2012 AFL Grand Final, MCG, Hawthorn versus Sydney

I’m having a pre-grand final lunch at Southgate with Ralph who carries the stocky appearance of comedian, Max Gillies, and a cheerful cynicism about AFL administration. He grew up in the Melbourne suburb of Northcote when self-preservation meant barracking for Collingwood. We’re usually joined by Phil, another Pie fan, but he’s in Turkey en route from Scotland and feeling gratified about the decision to gallivant given the Magpie’s lack of representation.

Ralph’s scepticism means he has little interest in the pre-match entertainment and, after last year’s Meatloaf debacle I’m feeling likewise, so we agree to arrive at the ‘G around 2.15.

A weather forecast predicting everything short of world’s end, an AFL Members’ ‘booking fee’ that’s become an expensive euphemism, and prospect of a one-sided result made me initially hesitant about attending. But Sydney took their intensity up a gear during the earlier finals and I’m more convinced they can challenge now. The weather and admission-fee-in-drag I decide to grin and bear, or maybe I’m just really captive audience.

I’m also toying with a theory the Hawks are Karma afflicted, not subject to a Kennett Curse. Though, back in 2008 I concluded Hawthorn won the GF because they wanted it most (and the Cats missed easy shots at goal because minds weren’t right). Still, part of their ‘want’ included what they termed ‘unsociable football’ and handballing defensive points …was there something Faustian about testing the spirit of the law? Did they win a flag ahead of fate’s schedule? Does a debt need repaying?  Needless to say these perceptions (or prejudices) have me picking the Swans. Ralph’s going for Hawthorn.

“I like the way they play,” he says. Their brand of footy is exciting but, on occasion, vulnerable under pressure. The close-call prelim could free them up or freeze them.

Freezing pretty much describes Melbourne’s season today, but of all the weathers the wind is the worst. As we’re about to leave for the game a gale brings clouds and hyperactive rain and harasses the upside-down Yarra ‘pressing’ murky waves upstream. Good weather for ducks …or Swans.

Ralph puts on head-to-toe wet weather gear and appears more Arctic explorer than footy fan. By the time he’s done the tempest is now a mass of dark cloud disappearing beyond the ‘G. That’s one good thing about wind …rain passes quickly.

A brisk walk has us inside the ground as players enter the arena. We’re in M section on the wing, at the roof line. There’s mostly Sydney or neutral fans around us and a smattering of Hawks. The mass of team colours in the stands opposite suggest this year is well represented by true believers, though. Next to me is a neutral supporter wearing a floppy hat and holding a large pair of binoculars. He likes to hoard his beer, buying two at a time and protecting the one at ground level from passing feet like a bird guarding young.

The roar at National anthem’s end is huge and focuses minds on what’s at stake. The first bounce heightens anticipation. Our ground level perspective makes the players an amorphous clutter. It’s a mad scramble at high intensity and everyone’s on the ball – footy today often appears a modern equivalent of those first games played on open paddocks – smothers and intercepts play a big part. And it’s harder to recognise body shapes you’re not as familiar with …Hannebery resembles O’Keefe, Hodge Lewis.

The ball is kicked from within a throng of players but all we see is it bursting through the Hawk goal. “Sam Mitchell”, someone suggests. The scoreboard replay assists – Ellis.

Ralph departs to buy beer…

At the other end of the ground, Malceski, disguised as Shaw, bombs a high left foot snap from the boundary in the general direction of the goals. The swirling wind is fortuitous and carries it through for the Swans’ first six-pointer.

But Hawthorn win centre clearances and toward quarter’s end find space that had previously been at a premium. Then they find Franklin. He goals then Breuooost and Gunston grub a couple to earn a nineteen point lead. I’m questioning Karma theory and turn to Ralph, “I hope it isn’t going to be blowout”. Neither of us want that.

Providence answers in the second quarter: quick, incisive handballs under pressure help the Swans peg back, Morton does a take-two, then the Bloods are in front and dominating. Half time siren – Swannies by sixteen points. Karma?

The weather gods have been kind and it’s only during the long break that a rain squall appears. Temper Trap are good half-time entertainment, performing in conditions that would’ve had Meatloaf seeking legal eagles, and lay bare a cultural cringe.

Swans continue their dominance early in the third quarter, then the Hawks score via a free kick to Hale that’s questionable in light of what’s been let go, but ruck contests are often judged by a different criteria. Watching the scoreboard replay I imagine the commentators at Channel every-free-kick’s-there-everyday-of-the-week-Seven chorusing approval (I later discover the opposite – almost: ”Gee wiz …o-kay,” says Bruce, quietly blaming the short throw-in).

Still, Hale has to kick accurately from beyond fifty. Then Buddy slots one on the arc and the Hawks rediscover confidence. They’re playing on a wave of emotion, running everywhere and seemingly untouchable. Buddy’s second goal is a beauty …a long bomb from sixty. Karma Shmarma …you create your own destiny.

Hawks regain the lead and Ralph’s excited. “Go Hawks!” Their destiny beckons. Then the Swans level the score and lead by two points. I’m resurrecting Karma theory, and being thankful I attended the game.

But momentum is best to have at the final break and it’s with the Hawks. Breuooost goals early in the last quarter, and Hale snaps one out of a pack, partners in destiny.

There are times though I’m thinking the umpires made their own deal with the devil – decisions trend the Hawks way. ‘Holding the ball’ interpretations are noticeable for their inconsistency.

A tough-call fifty metre penalty to Gunston has a Swans fan behind us seething. I suggest it’s just one ump being a problem, but he’s not reassured. It only takes one.

Then, against destiny’s flow, Sydney’s defensive pressure and precise delivery gets them back in it. Quick thinking is as important as leg speed! They level scores again then press to a seven point lead through an instinctive snap by Goodes. Karma.

Buddy gets a free for ‘high’. Binocular man says, “It was there”. And Buddy made sure the ump saw it. He misses, but the Hawks respond with a series of points to get back within four.

I’m feeling the tension almost as much as if the Cats were out there. The Swans slow the tempo along the MCC members’ wing. “Don’t try to save it!” I warn, not that any players can hear it. Someone says there’s still three minutes left.

The Swans eventually break clear but as quickly a pack forms in their goal square. Then Malceski, doing a Chappy impression, bookends his game with another high left-foot snap that doesn’t require blowy providence. Goal! We’re on our feet. Swans by ten points. Final siren!

I’d like to feel vindicated, but victory has nothing to do with Karma or fate. Footy’s pretty simple: results usually favour teams with the greatest will, and today desire wore Red and White. It strutted around in Brown and Gold four years ago.

Talk turns to Norm Smiths. “Hannebery” is offered by one fan. “Sewell” is another name heard above the din. Usually, the image of a dominant player is plucked out by memory, but nothing materialises; except for the blond-haired and gangling Lewis Roberts-Thompson – LRT’s the people’s favourite, the Merve Hughes of the Sydney Swans. Hannebery’s body-double, O’Keefe, gets the nod, though, and has to emerge from one last pack to receive the medal.

“Seven-man defence” is already entering grand final folklore. Commentators are comparing Hawthorn’s inaccuracy to Geelong in 2008, but in fairness conditions were far trickier today and the Hawks’ missed chances more excusable. The 2009 Saints are probably a closer fit.

Sydney were desperate for longer and made fewer mistakes and, by design or not, most of their scoring shots were closer to goal. The Hawks played in bursts. Perhaps comfort in being underdog allowed the Swans to play their natural game, and the Hawks were burdened by expectations. Success however, can sometimes arrive too soon, and in that way be a curse. Better early than never, though.

Ralph reckons good music died about the same time as Mozart and doesn’t want to stay for the post-match entertainment. But first he buys a pie to absorb the alcohol. “Great day,” he says, satisfied then saunters off.

I’m not driving so have another beer and a brief chat to a friend working in one of the bars. I’m enjoying the Swan’s victory by osmosis. By now medals have been presented, victory lap done, team song sung numerous times (no Queen We Are the Champions this year) and darkness descends. The temporary stage is wheeled out and propped in front of revellers, and fans from outside stream in. The MCG lights are dimmed, and we can even see stars. Temper Trap re-appear, facing us this time. They perform the same set sans choral backing, but are just as good.

Paul Kelly follows. There’s nothing new about him or his repertoire, but it’s just right for the mood, and as he sings Before Too Long a full moon emerges above the roof of the Great Southern Stand shrouded in a plume of feathery cloud.

2012 Grand Final

Postscript: a version of this was posted on the Footy Almanac website, which you can find here. It’s a great site for Aussie Rules fans or those that would just like to learn more about the code.