Why the mighty MCG is the sparkling jewel in Melbourne's sporting, cultural crown

All Blacks issue the haka challenge against Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground
All Blacks issue the haka challenge against Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Photo credit: Getty

In the days after Victoria withdrew as host of the 2026 event, citing a budget blowout, a damning assessment came from Commonwealth Games Australia boss Craig Phillips. 

The decision had "jeopardised Melbourne and Victoria's standing as a sporting capital of the world", he claimed. 

Many read that as saying THE sporting capital of the world and scoffed at the perceived comparison with New York, London, Paris and Tokyo. The actual quote was slightly less presumptuous, but just as damaging. 

Within days, that indictment bore fruit. New York-based public relations firm Burson Cohn & Wolfe released its 2023 ranking of the world’s greatest sporting cities, with Melbourne plummeting 12 spots to No.23. 

Even more alarming than the size of the drop was the fact Brisbane (15th), unranked the previous year, had replaced Melbourne as the southern hemisphere’s top sporting destination. 

Much of that reshuffle can be attributed solely to Brisbane's selection as 2032 Olympic host, so its standing will only improve as those Games draw closer. 

In most Australians' eyes, Melbourne will still represent the Mecca of sports with its Grand Slam tennis, Formula One Grand Prix, AFL Grand Final, Boxing Day cricket test and Melbourne Cup horseracing carnival. 

While Victoria's regional hosting model has seemingly imploded under unforeseen costs, its state capital could easily step in and stage the Commonwealth Games by itself, as it last did in 2006. It has facilities to burn. 

The jewel in its sporting crown is the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). 

On a recent trip across the Tasman to check out Melbourne and Brisbane as sports tourism destinations, I got to sample some of the best of the local culture - and attend the titanic All Blacks v Wallabies Bledisloe Cup clash at the cathedral known among Aussies simply as 'The G'. 


After a few days anxious that somehow international travel have changed amid the COVID-19 pandemic and I have missed some important detail in my preparation, I'm sitting in the departure lounge at Auckland Airport. 

So far, so good. 

Crammed into a Qantas flight filled with All Blacks fans, my journey is marred by an absence of movie audio. The official explanation - a lack of time to reset the system - doesn't wash with the passenger to my left, who starts photographing everything around her, with an incendiary email no doubt heading the airline's way. 

For my part, the plotlines of Shazam: Fury of the Gods and Antman and the Wasp Quantumania seem fairly self-explanatory without dialogue, but my agreeable nature costs me the $25 voucher awarded to those suffering around me. 

We arrive at Melbourne, passing easily through entry processes that seem more streamlined than I remember, before heading into the city centre. Temperatures are few degrees warmer than Auckland, without the wind.

Melbourne and the Yarra River at night
Melbourne and the Yarra River at night. Photo credit: Getty Images

Friday night traffic is exacerbated by the build-up from two major sporting events - the Collingwood v Carlton Aussie Rules local derby at the MCG and the Melbourne Storm v Parramatta Eels NRL fixture across down at Marvel Stadium. 

The Storm game has been shifted from their usual homeground of AAMI Stadium - or Melbourne Rectangular Stadium - currently in use for the Women’s Football World Cup. 

At one point, Google Maps tells us it would be quicker to walk than drive to our destination. 

Dinner is pushed back an hour, while the group I'm travelling with checks into Le Meridien hotel in Bourke St. These relatively new accommodations are part of a tourism industry explosion since COVID-19 - Le Meridien was formerly Metro nightclub "back in the heyday", reflects Tourism Victoria host Karen fondly.  

Suitably refreshed, we travellers head off on foot and tram to dinner at ALT, an edgy new pasta establishment down one of the many inner-city laneways. We walk straight past without noticing its entrance and have to backtrack. 

Inside, we're treated to a seemingly never-ending procession of delicacies known as the chef's tasting menu, priced at AU$95 per head. My pick of the selection is the off-menu beef rib special, the wagyu tartare/duck fat brioche/charcoal mayo and the Moreton Bay bug/mafaldine/nduja/basil pesto... but everything is eminently edible. 

After a long day's travel, there is simply no room left to do justice to the tiramisu dessert and the walk/tram back to the hotel helps ease the load on our bloated stomachs. 

Ever conscious that an 11:30pm bedtime is actually 1:30am NZ time, I set an 8am alarm and hope the body will adjust by morning. 



Rugby union is not a natural sell in Melbourne. If you ranked the major winter sporting codes available hereabouts, 'code' would sit somewhere near the bottom behind Aussie Rules, soccer, netball and probably rugby league, too. 

Apologies to roundball purists, but around here, football means Aussie Rules, which - even on the morning of a Bledisloe Cup encounter - dominates local newspaper coverage, six pages to one. 

Melbourne Rebels were the most recent Australian team added to Super Rugby in 2011, almost as an afterthought, in an attempt to prise some foothold in the nation’s pre-eminent sporting market. 

Melbourne Cricket Ground and neighbouring sporting venues
Melbourne Cricket Ground and neighbouring sporting venues. Photo credit: Getty Images

Current Wallabies coach Eddie Jones insisted the Rebels should not have been included, that a fifth team would merely spread Australia’s rugby talent too thinly, claiming Melbourne was only needed to make TV rights more attraction.  

They barely survived a 2017 cull - Western Force were banished, but returned during COVID - and have never made the Super Rugby playoffs across their 13-year history.    

As the Commonwealth Games door closes, another opens. 

The MCG is hosting the Wallabies and All Blacks against a backdrop of Australia hosting the 2027 Rugby World Cup. No venue has yet been selected for the final, although Sydney, Melbourne and maybe Brisbane loom as obvious candidates. 

This is Melbourne's chance to stake a claim. 

My first call of the day is a tour of the iconic MCG, described by guide Moira as "the greatest place on earth". 

While the tour is 'rugby-specific', it's still mostly about Aussie Rules and cricket, with the odd rugby trivia thrown in for affect. Rules was invented more than a century-and-a-half ago to help cricketers keep fit during the winter, so the two codes have a natural affinity. 

Moira explains that attempts to introduce more rugby elements along the way were scotched. 

Apparently, Rules was originally played outside the stadium, with a lever-and-pulley system turning one of the stands inside out to accommodate spectators. When that structure burned down, the footy code was brought into the main arena. 

To be sure, this impressive sporting cathedral - built on a former grazing paddock for police horses - takes your breath away, even when it's empty. On the field, groundsmen work feverishly converting last night's ARL oval into a rugby rectangle. 

With another AFL fixture scheduled for Sunday, the transformation will take place again tomorrow morning. 

Wearing her colourful Melbourne Cricket Club blazer, Moira delivers her tour with utmost pride, even if her status within the organisation was relatively late in coming. She relates that her father was allowed to nominate her brothers for membership at birth, but had to wait until women were first admitted in 1984 to nominate his daughter. 

Trevor Chappell bowls the notorious underarm delivery at the MCG
Trevor Chappell bowls the notorious underarm delivery at the MCG. Photo credit: Photosport

The MCG has a strong connection with NZ sport, providing some of our most memorable moments. It's telling that Aussie cricketer Trevor Chappell - perpetrator of the infamous 'underarm' delivery on this pitch in 1981 - is not afforded a statue or even a place on the 150th anniversary tapestry, depicting the ground's milestones. 

Looking out from the stadium, you can see the Rod Laver Arena - home for Australian Open - with the Yarra River, Olympic stadium and AAMI Park beyond. It's hard to imagine a greater concentration of top-class sporting venues in one location.  

We simply run out of time to visit the National Sports Museum, but get to keep the interactive green-and-gold wristband as a keepsake. 

Getting around Melbourne seems ridiculously easy, as long as you have some idea of its tram and train systems, with a free zone serving the inner city. We take a mixture of both across town to the Queen Victoria Market

Built on a former cemetery, this is the home to 740 mostly family-run businesses, including an incredible array of food offerings and specialty shopping. Feel free to wander through on your own volition, but we take the 'ultimate foodies tour', under the caring instruction of guide Irene. 

Through the meat & fish hall, the food hall and the fruit & veges sections, we are tempted by all manner of exotic morsels, from raw oysters, cheeses & olives, salamis, pastries and craft beer. Kangaroo meat, served as sausages or rare steaks, is a personal favourite on the menu. 

As tasty as the food is, the market's real charm is its people.  

Seafood at Queen Victoria Market.
Seafood at Queen Victoria Market. Photo credit: Grant Chapman

Irene remembers being drawn to the site when her family delivered produce there during her childhood. She is obviously well liked by stallholders and we make several unscheduled sampling stops along the way. 

She tells us 95 percent of the fish available is caught locally - but Kiwi Gazza brings his from across the ditch, bless him. He would be the one wearing the All Blacks beanie. 

Max has had his specialty offal stand for 55 years, officially retiring 10 years ago, but still going strong. He proudly whips out an old 1976 Skyhooks album cover, featuring images of himself and the market half a century ago.  

Con - unfortunately, not a fruiterer - initially strayed into a corporate career, but was drawn back into his family's cured meats trade 10 years ago. Best decision he ever made, he insists.  

With full bellies (and a little wobbly from the beer tasting), we trek across town again, navigating a series of quaint laneways that shorten the journey considerably. We end up on the Yarra's south bank, where the Melbourne Convention Centre hosts THE LUME - the world's largest digital art gallery

Previous exhibitions have included the Van Gogh installation that visited Auckland's Vector Arena, but we are treated to Connections, a colourful collection of First Nations art and music. 

Connections exhibition at Melbourne's LUME
Connections exhibition at Melbourne's LUME. Photo credit: Getty Images

Artplay is an interactive light show that mirrors the visitor's movements, while you can also view the display hall with three-course dining. 

Another crosstown trek takes us to Federation Square, adjacent to the historic Flinders St railway station, which serves as an inner city entertainment hub. It currently hosts a FIFA World Cup fanzone, with soccer-related activities and a big screen for viewing games.

Seated outside at Chocloate Buddha restaurant, we hope to catch the Sweden v Italy clash from Wellington Regional Stadium, but we've miscalculated the time difference and have to leave before kickoff.

Gorged with Melbourne's food and culture, the tired travellers limp back to their lodgings to prepare for the big game. 

Travelling to 'The G' by tram, I manage to lose my public transport pass before I can swipe on for the ride, making me an unwitting stowaway. The car is crammed with gamegoers, so I like my chances of escaping without penalty. 

Our band of Kiwi journalists, plus local guides, start a sweepstake on the match result - my suggestion of All Blacks by 30 is ridiculed, but I figure they will either win big or lose. For a while, the latter will seem more likely. 

The organisers have missed a real trick by not making more (any?) All Blacks merchandise available around the ground. In an Aussie Rules stronghold, most of tonight's spectators will have come from out of town and, judging by the amount of black in the stands, even further afield. 

We're hosted at Club Wallaby and, as the name might suggested, there aren't many All Blacks supporters to be seen. As we enter, we're issued green-and-gold Wallabies scarves - my companions aren't keen to wear them, but it's a chilly night and you should never turn down free stuff. 

We belt out a rousing version of the national anthem - you never feel more patriotic than when you're away from home - and admire the All Blacks' 'Kapo O Pango' haka, met with a reciprocal challenge from Wallabies captain Allan Alaalatoa, which is accepted by All Blacks counterpart Ardie Savea. 

From a close-range lineout, New Zealand are through on Aussie halfback Tate McDermott, knocking the ball from his grasp and scoring so quickly, they are returning to halfway for the kickoff, before anyone really knows what has happened. 

Australia enjoy a period of dominance and hold a 7-5 lead for much of the first half, before the All Blacks score twice to open up a 12-point advantage at the break. My prediction is still alive. 

By keeping the ball among the forwards and building phases, the All Blacks have taken a physical toll on their rivals and that continues after the restart, as they pile on tries. An All Blacks chant breaks out to our right, but attempts to spark a chorus of 'Waltzing Matilda' in response end pitifully. 

Aussie coach Eddie Jones brings on old mate Quade Cooper and you can hear the Kiwis in the stands murmur under their breath. With 10 minutes left, Richie Mo'unga converts Rieko Ioane’'s try for a 38-7 scoreline and the premonition is complete.  

Australian fans, who probably held fairly low expectations for their outmatched team, are gracious losers, while the Kiwis are relieved winners, as their side lock away the silverware for a 21st straight year. 

All Blacks celebrate their Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship success.
All Blacks celebrate their Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship success. Photo credit: Getty Images

'The G' has passed its inspection with flying colours. The stadium is the wrong shape for rugby, with the pitch awkwardly jammed into its curves and further from the stands than at purpose-built venues. 

Tellingly, the previous night's AFL derby (86,785) attracted more spectators than the rugby international (83,944), but a Rugby World Cup final would undoubtedly fill to capacity of just over 100,000.  

Sydney's Stadium Australia accommodated the world's biggest test rugby crowd, with 109,874 attending the 'Greatest Game Ever' in 2000 when a late Jonah Lomu try gave the All Blacks victory over Australia.  

That venue will host the Women's Football World Cup final later this month and probably holds the inside running for a rugby final in four years. 

Nevertheless, the Melbourne Cricket Ground has done itself proud and remains "the greatest place on earth" for sports fans throughout Australia - and perhaps New Zealand too. 

Newshub travelled to Melbourne courtesy of Tourism Australia