It was the type of moment that causes a smirk, a catch of the breath and a little noise rising deep from the throat. The best players have small quirks about their game that give you unforeseen knowledge. In this play, Dustin Martin made us all feel like he was going to intercept the Geelong handball as he stalked them along the boundary line. When he duly did so, then twisted his robust core to shake off Patrick Dangerfield and curl through an impossible goal, the little ‘oh’ escaped. It was beautiful, a crowning moment from a glorious team’s glistening jewel.
It took a lot of fight to get to this point.
Grand Finals have a certain look to them. The opening bowl of the MCG, clouds parting for nice afternoons. The atmosphere from Yarra Park BBQ’s spilling into the overflowing crowds taking to the vast stands. But there was no familiarity to this Grand Final day. Breakfasts soon extended to brunches. Day-drinkers suddenly had to ration their doses. TVs showed us northern tropics, whacking trees together and sending rain down in weighted sheets. It was the Grand Final done in Queensland style.
But the Grand Final spirit is hard to break. There’s still that deep feeling of excitement when teams walk up the race like steely warriors. The flutters of the national anthem’s final crescendo. The hearty roar of the crowd when the umpire first holds the Sherrin aloft, offering it to the gods in this sacred two and a half hours.
There have been plenty of wonderful starts, from the brutality of ’89 to the fast-paced openers of recent times. The opening ten minutes of Grand Finals are all absorbing. People forget everything around them, only snapped out of this haze when a goal is scored. The tension at the Gabba extends when Dangerfield flies to spoil and accidentally knocks out Vlastuin with a stray elbow. While he struggles to move, Gary Ablett Jnr lies metres away, his shoulder searing with pain. In the ensuing eight minutes, concerns flitter between Vlastuin’s distressed situation and the shattered Ablett fairy tale. When play resumes, Geelong miss early chances to settle and allow the Tigers to slam on two in a minute. It’s all so 2020.
In some ways the opening term feels like a rugged public school coming up against a ponce private institution. The Tigers are the state school, full of rough haircuts and cheek. They act on a whim, and give tantalising grins every time they frustrate their opposition. But Guthrie’s booming set shot settles the Cats, and he and Duncan ensure the private school Cats cleanly re-take the lead heading into the first break.
Now comfortable that ground invaders and injuries won’t occur at every bend, both teams take it up a notch. The rain has gone, the turf is draining and the pressure lifts. Richmond revel in making life hard for their opponents, and their suffocation style stifles Geelong. But the Cats are prepared to match them in intensity. All of a sudden, Richmond’s pressure is flipped, like Atlas has finally used his legs to upheave the mammoth weight and flip it back onto the titans themselves. Suddenly the Tigers cop a fierce dose of their own medicine, mixed in with elder statesmen who have the class and temperament to make them hurt. The steady Cats players (think Miers, Guthrie, Duncan) all launch a procession of punches on Richmond, while Selwood and the one-armed Ablett wait for opportune moments to strike them at pressure points.
Dangerfield settles into Grand Final football, using his forward craft to demand a wide one-on-one contest with Cotchin that has the Richmond skipper clinging on like a fearful child. His set shot is Anthony Rocca-esque from the 2002 decider, only the goal umpire is more forgiving. Ablett gets into the thick of it and fires out an extraordinary handball to Selwood. The old timers combine to give Hawkins an easy mark and goal. With Lynch and Riewoldt well held by Taylor and Henderson, Richmond look disconnected.
It is in these times where the Tigers’ greatest assets show themselves. Hidden amongst a bevy of pressure players for so long, Martin decides enough is enough. In the shadows of half time he switches from a strong contributor to the lead man. It is all very Michael Jordan. He wills himself forward and seems to not notice Jake Kolodjashnij’s defensive efforts. Crumbing to perfection, he holds off the burly Cat with his left arm while collecting and throwing the footy onto his boot with his right paw. As he goes to kick it, a deep recession of the brain knows what the end result is. Defying all laws of physics, Dusty slides it through. It’s not much, but it’s a crucial major.
All of this sets up a rapid opening to the second half. Like a deteriorating car receiving a cheap shot of petrol, the Tigers are revamped enough to unleash total ferocity in the premiership quarter. It is unlike anything seen this season. If Fox Footy covered this, the pressure metre they infamously gauge would have pinged off the screen. Every Tiger made a concerted effort to get to the footy first and strangle Geelong’s composure.
Riewoldt, after a quiet finals series, picks up the slack from Lynch and turns from stale to dangerous. Castagna’s efforts give him a shot at goal which slides through. The match quickly turns from an impressive Geelong performance to an eerily reminiscent replay of last year’s preliminary final. With the tide now pulled out against them, Geelong have to toil hard to create a counter-attacking chance down the wing. Ablett’s masterful touch pulls the strings, ending with a skidding Miers shot that eases troubled Geelong minds.
Deep sighs are released. The distribution of bums on seats retracts from the edge. Nerves are temporarily soothed. But Richmond are hell-bent on continuing their destruction. Geelong give off an air of calm, like they have the situation under control. It’s all a façade. Bolton crashes into packs and plucks an incredible mark that ends in a Lambert goal. Guthrie tries to match him on the wing, but his teammates don’t have the same sense of theatre to convert it. It’s crunch time, and one player wills himself to the footy.
With Dangerfield falling out of the game after a solid second quarter, Dusty picks the right time to assert himself. He was instrumental in keeping his side in it, now he focuses on the second half of the job. With bodies flying everywhere he refuses to lose his footing, his strong core steadying so he can pluck a loose ball and dribble it through from the arc. The roar breaks through dense Brisbane crowds, veins popping out of Dusty’s forehead. He is an unstoppable force – not since Levi Greenwood’s efforts in the 2018 prelim has Dusty been harnessed in a big game.
All of this action sets up a nervy three-quarter time break. Supporters from either side are coated in stress, unable to avert their minds. Neutral fans only endure a sliver of this tension, instead licking their lips for what is to come.
The final quarter encapsulates Richmond’s greatness. Their effort and tenacity sends them to a premiership that confirms their historical significance. Bolton sparkles, setting up Lynch with a beautiful long ball. Riewoldt slots an impossible set shot. Short and Baker don’t stop running, nipping at the heels of Geelong’s faltering small forwards and pouncing on anything loose. Houli soldiers on through a torn calf, likewise Ablett with his lop-sided shoulder. A gust of breeze sends jolts through his arm, yet he continually pops up and goes again. It’s a true mark of his brilliance. It may not be the way Geelong fans wish to see Ablett depart, but in a unique way it confirms his champion status.
Ablett’s cruel ending acts as a changing of the guard. In the same quarter, Dusty assumes the league’s envy. He bullies past Cats to snatch the Sherrin, twisting past one despairing defender and dribbling through another long-range effort. He’s everywhere, adding his strength and sparkling touch where it’s required. Overseeing the project, pulling strings where required. He has played many fine games, but this is his most impressive to date.
Menegola tries to rally his troops with one final act of courage, knocking out poor Simpson in the process. After another lengthy break, he slams home a goal full of hope. It just isn’t to be. AFL has a cruel way of ruining fairy tales. It’s what makes the success stories so beautiful.
The Tigers deserve every bit of this third flag. It’s certainly their best, full of scandal, difficulties and sheer brilliance. It’s a tribute to a system that has been picked apart at length, but is still just as unstoppable as it was in the final moments of 2017.
Dusty deservedly breaks record books with a third Norm Smith Medal. In his previous two efforts he was the head honcho among many worthy amigos. This Gabba effort was different – he wasn’t pulling the sled with others providing a helping hand. In the first half, he was the sole force keeping Richmond within striking distance. When the game was on the line, he lifted yet again.
In a year full of uncertainty, Richmond reminded us all that not everything was torn apart. They can be relied on, and are still the same force that frustrates the rest of the competition while delighting their bursting fan base.
RICHMOND 2.1 3.2 7.4 12.9 (81)
GEELONG 2.2 5.5 6.8 7.8 (50)
Richmond: Martin 4, Prestia, Riewoldt 2, Castagna, Lambert, Lynch, McIntosh
Geelong: Menegola 2, Dangerfield, Duncan, Guthrie, Hawkins, Miers
Richmond: Martin, Short, Edwards, Prestia, Cotchin, Bolton
Geelong: Duncan, Stewart, Selwood, Menegola, Dahlhaus
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