May the best team win — as long as it’s Geelong
Sentimentality will be on the Cats’ side as Gary Ablett Jr plays his last match in the hoops
THERE has never been an AFL season like 2020. Not even two world wars managed to produce a season so bizarre as this year’s which began in March with an opening round played to empty stadiums under the shadow of the COVID-19 virus; was then interrupted for 11 weeks, resuming for four more rounds before completely abandoning the game’s spiritual home in Victoria; and shovelling the final 12 rounds of a shortened 18 game season into a compressed number of weeks.
It is a season that will see the first ever Grand Final played outside of Melbourne and under lights at night, in the last week of October, a month later than normal.
By rights, the 2020 season should never have gone ahead, and in some ways it will never feel fully legitimate.
But now here we are on Grand Final eve and this odd season has all the hallmarks of a fairy tale ending.
It will bring together the dominant team of the past three years, Richmond, against an ageing Geelong, the undisputed pre-eminent team of the past dozen or so years. The setting will be Brisbane’s Gabba Stadium and in a further twist, it will be the final game of the illustrious 19-year career of one of the greatest players ever to pull on his boots, Gary Ablett Jr.
In ordinary times, Melbourne would be abuzz, particularly as this is the first all Victorian Grand Final since 2011, when Geelong last won a premiership against Collingwood. But as the COVID lockdown continues and the action is taking place 1700 kilometres north of the MCG, it feels strangely flat.
In these circumstances, it’s hard to get overly excited when your team is playing for its first premiership in a decade, even when it’s the swan song of one of your favourite players. Not when the closest you will get to the action is through a disembodied television screen, and you are not even allowed to watch it in the same room as your father, who has been your companion for countless matches shivering in the winter cold over decades since you were a kid.
And if Geelong does lift the cup on Saturday night, the celebrations will be muted because there will always be the nagging thought: did we really deserve to win in a year that has been marked by so much tragedy and disruption?
Throughout the long winter lockdown, footy has been a surreal distraction from the grim reality of everyday life in Melbourne. It has been on in the background, but never been dominant as it would in other seasons when Monday morning water cooler conversations inevitably end up dissecting that weekend’s round of games.
We have followed the action from afar, vaguely aware of who is playing when. So Geelong’s late season dominance of the competition almost crept up on me. At the start of 2020, Geelong was not part of the discussion about flag favouritism. They were seen as too old, too slow and too predictable.
The defending champions Richmond, by contrast, have been red hot favourites since round one for their third flag in four years. They have the competition’s best player, Dustin Martin, and a well-honed game plan that conquers the opposition through shock and awe.
Yet it was Geelong that has been the season’s dark horse. After an inauspicious start when they lost at home to 2019 runners-up Greater Western Sydney, Geelong began piecing together win after win with a game style based on controlled possession and clinical attack.
Tom Hawkins has been the season’s dominant key forward, Patrick Dangerfield has been consistently brilliant, and the lesser names like Cam Guthrie, Sam Menegola and Mark Blicavs have shone during the absence of captain Joel Selwood (injuries) and Ablett (family reasons).
As the season progressed, Geelong has defeated — often by wide margins — all of their more fancied opponents except one: Richmond. On a dark night on September 11 at the Metricon Stadium on the Gold Coast, Geelong managed only one goal for three quarters and were trounced by 26 points.
Geelong was missing a number of key players, but it was clear that night that Richmond was the team to beat.
The last time these two teams met for the big one was in the 1967 Grand Final, considered one of the all-time classics. After trailing by 16 points at half time, Geelong clawed back to within two points at three-quarter time as wasteful kicking cost the Tigers dearly. But Richmond raced home with a 4.3 to 2.8 final quarter to win by nine points.
That was the end of a golden era for Geelong — Polly Farmer’s 101st and final game for the club — and the beginning of the greatest period of its history for Richmond, which would also win the 1969, 1973 and 1974 premierships under coach Tommy Hafey.
The final remnants of that ’74 team won the 1980 Grand Final — ironically against a Hafey coached Collingwood — before the Tigers entered more than three decades in the wilderness. Part of the big four of Collingwood, Carlton, Essendon and Richmond, the Tigers were the laughing stock of the AFL throughout the 1990s and 2000s, mostly dysfunctional on and off the field, only brightened by the brilliance of Matthew Richardson.
Yet there is always light at the end of even the darkest periods. For Geelong, the wilderness years lasted from that 1967 Grand Final until they made the 1989 Grand Final — another classic they lost by six points this time. They would play in three more Grand Finals in the ’90s, a period when their talisman was Gary Ablett Sr — until his son came along, considered by many the greatest player of all time.
But it was not until a completely new generation of players emerged in the mid-2000s that the Cats would finally taste success, winning flags in 2007, 2009 and 2011 and runners-up in 2008. It has been a long time between drinks since then with the Cats losing the Preliminary Final half a dozen times in the last decade.
Meanwhile, Richmond has quietly rebuilt and fully bloomed in 2017 with an eight goal win over Adelaide. Last year’s 89-point win was as clinical a demolition as the MCG has ever witnessed in the final game of the season, even more than Geelong’s drought breaking 79-point victory over Port Adelaide in 2007.
It goes without saying that the Grand Final brings together the two best teams of 2020. Both Richmond and Geelong have had to claw their way to the Grand Final after losing their first finals match and they are battle-hardened.
There are half a dozen fascinating contests within the contest tomorrow night, and this Grand Final has an added edge of romance because it will be the last time we will see the sublime skills of Gary Ablett Jr on display.
It cannot have been easy growing up with the same name as one of the most celebrated footballers of all time, and from the very first moment he was selected for Geelong, Ablett Jr felt the weight of expectation on his back. He emerged from the shadow of his old man long ago and has surpassed him in on-field honours and achievements: two premierships, two Brownlow Medals, more than 350 games, multiple All Australian selections and club best and fairests. For all his freakish ability, Ablett Sr had to be content with four runners-up medals but no premiership.
So if for no other reason, it would be fitting for Geelong to win the flag in Ablett Jr’s final match. The champion returned to the club in 2018 specifically to win a final premiership after eight years carrying Gold Coast on his shoulders. He has slowed with the years, but showed in last week’s Preliminary Final that he has not lost his touch, scoring two immaculate goals and contributing to several others.
The sentimentality surrounding Ablett’s farewell to the game should provide Geelong with plenty of inspiration, but the Cats should also be more motivated than Richmond. Put simply, Geelong are hungrier.
The majority of the Richmond team have two premiership medals already. A third would be nice — and back-to-back premierships would emulate the great Hafey teams of ’73–74 with their golden triumvirate of Hart, Bartlett and Bourke — but having tasted success twice, there will be questions about how hungry Richmond are.
By contrast, of the Geelong team that will take the field on Saturday night, only Joel Selwood, Hawkins, Harry Taylor and Mitch Duncan are still around from the 2011 premiership. Ablett has two medals also, but for reasons explained earlier, he will be desperate for success.
Even though he has three premierships under his belt already, Selwood will be as motivated as anyone. He has captained Geelong for 200 games since 2011 and he would dearly love to hold the premiership cup aloft as skipper. And Geelong’s best player, Patrick Dangerfield, has never played in a winning Grand Final at any level. He grew up a Geelong supporter and came back to the club from Adelaide solely to win a flag in the hoops.
Geelong should also be the popular favourites. In their prime in the ’70s, Richmond were the most hated team in the old VFL — more so even than Collingwood. They played with an arrogance and hardness that was a turn off for neutral supporters. During their long years spent in the bottom half of the ladder, Richmond became the club that everyone felt sorry for. But since again returning to the top, the arrogance has also come back with a vengeance so that Richmond are once again everyone’s bete noire.
By contrast, Geelong have retained a humility despite their years of success throughout most of this century. They attack the ball hard, but play with an attractive flair and don’t lord it above other clubs.
There remains a sense that the 2020 AFL season lacks a certain legitimacy because of its truncated and disrupted nature. Whoever is victorious on Saturday will always carry the burden of winning a season that perhaps should have been cancelled back in March. There will forever be an asterisk next to their name.
But all that will be forgotten when Richmond and Geelong burst through their banners at 7.30 tomorrow night. From that moment, all that will matter will be the gladiatorial contest between the two best football clubs in the nation.
May the best team win — as long as it’s Geelong.