The GF: then and now

Sunday, daylight saving has started, the grand final has ended, and a great hole has opened up. There’s always an anti-climax when the long AFL season is finally done and dusted. A long, slow build-up, a mighty crescendo and then – silence.

It was a grand game yesterday. I sat at home eating left-over pizza and drinking a bottle of expensive vintage apple cider. We were uninterrupted in our viewing of what was a tough, mostly tight, and very compelling contest. Quite aside from the sheer entertainment value of watching two very good teams go at each other hammer and tongs, it was interesting to watch the arc of the game. The best contests in any sport have a big element of theatre to them, and in the greatest it’s all Greek theatre. Such was the game yesterday I thought, a game in several acts and incorporating all the great human themes.

As a committed supporter of a non-competing club – Essendon – I saw much in the game yesterday that reminded me of the last time we played off for the big one. That was 2001, and like Collingwood yesterday went into the match as the reigning champion and as the most dominant team of the year. We’d even managed the most extraordinary comeback in the history of the game against North Melbourne – from 69 points to victory – and thought we were invincible. Like Collingwood though we had lost momentum in the last quarter of the year. Both teams suffered interruptions to preparation and continuity due to injury and suspension. Coming into the big game both teams carried players with big injury concerns. In both cases best form was 5-6 weeks earlier in the year.

The game unfolded similarly as well, though the conditions were very different. In 2001 it was near 30 degrees, which played to the strengths of our opponents from Brisbane. Yesterday it was less than half of that. In 2001 we started well, and got out to a lead of about 20 points in the first half, which should have been more. In the opening of the third quarter of that game we had the chance to nail Brisbane as we attacked incessantly, but without result.

Yesterday Collingwood made their move in the second quarter. At times it looked like they would march away with the game. For large swathes they were the much superior team, but weren’t able to properly translate that to the scoreboard. Geelong were tough, as Brisbane were in 2001, and just before half time clawed back valuable points from Collingwood. I commented at half time that I thought Collingwood might have missed their chance; I expected Geelong to win. In 2001 the scoreboard looked positive, but I had a bad feeling.

In 2001 we dominated the third quarter until a goal against the run of play sparked a Brisbane surge. By 3/4 time the game was just about in the bag for them. Yesterday the two teams slugged it out, with Geelong always looking more likely to land the winning blow. They went into the last quarter with a slender lead which they blew out kicking 5 goals to 1. In 2001 we played it out, but were spent, losing by about 24 points. The margin yesterday was 38 points.

In 2001 we were dead tired come the grand final. Collingwood were fresher yesterday than we were then, but there is the sense that they’d already run their best race. In 2001 we made the mistake of playing too many injured players. It was an easy mistake to make as one was our captain and greatest player, James Hird, and the other a magician of a footballer, Mark Mercuri. Neither contributed much on the day itself. Collingwood too went into the game with players, and it cost them as it did us. Geelong’s one injured player by contrast, Stevie J, was one of their best. It’s a roll of the dice.

So much for nostalgia. Yesterday was one of the best grand finals I’ve seen. Geelong were great. They have players both greatly talented, and of great character. That’s what did it for them yesterday. Bartel and Selwood particularly were warriors. They deserved the win, and as a bystander I was happy to cheer them on. As they say, anyone but Collingwood.

Now the off-season begins. It’s about 6 months till they compete again. Even with a new coach Collingwood will be thereabouts again. Geelong will be more interesting. They’ve recruited well, but are an aging side, and will likely have a number of retirements in the off-season. As for the rest? Hawthorn will challenge, particularly with Roughead back and if the can snag a decent tall back. WCE will go no higher I think, though I’m afraid Carlton might temporarily – their structural issues will continue to hold them back unless they trade for a decent tall forward. And us? Full of hope, as always, but with more reason than most years. We’ll finish 4-6 and, like this year, will be good enough to beat anyone on our day. We beat Geelong this year after all.

That’s it then, a few quiet weeks to catch up on the gardening and so on, the it’s the races, then cricket. Always something.


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