David Skipwith threw in a bit of shopping, first-rate food, and craft beer before the NRL grand final in Sydney.

Big numbers of Kiwi league fans have been making the pilgrimage across to Sydney for the National Rugby League grand final for close to 30 years.

Having grown up in Sydney, and as a fan of the 13-man game since the glory days of the Winfield Cup in the late 80s and early 90s, the chance to revisit the city and take in the game's biggest day was too good to pass up.

After enduring yet another demoralising Warriors season, it was a chance to watch, in the flesh, the two best teams in the competition — Melbourne Storm and the North Queensland Cowboys — duke it out for the 2017 title.


Throw in a bit of shopping, some fantastic food, and the welcome arrival of warm October weather and you had the perfect weekend for any footy head.

Jetting out of Auckland the day before the game on a 9am Air New Zealand flight, I landed across the ditch at 9.35am, allowing a full day of sightseeing, shopping and bar hopping.

I set up camp at the four-star Vibe Hotel in Rushcutters Bay – just down the road from Kings Cross and a short taxi ride from the city centre or the Eastern Suburbs, making it a good central location for my short stay.

With the afternoon at my disposal, a visit to Bondi and Australia's most famous beach was a no-brainer and, in need of some lunch, I headed straight to the highly rated Porch and Parlour cafe, which specialises in light meals and vegetarian dishes.

I can vouch for the Green Pea Pancake – but if my recommendation isn't enough, the dish also had Will Smith raving on social media during his recent visit.

After refuelling, I headed down to the iconic stretch of sand to take up a 90-minute surfing lesson with my instructor, Sam, from Let's Go Surfing.

There was ample time to become comfortable and confident to try standing and enough fellow beginners around to ensure I didn't feel out of my depth skill-wise.

Afterwards, you could spend a couple more hours strolling around the shops or duck into the many bars and cafes along the beachfront. First-time visitors should embark on a casual 45-minute walk along the Bondi to Bronte coastal path, taking in stunning views, beaches, parks, cliffs, bays and rock pools.

Come dinner time, those wanting to make the most of Sydney's high-end cuisine should visit Bar Machiavelli in Rushcutters Bay, a regular haunt for the Eastern Suburbs' elite.

The layout and decor was stunning with images of Hollywood stars projected on the walls, and a delicious meal of jumbo prawns, pappardelle with slow-cooked lamb ragu, and profiteroles left me on cloud nine.

In keeping with my footy-themed visit, the maitre d' informed me that the building – a converted tyre factory — is owned by Sydney Roosters supremo Nick Politis. It was easy to imagine this exquisite Italian eatery as the venue where the likes of All Blacks star Sonny Bill Williams signed big-money contracts to play for the Tricolours NRL club.

Grand final day arrived the next morning and for footy fans it was better than Christmas.
After enjoying a buffet breakfast at the hotel I ducked out to do a quick spot of shopping in the city. George St teemed with fans from Melbourne and Townsville, and further abroad, stocking up on their team's jerseys, flags, and all manner of merchandise. I made a point of buying a Cowboys cap to declare my allegiance to Tongan powerhouse Jason Taumalolo.

The food orgy resumed with a hearty diner-style lunch at Paramount Coffee Project in Surry Hills — chicken waffles, a cronut, with coffee equal to Auckland's best.

That set me up for an afternoon of craft beer indulgence with Dave's Brewery Tours around the inner city, beginning at the Keg & Brew Hotel near Central Station and taking in several stops and numerous schooners that had me primed for the football experience ahead.

The 15-minute pilgrimage out to ANZ Stadium at Homebush was easy; express trains departed regularly from Central – I just followed the droves of fans and enjoyed the banter, atmosphere and excitement.

Melbourne Storm and the North Queensland Cowboys duked it out for the 2017 NRL title. Photo / Getty Images
Melbourne Storm and the North Queensland Cowboys duked it out for the 2017 NRL title. Photo / Getty Images

There were plenty of bars surrounding the ground where you can keep an eye on the curtain-raiser matches, but I made sure I was in my seat, down near the 20m line among the 79,722-strong crowd, in time for the pre-match performance by US rapper Macklemore.

Controversy raged in the lead-up, with conservatives outraged by the thought of politics and sport intertwining. After the Grammy Award winner sang his hit song and gay anthem Same Love, he said "equality for all" in a clear dig at the way in which Australia treats gay people, but the sky failed to fall as many predicted, and rainbow fireworks and smoke filled the air.

But it was the footy we'd all come to enjoy and the Cowboys — minus injured captain Johnathan Thurston — were overwhelming crowd favourites against the all-conquering Craig Bellamy-coached Storm.

Four young Cowboys fans seated beside me beside me were hopeful of their team's chances of causing an upset. The quartet proudly told me how they had pooled their money to buy a cheap car and took turns at driving the 2121km from Townsville to Sydney to support their team. They had no accommodation sorted but planned on enjoying a big night out regardless of the result. I admired their loyalty and commitment to the cause.

What followed was not unexpected, however; the clinical Cameron Smith-led Storm engineered three first-half tries for an 18-0 half-time lead. The boys beside me were downcast but hopeful of a resurgence from the Cowboys, while Storm supporters were celebrating like the match was won.

Soon after the resumption, Cowboys fans had their prayers answered when Kiwi youngster Te Maire Martin sliced through to score. That's as close as they came, however; Storm added two more tries to seal a dominant 34-6 win with more than 10 minutes left to play.

During the train ride home, North Queensland fans remained buoyant while Melbourne supporters managed to stay humble despite their team's one-sided victory.

Once back in the city, I followed the diehards to a couple of pubs before calling it quits ahead of my early morning return flight home.

As far as footy trips go, the NRL grand final is simply the best.



This year's

NRL Grand Final

is on September 30.

To plan your trip, go to sydney.com.au.