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As the Dockers broke from the three-quarter time huddle, Ross Lyon gave the last word to Hayden Ballantyne: “Sweep the leg”, or something to that effect, you’d imagine.
But unlike young Johnny Lawrence, horrified by Sensei Kreese’s cold-blooded request to take out Daniel-san, Ballantyne was more than happy to go hunting. He did, from the opening bounce, awkwardly but not without a lack of at least some force, collapsing himself onto Andrew Gaff’s back.
It was the first moment in a final quarter of football where kicks and handballs and goals suddenly became meaningless and the only interesting thing taking place on the field was retribution.
The Dockers never entirely found it – the appetite for violence was satisfied with quality entrees but never a proper main course – although Michael Johnson got in a good one, and Stephen Hill hit Gaff flush too. But it wasn’t the ’80s, as Adam Simpson said, or even the ’90s, and when it became clear that Gaff was going to escape in one piece, the theatre became more subtle.
How do you behave after you’ve done a horrible thing and the consequences immediately become clear to you? How do you process it all, especially when you still have to go through the motions of worrying about stoppage positioning and defensive structures against the Fremantle Dockers?
Immediately after he broke Andrew Brayshaw’s jaw, Gaff was a zombie. You could tell, watching him daze through the remainder of the third quarter, that he realised what he had done and what the repercussions would be.
On the field, and then on the bench, you could see Gaff feeling it all. His eyes were flickering, blinking uncontrollably, his face twitching. He still had to play football, though, or at least pretend to. The start of the last quarter was as compelling as anything that happened in the best round of football of the year, for reasons that had nothing to do with football.
Those first ten minutes were about justice. A chance for the Fremantle players to get payback, and for Gaff, who kept on putting his head over the ball and hunting it despite knowing what was coming every time, an odd but fitting way to start his sentence.
The action slowly dissipated, the stage for human drama removed, giving way to what we assumed would be on tap – Nathan Vardy kicking goals from the goal-square, Brandon Matera grubbing kicks to Jeremy McGovern, Matthew Taberner’s continued struggle to become meaningful, and the other joys of irrelevant football.
Gaff got back to playing. The shock wore off, all the stages of grief passed through and, in an accepting sort of fashion, he got back to just doing all the things that have made him West Coast’s best player this year. He ran tirelessly, won the ball on the inside and spread with it on the outside, hit targets lace out, connected handball chains, set up goals and finished one himself.
All that’s gone now, of course, along with Brayshaw’s three teeth. West Coast aren’t exactly finished, because they’re still in the driver’s seat for second. Even without Gaff and Nic Naitanui, the Eagles are formidable at home. But they’ve gone from being Richmond’s primary challenger, to just another name in the pack of challengers.
By the siren on Sunday, Gaff seemed to have come to terms with what he’d done, recognising and accepting it as horrific. He will have to keep coming to terms with it for the rest of his career.