Being the underdog in NRL Grand Final

A diehard Raiders fan on loyalty, victory and cancelling church

David O’Connor has been following the Canberra Raiders since he was six. “I watched the 1987 Grand Final and had to pick a team,” remembers O’Connor more than three decades later, in the days before the Raiders take on reigning premiers Sydney Roosters in Sunday’s NRL Grand Final.

“I went for the Raiders because they were the underdogs!”

“I think having a team and being passionate about them helps you to relate to people …” – David O’Connor

With his beloved Green Machine in that position again, O’Connor is quietly confident about his side’s prospects. “The Roosters are a dangerous side but our defence has been incredible all year. If our kicking game is good and we play with energy for the 80 minutes, we’re a strong chance!”

“I haven’t been nervous [this week] … Just proud and really happy for the players and staff who’ve worked so hard to climb the mountain.”

Apart from being the sort of Raiders fan who watches every game with his three sons and hates to admit that “my mood over a weekend can depend a bit on how well they play”, O’Connor also is pastor of newHope church at Kellyville, in Sydney’s Hills District.

“We have a bit of a joke about it at church,” says O’Connor about his Raiders passion. “I use lots of sporting analogies and I think having a team and being passionate about them helps you to relate to people who are coming into the church for the first time.

“Sport creates bonds and banter between blokes and can help those friendships forge.

“I’ve worn jerseys and team gear throughout the finals this year, but we try to use that as ice-breakers to help people relax – and then put their attention on Jesus.”

Having enjoyed the highs of the late 1980s and 1990s when Raiders won three titles – 1989, 1990 and 1994 – diehard O’Connor has stuck true to his team. Even as, during the past decade, “my sons and I have wondered if we’d ever make a grand final again.” Loyalty is a big deal to O’Connor and his family, a trait of devotion flowing from their Christian beliefs.

“I think my faith in Jesus has just kept me loyal to my decision as a youngster to follow a team,” O’Connor puts simply. “When there have been tough times as a supporter just that commitment to stick with the team and see it through.

“I’ve told my sons that the hard times make the good times even better – and they’re experiencing that now as 14-year-olds.

“That said, I think most Aussies are loyal supporters of their teams.”

“Hopefully, this is the first of a few grand finals in the next decade.” – David O’Connor

But how far will O’Connor’s fandom go? Would he start a Viking Clap during the sermon? Or, go even further and cancel church to watch the NRL Grand Final? No, he wouldn’t cancel church, although newHope has an unusual model of meeting that means this Sunday can combine footy with sharing of faith.

“Our church doesn’t meet on the first Sunday of the month. Instead of ‘Gathering’, we ‘Go’ and seek to bless and build relationships with people beyond newHope.”

“Grand Final Day will be one where our church hang with family, friends and do something intentional to be a blessing in those spaces.”

In another surprise twist in this tale of footy and faith, the O’Connor family is on holidays this week in Thailand. But distance is no barrier to the faithful: “My sons and I will be watching on the WatchNRL app at the resort in Phuket.”

“I had promised them that I’d take them to a grand final when we make it … We went to the preliminary final last week as compensation for that promise!”

“Hopefully, this is the first of a few grand finals in the next decade.”

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