The third part of the six-part series comprises the five players that the Geelong Cats, Gold Coast Suns and Greater Western Sydney Giants could least afford to lose in season 2021 plus an honourable mention.
Halfway through the second quarter of Thursday night’s qualifying final, Geelong held a narrow lead over the almost season-long ladder leaders.
As Darcy Byrne-Jones took passive possession of the ball in reaction to the umpire’s whistle, Patrick Dangerfield launched a frontal bear-hug assault that knocked his opponent squarely off his feet.
Tom Rockliff and Ollie Wines quickly sought out the superstar midfielder as the crowd began to express their disapproval. Murmurs from supporters turned to roars in an instant. This, however, was just the warm-up.
With only three minutes remaining before the halftime break, the newly minted All Australian defender was in the line of fire once again. Breaking away from a stoppage, Dangerfield took to the contest like a literal battering ram, steamrolling over Byrne-Jones – and cutting himself open in the process – before being caught from behind by Robbie Gray.
The 22,755 in attendance lifted once more, first with outrage at the perceived slight against Byrne-Jones, then quickly in sheer delight as Dangerfield was stripped of the ball. The volume of the crowd grew, then grew again.
Then, with 11 minutes remaining in the third quarter and Port Adelaide charging headlong towards a preliminary final berth, 73-kilo second-year archery enthusiast Xavier Duursma courageously ran back with the flight of the ball inside the Power’s forward 50. All seemed well with the world until Geelong’s Mark Blicavs – all 198 centimetres and 100 kilos of him – set his sights on claiming victory in the aerial duel.
Wrenching the Sherrin from Duursma’s grasp, the steeplechaser-turned-ruckman-turned-key-defender launched a triple whammy of wrecking-ball proportion. Hit hard – but fairly – mid-air, the Port Adelaide tyro crashed to the ground, only to be pancaked by Blicavs’ sizeable frame upon landing, with his head slamming into the turf as a full stop to the impact.
The crowd at the Adelaide Oval took a collective deep breath as Duursma lay prone for some time before being helped off the field. Thousands upon thousands more watching at home winced as slow-motion montages of the contest magnified the brute force of the collision. Those in attendance launched into a standing ovation in recognition of the youngster’s bravery, with the Power faithful swiftly moving to the role of protectors in vocal retribution for the beat-down handed to Duursma.
A cacophony of boos erupted as Blicavs lined up to take his kick deep inside Geelong’s defensive arc. The noise filled every inch of the half-filled stadium. Those in attendance vicariously embodied the energy of every supporter unable to be there.
All the while, the pile-up of pressure on Tom Hawkins grew exponentially with every miss. The increasing vocal reactions to his mixed bag of miscued set shots from tough angles and botched around-the-body-play-on snaps that refused to follow the desired flight path combined to make each subsequent miss all the more damning as the Coleman Medallist finished with a score line of 0.5. There was little he could do to reverse what had been set in motion early in the piece, as performer and audience combined for a masterclass in schadenfreude theatre.
On the stroke of three-quarter time, and with the game seemingly slipping out of the Cats’ grasp, Dangerfield again stepped up to the plate. This time however there was no need for physical pressure. Outnumbered three-to-one in what seemed an impossible situation, he provided fans with a glimmer of hope as he gleefully streamed away from his helpless Port Adelaide opponents. Cats supporters rediscovered their voice as one of their favourite sons dashed into the vacant forward arc to keep Geelong within striking distance.
Finally, as the clock ticked down ominously for Geelong fans, who began the contest hoping to atone for recent finals failures, the joy of sealing a home preliminary final reached fever pitch for Port Adelaide fans. The final siren was accompanied by an eruption of celebration.
Following early encounters with precisely zero in attendance, and teams playing away from home in the Queensland hubs to middling crowds, the nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right was well and truly shaken off in the opening finals salvo, with the AFL world well and truly reminded of the joys of the shared spectator experience.
It was glorious.