailer full of floggers, flags and pom-poms, plus the poles and ropes for the banner. (What is on the Bulldogs’ widely popular banner remains top secret until game day).
A small supporter group will start setting up their bay from 10am and be down in the players’ race about half and hour before players run out for the warm-up.
Logistically, they are treating Ballarat preparations a little like an interstate trip but Mr White said really it was no different to getting ready for a game in Geelong – only this time, they were in Bulldogs’ territory.
Ballarat Bulldogs’ fans were quick to offer local knowledge to players in messages of support that The Courier collected and delivered to the team on Friday.
“Wear long sleeve jumpers. If it is windy, play down the grandstand side to block it out ,” wrote Des O’Brien from Creswick.
There was similar instruction from Ambrosia in Wendouree: “Go Dogs! Life on Mars will be great. #StayWarm #LongSleevesForEveryone”.
There was lots of love for retiring Bulldogs Murphy and Matthew Boyd in a unique chance to say goodbye from regional Victoria.