Fifteen days passed between our qualifying final win against the Western Bulldogs and the preliminary final against St Kilda. It seemed an eternity so you can imagine how long the seventeen years since the Hawks last made a grand final has felt. Incredibly it had been the third longest grand final drought with only Richmond at 26 years and the Bulldogs at 47 to have waited longer.
Growing up as a Hawthorn fan there was an expectation that the team would be playing on the last Saturday of the season. I remember, in the mid 80s, many a debate with fellow Hawk fans discussing which team would be our grand final opponent. These conversations would usually take place in April/May. We weren’t cocky, just pragmatic. And it’s felt a bit that way this season. I bought a gold membership before the season started to make sure of a grand final ticket if we got through. It’s nice to be proven right.
While Saturday night’s game ended up routine enough, I’d been a bit edgy all week. The Hawks had clearly been the second best team all year, so the expectation was that at the very least we should be playing off in a grand final. I felt we were clearly a superior team to the Saints, but what if we got it wrong on the night? What if Riewoldt caught fire? What if Hudghton blanketed Buddy and we couldn’t find any of our other forwards? What if those maggots in white, green, red, yellow or whatever colour they were going to be wearing decided to murder us like they did in the 2001 prelim?
Despite a narrow lead at quarter time there were still some concerns. Hodgey had clearly done some rib damage while Buddy had gone off nursing a sore thumb. St Kilda’s two goals had come from dodgy 50 metre penalties, although this was offset by the fact that three of our four goals came from free kicks. I can’t remember the last time that happened.
The start of the second term was tight, both teams trying to gain the ascendancy. And then we exploded. Hodgey was inspirational, Bateman was stitching up Dal Santo, Roughy pulled a goal out from his ample backside and then Crawf slotted one from the boundary line. The wash up, seven goals to one and a near eight goal lead at the main break.
Supporters around us were already talking about next week. An annoying pair of Hawk ‘fans’ behind us (I use the word fans loosely as they seemed to be bagging a large chunk of those players wearing brown and gold) discussed how they might get hold of a ticket. I hoped that they would miss out - if we got through because I wasn’t declaring anything yet. Maybe, when you wait so long for something you tend to become more cautious as it gets closer, a bit like Peter Costello and the Liberal leadership.
Even with the side more than eleven goals in front half way through the third quarter I refused to acknowledge that a spot in next week’s game was now a certainty. In fact, it wasn’t until ten minutes into the last quarter that I turned to my wife and uttered unconvincingly “I think we’re going to a grand final”.
When the siren finally sounded, all those nagging doubts had been dispelled. The game plan stood up, Riewoldt was well held by Gilham and Croad, Buddy kicked just one goal but Willo bobbed up with five and we had nine different goalkickers and for the first time in about four months, we won the free kick count. The all important scoreboard showed a comfortable nine goal advantage and as the club song blared from the loudspeakers circling the ground, I allowed myself to soak it all in. But the feeling of euphoria that I thought would envelope me didn’t eventuate. It was more a sense of relief that we had franked our season’s form.
Now, the nervousness of last week has been replaced by… the nervousness of this week. Making a grand final is nice but old William Ellis Green (aka Weg) doesn’t produce posters for the losers.
Geelong and Hawthorn have been the best two sides this season by a considerable margin. Between them they have won 42 games (the most ever by the sides playing off in a grand final). And while Geelong have an imposing record going in, Hawthorn’s doesn’t suffer much in comparison, having won just one less game than Geelong had to the same stage last season. Both sides have played the Bullies and Saints in the finals, the Cats winning by a combined 87 points, the Hawks 105.
There has been a lot of talk about the classic ’89 playoff between these two sides and while the game is vastly different now to then, to pinch a phrase Anthony Hudson used a couple of grand finals ago, let’s hope that the sequel is even better than the original – and naturally, with the same result.