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Another AFL season is over and for the first time since 2010, the team that proved to be the best throughout the regular season won the match that mattered most – the grand final.
That team is Hawthorn, who all but buried the demons of last year’s heartbreaking grand final loss to Sydney in the most emphatic fashion to win their 11th VFL/AFL premiership at the expense of Fremantle, who appeared overawed by the occasion of a maiden AFL grand final appearance.
Entering the grand final, questions were going to be asked about whether the Hawks could rebound from last year’s disaster against a team which has come from a very long way since entering the competition in 1995.
Alastair Clarkson’s men had come off a bruising preliminary final against Geelong, which famously ended the ‘Kennett curse’, which had dated back to the Hawks’ last premiership, back in 2008, while Fremantle came in having disassembled the premiership defence of the Sydney Swans.
Many saw Fremantle as the favourites, given the manner in which they dominated the Swans and the Hawks’ nervy performance against the Cats at the same time.
However, it was the experience of the Hawks that counted the most, with nine of the team that lined up having also played in the team that upset the Geelong Cats to win the 2008 premiership.
The nine Hawks who can now proudly call themselves dual Hawthorn premiership players are: Lance Franklin, Jarryd Roughead, Sam Mitchell, Luke Hodge, Jordan Lewis, Brad Sewell, Grant Birchall, Brent Guerra and Cyril Rioli.
Shaun Burgoyne can also call himself a dual premiership player, having experienced the ultimate success with Port Adelaide in 2004.
By contrast, Ross Lyon fell to a third grand final loss as head coach, having previously failed in his attempt to land St Kilda a second premiership in 2009 and 2010.
Zac Dawson also fell to the same record, having also previously played in the three aforementioned grand finals at the Saints under Lyon.
So where did it all go wrong for the Fremantle Dockers?
Their first half was as poor a half they could possibly have ever played, as nerves and stage fright got the better of the team, all but two of whom were playing in their first AFL grand final.
Their goalkicking accuracy deserted them as Nat Fyfe missed two set shots which went out on the full, one shot at goal appeared on target only for it to be touched on the line, and Matthew Pavlich skewed a set shot with half-time looming.
Their attack also failed to create any opportunities, and even though they came back to within three points twice in the third quarter, as many expected them to do, they were no chance of ever winning the match.
Whenever the Dockers tried to challenge, the Hawks would always answer back.
And in the vital fourth quarter, which started with the Hawks leading by ten points, there was one man who won the premiership for them with his strong performance in defence – Brian Lake, who crossed over from the Western Bulldogs at the beginning of the year in pursuit of an elusive premiership.
His strong outmarking of the Fremantle attack was what won him the Norm Smith Medal – and this will no doubt be his sweetest ever moment as he himself buried the demons of three consecutive preliminary final losses with the Bulldogs between 2008 and 2010.
In the end, the Hawks scored 11.11 (77) – four behinds less than their losing score of 11.15 (81) from last year.
By contrast, the Dockers managed only eight majors and 14 behinds – if there was a time where they lost the match, it was in the first half alone.
What if the Dockers had taken their chances in the first half? Would they have won the match? Or did nerves get the better of them?
They say ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’.
Hawthorn’s premiership victory came after they choked on the big stage against the Sydney Swans last year, losing by ten points after having led by as much as two goals midway through the final quarter.
While the Swans were deserved premiers last year, many feel the Hawks should have won the flag, given they had finished at the top of the ladder during the regular season.
The fear of another grand final failure among this talented squad was what drove them to victory this year; the same was said when Geelong defeated the Ross Lyon-coached and stage fright-plagued St Kilda in 2009 after having lost to the Hawks in 2008, and when the Eagles beat the Swans in 2006 after having lost to them in the previous year.
All the Dockers can do now is learn from this year’s defeat, which should spur them on as they bid to go one better in 2014.
Ross Lyon, on the other hand, is fast trying to avoid continuing a losing grand final record which could be compared to that of Andy Murray’s previous Grand Slam troubles in tennis.
Next year marks the Dockers’ 20th year in the competition and there is no doubt they would love to mark it with a maiden premiership.
The Dockers should know they are not alone following this grand final loss – the West Coast Eagles also lost their premiership decider debut, against the Hawks, back in 1991.
The Eagles then won two premierships in the ensuing three years, both coming at the expense of the Geelong Cats. They also added another premiership to their tally in 2006.
Thus, there is no reason why the Dockers cannot go one better in 2014.
As for the Hawks – they will now revel in the glory of their latest premiership, and completely forget about the failure that was 2012 once and for all.
Their premiership victory now means seven of the last nine premierships have been won by either Hawthorn (2008 and 2013), Geelong (2007, 2009 and 2011) or the Sydney Swans (2005 and 2012) – with the only blots being West Coast (2006) and Collingwood (2010).
Geelong blew a chance to continue their odd-year dynasty by losing last week’s preliminary final against the Hawks.
This comes a decade after the Brisbane Lions captured a hat-trick of premierships at the turn of the century, and ever since Sydney started the three-team stranglehold in 2005, the Lions have struggled.
Each grand final since 2005 has featured at least one of Geelong, Hawthorn, Sydney or Ross Lyon.
The only year in which not one of the Cats, Hawks or Swans reached the grand final was in 2010, when the Lyon-coached Saints drew, then lost, against Collingwood in the two-leg grand final.
The question will be whether this trend can continue on into 2014 and beyond.
Finally, congratulations to Hawthorn, a well deserved 11th VFL/AFL premiership, one that will be toasted by the players for days to come.
And commiserations to Fremantle, who I know will be back stronger and better than ever in 2014.
The Hawks’ premiership caps off what has been a somewhat controversial 2013 season, as the Melbourne tanking saga, the Essendon supplements scandal, and the Adam Goodes racism controversy plagued the year.
But what a year it has been for the Hawthorn Football Club, as they buried the demons of 2012 in the most emphatic fashion.