Indigenous AFL stars look set to dominate the indigenous game’s biggest stage on Saturday, stamping themselves as dream team players for a dreamtime occasion.
Lance Franklin, Cyril Rioli and Shaun Burgoyne are all capable of turning a tight AFL grand final single-handedly in Hawthorn’s favour, just as Adam Goodes and Lewis Jetta are for Sydney.
All have the capacity to unleash a season-defining burst of individual brilliance.
The grand final could be their time to shine, judging from the impressive list of indigenous players to win best on ground honours in the premiership decider.
Since the Norm Smith medal was first awarded in 1979, it has hung proudly on the chests of Aboriginal players no fewer than six times.
Two of the winners were Cyril Rioli’s uncles – Richmond’s Maurice Rioli in 1982 and Essendon’s Michael Long in 1993. West Coast’s Peter Matera was similarly honoured in 1992, Adelaide’s Andrew McLeod twice in 1997 and `98 and Port Adelaide’s Byron Pickett in 2004.
Only a brave man would bet against that list lengthening at the MCG this weekend.
The five indigenous players on show are not just superstars of the moment. Two certainly, maybe three or four, and arguably all five could end up deserving a mention in discussions about many an all-time best list.
Sydney co-captain Goodes has the medals to prove it. He is one of only 12 players ever to win more than one Brownlow. He won a premiership with Sydney in 2005 and is a four-time All-Australian. He is as towering a role model off the field as he is on it.
No player ever seemed less likely to be involved in anything unsporting or unseemly. When he first won the game’s highest individual honour in 2003 he took his mum to the award ceremony.
He was named in the Indigenous Team of the Century and with former Swan Michael O’Loughlin started an indigenous football academy.
Franklin is freakish, a 196cm, 100kg monster who can move like the wind and kick goals from prodigious distances and ludicrous angles.
Hawthorn great Leigh Matthews has called him the player he most enjoys watching. Franklin in 2008 became the first player in a decade to kick a century of goals in the home and away season. The Hawthorn star is so gifted it somehow doesn’t seem fair to the rest.
Much the same could be said of Rioli, at the other end of the size scale. His football lineage is well established, and he has the speed, vision and talent to leave opponents and spectators breathless. He helped Hawthorn to the flag in his debut season of 2008, prompting coach Alastair Clarkson to call him a “sensational acquisition”.
Jetta is an excitement machine, too, who is the Swans top scorer this season after starting to find his speedy feet at top level.
Burgoyne is already a premiership winner, with Port Adelaide in 2004, and was named an All-Australian in 2006.
Between them they could decide the fate of the 2012 flag.
All are in match-winning form.
Jetta’s inspirational running goal in the preliminary final against Collingwood is destined to become a staple of highlight reels.
He picked up the ball in his defensive half, saw an empty paddock in front of him and, roared on by an hysterical home crowd, “put the afterburners on” to race upfield and goal, taking three bounces along the way. So what if he might have infringed the 15m rule slightly? He made hairs stand up on the backs of necks.
Rioli conjured two magic moments – a key goal from a contested mark and a set-up for three-goal Franklin – that probably made all the difference in the dying stages of Hawthorn’s preliminary final win over Adelaide.
Teammate Brad Sewell seemed to speak for everyone when he said later: “Thank God he’s on our side. Thank God for Cyril, eh?”
The fellow Hawk who won a crucial clearance and thumped the ball upfield for Rioli to goal was none other than Burgoyne, just after the Crows had edged ahead with five minutes remaining.
Franklin credited Burgoyne’s strong performances all season as one reason the Hawks made the grand final.
Indigenous players have achieved a wildly disproportionate success rate in the AFL, which makes a big change from stories about indigenous over-representation in statistics about prisons, poor health and low education levels.
The indigenous population of just over half a million represents 2.3 per cent of all Australians, about one in 40.
Yet indigenous footballers have claimed about one in five Norm Smith medals, and represent one in nine of Saturday’s 44 grand final players.
A total of 79 indigenous players are on current AFL senior lists, appearing at all 18 clubs with at least two and as many as six players at some teams.
They have made such an impact on the AFL that since 2005 round nine has been designated a special week to celebrate the contribution of all indigenous players.
Its centrepiece is the Kevin Sheedy-inspired Essendon-Richmond match, chosen because the teams’ combined jumper colours – red, yellow and black – make up the Aboriginal flag.
It’s known as Dreamtime at the G (MCG).
But indigenous stars are shaping up as such a big influence that they could create a second, unofficial Dreamtime at the G – on the last Saturday in September, the one day that is the stuff of dreams.