'Do you believe in magic?'
That was the question crooned by American soft rockers 'The Loving Spoonful' in their 1965 album of the same name. It's also a question being posed by the NRL to the rugby league loving region of South East Queensland as another magic round rolls around.
It's Friday afternoon in Brisbane, the late Autumn chill wrestling with the endless summer bake as thousands of patrons stream down Caxton Street. Thousands more approach the famous ground from Milton Road, another throng trundle along Castlemaine Street. The fans officially have the ground surrounded, and the footy is still more than two hours away. Media estimates of 150 thousand across the weekend are looking conservative.
There's a huge virtual element to the array of fan activations outside the ground. A virtual kick room (kick a Steeden into a screen), a virtual sprint off (pop on a treadmill and complete running drills), Skills and drills (pass into a screen for a ball speed reading) are all attracting patronage.
Merchandise queues are eight deep, and retro jerseys are a massive hit despite a $130 price tag. Hawaiian shirts are also running out the door, even the NRL's Magic Round shirts are moving.
People of all ages are posing with a replica of the Provan-Summons trophy (thanks for the loan Penrith), while an attraction called 'Slow-mo try' is a curious combo of old school carnival/new school tech. It's basically the floor of a jumping castle with a corner post in the centre. Grab a ball, dive, plant it, and smile at the camera. Watch it back in slow-mo. Bada-bing!
Nearby is one of those classic game show style booths where you step in, wait for the fan to turn on and the pile of prize coupons to blow everywhere. Grab one; win a prize of varying value. Everyone that does it gets a bag. The best prize?
"It's a secret.. you'll have to play to find out," booth attendant Paula tells ESPN, as she distributes a prize to another coupon grabbing footy fan. People are clearly prepared to do just that, and attraction lines are even deeper than those at the merch stands.
Rounding out the activations are some less techy, and more quintessential fan engagements. A drop goal zone and a classic ball pass, albeit renamed 'Magic pass' in the spirit of the occasion.
One eye catching installation is a large container full of old, heavily used balls. Not just footballs; basketballs, soccer balls, even a volley ball or too are stuffed within. The sign reads 'Trade in your old ball for a new size 5 NRL replica steeden'. Any ball will do. Unfortunately the pile of free Steedens ran out in 15 minutes, according to the stall attendant, but they'll be restocked and ready to go for day two.
It's the day before the coronation of King Charles and plenty are pledging allegiance to the local monarch. The Wally Lewis statue has its permanent queue; jerseys of all persuasions are waiting patiently amid the lingering wafts of hot donuts, subtle notes of bratwurst and cigarette smoke. If the NRL is in possession of a wonder of the modern world, this pile of bronze must surely be it.
Taking a stroll through the gate D (just behind the statue) and into the ground, ESPN is immediately offered a 'high ten' by an animated Penrith fan, wearing an 80's era chocolate brown jersey. This one wasn't purchased outside the ground, it's a genuine article. There are many more genuine articles representing many clubs across many era's to be found on the weave through the bowels. This is where Magic Round's 'origin-esque' comparisons falter, and it's actually a massive credit to the concept. With such a mixture of allegiances and against a carefully crafted 'fun for all ages' backdrop; it lacks the out and out fan hostility of the interstate series. The 'one in, all in;' feel creates an excellent vibe inside and outside the Cauldron.
The Bulldogs and Raiders get the rare opportunity to play before 40,000+ fans and deliver a reasonably decent spectacle. The impact of the post-victory Viking clap is slightly lost amid the multiple other sound sources accompanying the end of the match. It doesn't quite get the reverence it's used to in Canberra, but the effect is pretty stirring nonetheless.
Flames erupt as the Broncos take the field for a heavily favorable away game against Manly. The short timespan between games catches many out, but they quickly find their feet and voice when Adam Reynolds' name is called out. More fire and yelling happens when Selwyn Cobbo calmly plants Reece Walsh's grubber in the 10th minute. The crowd enthusiasm bar is set, in the second game of the weekend, and it'll be fascinating to see if it can be matched or surpassed. Billy Walters sneaks over a few minutes later and the bar is slightly raised. Manly are wilting. So much for home ground advantage.
A genuine Mexican wave circles the ground as the Broncos hold onto a 16-point advantage in the leadup to halftime. It's 20 nil when the break arrives and the headline match appears to already have its verdict. Far fewer fireworks on offer than in the halftime show; a stirring array of pyrotechnics backed by Freddy (not the NSW coach) and 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. Spirits remain high as Brisbane close out a 32-6 'Away' win in a decidedly spluttering second half. Day one complete, a total of just over 50 thousand taking in two games of middling quality, and no big complaints evident as they all stream out of the ground and into the (by Brisbane standards) chill.
Saturday morning could get away with being renamed 'Wayne-day' morning around Brisbane. Turn the radio or TV on, and a local outlet will be reminding you of the 900-game milestone awaiting the master coach on day two of Magic Round. Ground markings have been added overnight in centrefield. #BENNETT900 is a conveniently timed touch of magic for the NRL; there would've been high fives at HQ when they realised that major career milestone was going to coincide with this particular weekend.
A DJ spins the discs as a group of dancers jump about at halftime of the Warriors home game against Penrith. The reigning premiers are leading a match punctuated by some enormous collisions, and some decent attack. In a 'stuff you might have missed' moment; the Panthers display some of that premiership winning solidarity when the whole team waits around for Isaah Yeoh to complete the obligatory halftime interview before leaving the field. They may be enjoying a lead, but it's the Warriors who bask in the undisputed favor of a decent expat crowd.
Yet nothing heard in the first half can compete with the roar given to the four kids running an 80 metre foot race during the interval. With a theme park family pass at stake, the race has it all. A false start, mass confusion, and a gaping lead being mowed down for a near dead heat. The crowd of around 20 thousand roars every step of the way; as two of the participants dive over the line to plant the ball almost on top of one another. Good vibes are flowing early on a warm South East Queensland afternoon.
Match investment hits a fresh peak in a spirited second half, as the Warriors fall short of reeling in the Panthers. Nathan Cleary politely smirks when his face is flashed on the big screen to a fresh chorus of disapproval. A little bit of that Origin'esque hostility sneaking in, but all in good fun. The Panthers and Warriors embrace, as the ground braces itself for the battle of the fins.
The 'Oblivious-cam' reigns supreme at Magic Round. Almost 40 thousand souls are laughing when the camera does its rounds at full time, catching out some utterly unsuspecting patrons along the way. Then the 'Kiss-cam' comes in and leaves it in the shade. Let's just say there's no such thing as a 'no tongue' rule at Magic Round. Throw in a DJ led stadium-wide dance break, and the half hour between matches passes quickly enough. Mascots for both sides get in on the action, and there's something pleasantly unusual about seeing a hammerhead, great white and two dolphins busting a move on the Suncorp sideline. Fins up, down, side to side - everywhere.
Wayne Bennett receives a tribute and standing ovation in the minutes before game four. He's not there to acknowledge it, which is kind of fitting.
Not that it's needed, but the crowd is encouraged to 'get loud' as the teams run out. The energy generated by the Warriors and Panthers amplifies, and game four is underway. The composed Dolphins buck a recent trend of sluggish starts and leap to 12-nil. The crowd loves it. They're falling short of offering the same level of parochial support the Broncos enjoyed on Friday, at least until Val Te Whare smashes over for a barging try on debut. The rugby convert is an instant Magic Round favorite, regardless of allegiance.
The Dolphins pile on 30 points and concede 10 to keep the Magic Round points avalanche going. Melbourne and South Sydney players take a walk onfield at half time to taunt fans ahead of the day two headliner. Fans attempt to catch high balls in giant KFC buckets to keep the house entertained, before the DJ kicks back in.
A sloppy opening to the second half sees the crowd make their own fun, and the Mexican wave is back. Te Whare punctuates the stop-start nature of proceedings with his second try, as the game finally becomes a tussle. The Dolphins repel a multitude of raids, the Sharks repel themselves with a multitude of errors. The crowd loses some energy as the game fizzles; and the Dolphins' 20-point win is met with little more than polite and respectful applause; it's clear the masses are craving a nail biter. The DJ attempts to reinvigorate things with another upbeat set, encouraging everyone to party regardless of their level of investment in the preceding match.
'Glory Glory' greets the Rabbitohs, a guaranteed goosebump inducer regardless of allegiance. A resounding salvo of boo's greet the Storm; their Queensland contingent apparently unable to spark some local favour. The Rabbitohs hold the upper hand in a grinding first half; the atmosphere fluctuating between (in cricket speak) T20 and Test match as onlookers absorb a duel between two genuine heavyweights.
A quirk during the halftime break, Freddie Mercury is back; this time materialising on the big screens, in full blown 'Live Aid' mode. He encourages the crowd to go with him in the legendary 'Ayy-Oh' routine, and not a soul disobeys. A neat gimmick, gobbled up by the faithful. South Sydney gobble up Melbourne in the second half, as the ground begins clearing well before full time. The Rabbitohs fan zone isn't going anywhere, hanging til the bitter end as their boys run out 16-point winners.
Activations - both virtual and old-school - remain well attended ahead of day three. Caxton Street is quieter than it was on Friday, given this is the only day not to sell out well in advance. Everyone has a team though, and there are still ample colours out and about. There's a huge amount of classic Tigers orange entering the ground, praying the round 9 upset of Penrith was the beginning of something magical. The stands are a long way from full, but they're generating some serious love as the Tigers answer prayers and consign the Dragons to a fifth straight loss.
Game seven gets underway in pouring rain. The Cowboys make a timely return to form as the final day crowd reaches peak numbers, besting the Roosters in a game that falls short of epic by virtue of ill-discipline. The NRL's mission to keep people constantly entertained is again sustained with a very American feeling lineup of gimmicks and promotions, but the stands are a little less full by the time the Titans hold off the Eels, delivering the weekend's most exciting spectacle in the game eight finale. It's been a long weekend of football and some have seen enough; cruelly they ultimately miss the one that had the most to offer for the neutral fan.
It is 8.10pm on Sunday evening and Magic Round is done. The NRL's sprawling package of sport meets carnival has yet again played out with ticking turnstiles and enthusiastic support, earning a strong pass mark despite largely missing its most important ingredient - high quality footy across the board. Eight matches over a 50 hour timespan is a grueling commitment at the best of times, and becomes a sterner challenge if the games don't fully measure up. Some might suggest ways to tinker with the concept; multiple venues, less games in a day, more classic rivalry match-ups. Others might just say 'if it aint broke.'
Believe in it or not the concept remains strong, and the spell will be cast again next year.