The king is dead

Friday night and went over to the Cheese’s for a bottle of wine, some cheese, and the big match between the Western Bulldogs and Hawthorn.

Like everyone who’s not a Hawthorn supporter I was hoping for a Bulldogs win. They’re a bit of a fairytale story, perennial under-achievers and battling all sorts of injury problems throughout the year, they knocked off one of last years grand finalists last week, and were looking to knock the other – the premiers – last night.

No-one much likes Hawthorn. A good part of that comes from just being too successful. People are sick of them. They have some hard to love footballers too, and a perception that they have been favoured by the umpires in the close contests. I share much of that, but as an Essendon supporter I have some historical antipathy. We go back a long way our two teams, and a fierce rivalry in the eighties, reignited in the noughties. I hated the long before the Johnny come lately’s.

I wrote last week that I thought the Bulldogs matched up well against the Hawks. Hawthorn are an extremely professional, hardened unit with a brilliant coach. They’ll play to a consistently good level that will grind them to victory against most opposition. Their success is based on pressure, and an extremely efficient and systemised approach to the game. I don’t think I’ve seen a more efficient team in all my years of watching footy.

To beat Hawthorn I reckon you have to take them on. That means denying them space and time when they have ball in hand, and to be daring when in possession. That describes the Bulldogs to a t. They’re a great team to watch, with desperate pressure acts and an exciting game style. Their ability to run hard and quick and share the ball around was exactly the sort of game likely to disrupt Hawthorn’s efficiency.

There were a number of predictable scenarios going into the game. The most popular was that Hawthorn would turn in another professional performance and strangle the inspiration from the Bulldogs. They would prevail by habit and experience against a less battle-hardened opponent. It was what I feared too. What I hoped is that the Bulldogs would weather the early going – absolutely critical – to develop belief in the game and to blossom later their free-wheeling style. That’s pretty much what happened.

It’s interesting to know where Hawthorn sit in the pantheon of great teams. This is not the best Hawthorn team of this particular era, and in fact I’d probably rate the Hawthorn team of the late eighties above it in general. It’s hard to argue with success though. They’d played in the last 4 grand finals, and won the last 3. They were going for 4 this year. They’ve been a dominant side.

It’s too soon to make a true judgement, but my immediate take is they have been a team of great pragmatism. They’ve rarely been an exciting team to watch in terms of pure game style. It’s not often they’ve playing devastating football. They played like a machine with all the parts synchronised and in tune, turning out a level of reliable repeat performances year after year. They rarely faltered, unlike many of their opponents who might surge within a game, then fall away. They’ve been implacable and efficient, guided by a very clever coach who developed a style to accommodate the players he had. The Hawthorn of this era have always been greater than the sum of their parts.

In terms of football dynasties I’d rate the Brisbane team of the early 2000’s ahead of them – a bruising and dynamic team capable of both brutality and brilliance. Probably the best team I’ve ever seen was the 1985 Essendon team, which in hindsight shared attributes with the Brisbane teams – brilliant, brutal, and irresistible. Perhaps not coincidentally the Brisbane sides of the 2000’s was coached by Leigh Matthews, who was captain of the Hawthorn team beaten by Essendon in 1984, and demolished in 1985. He always said that the 1985 Essendon side was the best he’d ever seen.

Otherwise there’s only 2 other contenders – Essendon in 2000, who had the best single season record of any team in VFL/AFL history; and Geelong in 2007, who were brilliant to watch.

Last night Hawthorn were taking their crack at history – 3 more wins and they would equal the record for the most successive premierships – the fourpeat. Early the Bulldogs were surging, but untidy, while Hawthorn looked a little off, but supremely efficient. Midway through the second quarter Hawthorn had a shot at goal to take them nearly 5 goals up – and missed. The day after it feels like that was their chance to take it away from the Bullies – and they squandered it.

From that moment on the Bulldogs pretty well dominated. All their hard running and effort finally began to click and pay-off. They went into half-time down by a point. By 3/4 time they had a near match-winning lead. The last quarter played out uneventfully. The Bulldogs had won, and the Hawks were finally out of a finals series.

Hawthorn couldn’t keep up in the end. They were well beaten long before the final siren. They looked old and slow and a little bewildered. I suspect it is an end of an era, though Clarkson is as canny as they come. Hawthorn’s best players remain their senior players, close to retirement. They might fall quickly. That’s generally how it happens.

The Bulldogs take on GWS in Sydney. That will be an outstandingly entertaining match. These two teams are both big on the contested ball, and swift on the outside. It means that one of them will make the grand final – either one team for the first time ever, or the other for the first time since 1961.


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