Over Australian football’s storied history, which two sides have had a rivalry as good as this? Not clubs, but teams of a particular era, when the competition gets personal.
There have been some beauties. The Essendon and Hawthorn sides that battled through the 1980s. Richmond and Collingwood playing five grand finals in ten years from 1919. Carlton and Collingwood in the 1970s. Essendon and North Melbourne around the turn of this century.
But the last few years between Hawthorn and Geelong would have to rate highly among them.
We all know the back story. The taste of the 1989 grand final epic was still in our mouths when these two sides met in the 2008 rematch. The Cats dominated play but couldn’t finish off in front of goal. A third-quarter burst from Hawthorn rattled the favourites, and their composure was lost.
That Geelong side famously swore they would never lose to Hawthorn again. In eight matches across four seasons since, they’ve been true to their word.
But Hawthorn have not taken a backward step either. They feel the heat of the Cats’ intensity and respond. Every contest since that day in 2008 has been played with a physicality above anything in the surrounding season.
And oh, how close those matches have been. Any and all of them could be included on a highlight reel.
In 2009, Geelong triumphed by eight points in the opening round, and a solitary point kicked after the siren in round 17.
In 2010, the margins were nine points and two. In 2011′s regular season, 19 points and five. Even the 19-point match involved a big Geelong comeback, and was in the balance until the dying minutes.
Then yesterday’s match, again decided by two points. The only larger margin was in 2011′s qualifying final, as Geelong sealed it the top-four contest by 31.
More remarkably, five of the eight matches have involved Geelong coming back from deficits at three-quarter time.
By 2012 you could be forgiven for imagining that the fire might have dimmed. Not so. Don’t think that the dropped chance in 2008 doesn’t still sting the Cats. With three premierships in five years, they are talked about as potentially one of the great sides. Had they taken four, that status would be beyond debate.
For Hawthorn, the standouts in these contests have been Jordan Lewis and Brad Sewell. These are matches that suit their relentless physical style of play.
Mitchell especially relished the first half yesterday, with retired Geelong tagger Cameron Ling doing sideline interviews for television rather than standing in the Hawk’s hip pocket.
On paper, Hawthorn’s devastating forward has looked like it should be too much for the Cats. But while Lance Franklin, Jarryd Roughead and Cyril Rioli have all threatened to explode at various stages over these matches, the threat has always ended up suffocated by Geelong’s defence.
Even without fullback Matthew Scarlett yesterday, Geelong were well served by the old firm of Corey Enright, Tom Lonergan, Harry Taylor and Andrew Mackie. Mackie’s chase to smother Michael Osborne’s final-quarter shot from the goalsquare was the stuff of legend.
Hawthorn’s defence was equally determined, with Lance Gibson coming back strongly after an accidental kick to the face, and the chronically underrated Brent Guerra calmly defusing half a dozen dangerous situations.
But even in the wet conditions, they were unable to neutralise the threat of Geelong’s talls. James Podsiadly is becoming a Hawthorn specialist, his five matches against the Hawks yielding returns of 2, 2, 6, 3, and 5 goals.
Tom Hawkins, meanwhile, played by far his best game for the Cats, and gave them inspiration when they looked to be flagging. The big man has suddenly grown into his game.
He flew high for two of the most athletically brutal pack marks you could hope to see, smashing opponents out of the way and plucking the wet football like low-hanging fruit. The confidence was palpable. His set shots can still be awkward, but he managed three crucial goals.
But the real telling point for Hawkins was the development of other parts of his game. In the tense last quarter, he contested a ball outside fifty, won it at ground level, spun off an opponent, waited a split second, then dinked a pass to a teammate within goalscoring range. Later that quarter, he put in a gut-busting run to the halfback flank to provide an option for Geelong out of defence, and remained on the wing to give support in the movement forward.
These were complexities to his game that would not have been there a season back. If Hawkins can just get his set shots from 50 metres going, he will be a scary proposition.
But the central player, both to yesterday’s match and to the last four seasons of rivalry, was Jimmy Bartel. Bartel is the man synonymous with Geelong’s last quarter charge-downs. It is he who is most able to commit to the contest late when legs are weary and skills fade.
His possession count since 2009 goes 28, 23, 29, 26, 28, 20, 19, 20, these in some of the most fiercely contested matches of his career, when silky stat counts are brutalised out of the game. He has kicked five goals into the bargain.
His ten behinds might ordinarily seem below par, but in contests this tight, even those have at times proved crucial. It was he who kicked the late behind to level the scores in 2009, then another after the siren to win it.
Yesterday, with Geelong 18 points adrift early in the final term, Bartel marked outside 50. All day players had struggled even with short passes in the high winds and slippery conditions.
He calmly went back, weighed up the breeze, and kicked a swirling 55-metre bomb straight through the middle. The Cats believed they could get back. They did.
One day, Geelong’s streak of wins will break. One day, the streak of classics will break too. I have to admit, yesterday I was tipping the Hawks to get up. But I see now that only a fool would do that while Bartel is around.
As for the run of classics, that probably won’t end with the Geelong streak. The fire between these sides burns yet. What makes the Geelong run all the more remarkable is how well their opponents have played. To be none from eight just defies probability.
Yesterday, Hawthorn were the dominant side most of the day. They had their opportunities late, too, squandering several decent chances to run in and goal. But as the Geelong side of 2008 can remind them, if you don’t kick ‘em, the rest of it doesn’t mean anything at all.