Despite a hectic, Covid-influenced season, the AFL grand final is back in its traditional September slot. As fans await the opening bounce, two stories sum up the essence of the game. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
The big dance
Only a historically disruptive pandemic could prise the AFL grand final from Melbourne’s zealous grip, and today it will be held for the first (and presumably last) time in Perth, at the new and capacious Optus Stadium. As difficult as it has been prising the match from Melbourne, it’s been harder prising a sense of joy and gratitude from the Western Australian premier, Mark McGowan – or perhaps this is unfair and petty, the kind of churlishness to be expected from Melburnians’ scorned entitlement (and the bitterness of lockdown). Maybe we should be thankful to him for providing the novelty of a crowd, and the light comedy of denying entry to Eddie “Everywhere” McGuire – a nickname now requiring an asterisk.
The Melbourne Demons will play the Western Bulldogs, the former desperate for their first flag since 1964 – it’s the longest premiership drought – and the latter aiming to crown their recent Houdini act. Astride the league for most of the season, a late form slump condemned the Dogs to fifth place and three successive do-or-dies, while the caprice of Covid-19 fixtures condemned them to a punishingly epic journey – Launceston, Brisbane, Adelaide… and now Perth.
In their respective preliminary finals, both teams played outrageously delicious football, inflicting – and exploiting – catastrophic systems failures in their opponents. The combined winning margins of the two games was 154 points and, while the Dogs took a dramatically circuitous path, we might say that the best two teams of the regular season will meet in the Big Dance. Let us now pray to Cazaly for a vastly more competitive match than the previous two.
Sport is a rich and endless producer of stories, and to mark grand final day, I wanted to share two.
On August 22, 2015, the day before Roarke Smith debuted for the Dogs, his team gathered in a room at Subiaco stadium, in Perth. It was the debutant’s jumper presentation, and per tradition a former player had come to confer it. So it was that club legend Daniel Southern was standing before the group holding Smith’s carefully folded No. 37. Southern is a massive, hulking presence – notorious for his near-fatal headlock of Eagles forward Peter Sumich in 1994 – but he stood awkwardly, nervously acknowledged the familiar faces, then offered some typical remarks about his fondness for the club and the value of tradition. None of which seemed like the prelude to an extraordinarily touching speech, but it was.
The year before, Southern had returned to Australia after almost a decade spent living in Cairo. He explained to the group that he had gone there as a lost young man, unsure of what to do after his footy career was prematurely ended by injury at the age of 25. Southern saw revolution and “anarchy in the streets”, and returned a husband, father and Muslim.
Soon after Southern left Australia, his older brother suddenly died. “He was my idol, the person I looked up to most in my life,” he told the group. At the time, Southern was travelling around Iran without phone coverage or internet, and so didn’t learn the news until a fortnight after his brother’s death.
“I didn’t know what to do with myself because I was going to miss his funeral,” he said. “That was obviously shattering for a young man – not being there for my family, to support them, and not being able to say goodbye to my brother.”
Southern had proudly kept his debutant jumper, and fortunately it was back home in Perth. “I thought, ‘What could I do to symbolise my love and my respect for him?’ ” he said. “And so I phone up my dad, and I got him to get my jumper, my rookie jumper, the one that I’d played 24 games in, and I thought the most symbolic thing I could do, or gesture for my brother was to get him to wear that jumper to the grave. So they buried Steve with my No. 8, and that’s with him for eternity.
“That jumper meant the world to me. It was the most sacred thing that I had, my most treasured belonging, and so it’s with him resting for an eternity now. So that’s what the jumper meant to me, Roarke.”
Southern handed the teenager his jumper and hugged him. A week later, Smith tore an anterior cruciate ligament and underwent a knee construction. Just two years later, having played only two senior matches, he ruptured the other ACL. This could have very easily ended his career, but after years in knee braces and on the fringes (he was delisted, then redrafted last year), Smith will compete in his first grand final.
And quickly, one more story: that of former Melbourne captain Nathan Jones, who recently announced his retirement. That Jones will be canonised by the club and its fans as one of its greatest players is certain, but it will be of precious little comfort to him right now.
Between 2007 and 2019, the gifted midfielder barely missed a game. For much of that time, Melbourne were ridiculed: consecutive wooden spoons, executive resignations, an investigation into tanking and whispers of their relocation interstate. It was a dark and fallow period, but even as the losses mounted – and few players have experienced as many – Jones’s ferocious commitment was obvious every week. It never dimmed. He was the team’s nuclear reactor.
Captain between 2014 and 2019, this year Jones became only the club’s second player to compete in 300 games. But last year, at the age of 32, injuries finally began to cast their shadow, and he played only eight games. This year, it was seven. Unthinkably, Jones had moved to his team’s fringes.
Jones had given the best of himself, but Melbourne’s recent ascendancy had cruelly coincided with his decline. Not anticipating his selection for the grand final, he left Perth to join his wife for the birth of their twins and then, via video conference, notified his mates of his retirement.
“Personally, I’ve had a lot of emotions go through my mind from how it’s all unfolded,” Jones told Melbourne radio afterwards. “From an individual perspective, it’s been disappointing, to say the least, knowing the work I’ve put in.”
We can assume that disappointment is profound. Jones helped pull a whole team towards the summit, only to be felled once the flag was in reach. But his will be only one of many stories braided into today’s game.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 25, 2021 as "The big dance".
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