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Some grand finals match-ups, like Essendon versus Carlton or West Coast versus Collingwood, have a certain gravitas about them.
Others I could easily imagine as Sunday listings in Launceston that somehow became a grand final showdown. In many ways these are the most unique grand finals.
1996: Sydney versus North Melbourne
Sydney were only a year removed form a hat trick of wooden spoons. Their minor premiership in 1996 was a stunning, bizarre happening at the time. North Melbourne, meanwhile, were building something special but were not exactly the gaudiest team in the league.
This grand final was the first that indicated that anyone was entitled to win the flag after 30 years of a closed shop. The Swans has unaccountably thrashed the Roos in Victoria midyear and unexpectedly held sway until just before halftime in the grand final, when three Roos goals in the last three minutes before halftime (two in the last minute) killed them.
If anyone can score an anodyne six goals in a grand final, it was Tony Lockett in the only last Saturday in September of his career. I mean, what’s six goals when compared to one behind from outside 50?
1997: St Kilda versus Adelaide
A random grand final between the at-that-stage hopeless St Kilda versus the Western Bulldogs may have been the biggest happening of the century, but it was not to be.
But this is not about me. The match-up that ensued is still the most random grand final pairing of all time, and in many ways the most interesting of all grand finals.
From four Crows behinds in the first two minutes and Austinn Jones’ epic running goal, to Barry Hall’s three goals in three minutes for the Saints, to Shane Ellen unfathomably (to Victorians) dragging the Crows ahead in the third quarter, to of course Darren Jarman’s five in the last quarter and the beauty of his pose in scoring his sixth, something interesting occurred in every quarter of this grand final. Jarman is still the most recent player to score six goals in a grand final.
The league had a shocking but deserving new champion club and the Saints faithful had to keep waiting. Meanwhile, at the time I was so disgusted that I went to the show on grand final day instead, and only watched small snippets on stall-keepers’ TVs.
2001: Essendon versus Brisbane
This was a mega-heavyweight showdown, but think about how little success the Lions have had besides these four years and the combination of clubs starts to feel more random.
This match was basically the last moment Essendon and Kevin Sheedy were relevant. A strange and compelling third quarter involved Essendon, initially up on the scoreboard, dominate inside 50s for the first ten minutes and then get slaughtered in the quarter’s second half, losing the quarter 6.2 to 1.2.
Essendon were a great team shamefully unacknowledged by history, but they had run out of steam by the end of 2001. Meanwhile, the previously hapless Lions as premiers felt delightfully novel. By 2002 and 2003, it did not have such a new feel.
2004: Port Adelaide versus Brisbane
Another heavyweight showdown that feels correct in 2002-04 and 2020 but otherwise is a completely random combination of teams.
This game was played in front of an MCG under construction but for three quarters had it all. One match-up was Shaun Burgoyne versus Jason Akermanis, be still my beating heart. The two had great games by basically ignoring each other.
Then Gavin Wanganeen went boom and in a flash it was over.
2005: West Coast versus Sydney
By 2006 this felt normal but in 2005 it was weird: only Sydney’s second grand final in 60 years. It was strange and compelling, as grand finals usually are.
Eight goals were enough to win it for the Swans, who almost blew an entire quarter of hard work in the last seconds when the ball floated beyond the pack to the waiting Eagle Mark Nicoski, but somehow Tadhg Kennelly rushed it through.
2007: Geelong versus Port Adelaide
This turned into nothing more than a breathless celebration with a bunch of streaking rebounders in hoops forever charging forward with the ball. This game killed the other club for a generation.
Port had added spice beforehand by beating Geelong with six seconds left, at Kardinia, five weeks previously.
Imagine Geelong versus Port Adelaide and what comes to mind? A grey day at Kardinia? Not a grand final for me, but then that’s what this article is all about.
2012: Hawthorn versus Sydney
Much like the Sydney-Eagles combination, by 2014 Hawthorn-Sydney felt right and epochal, but the first time around in 2012 it felt like a completely randomised match-up.
It was also the most shocking boil-over, as a team who individually all played at 120 per cent capacity on the day was able to just scrape over the line over a team far superior on paper, thanks also to missed shots from the other side.
Not to be a contrarian, but you can’t retrospectively be ten points away from a four-peat. These things don’t work in reverse. Brisbane got closer to doing it than Hawthorn did.
2013: Hawthorn versus Fremantle
We were so in love with the purple haze that spring that when I was offered a junky community newspaper column around that time, I called it ‘through the haze’ and only later recognised what had subconsciously influenced me.
After 1997 this is the most random, capricious grand final combination ever. History despises this match, but considering the terrible showings from Sydney, West Coast, Adelaide and GWS in grand finals that decade, the Dockers gave a good account of themselves.
This game is uninterpretable. Hawthorn’s suffocating 15-minute last-quarter forward press won the game for them, but otherwise Freo had perhaps 55 per cent of the play and could or should have won.
But given their shocking skills on the day they were simultaneously never going to win. Down and out by 31 points with ten minutes left, they unexpectedly led a furious comeback… but also saw that comeback peter out in the last five minutes.
As I said, uninterpretable.
2016: Sydney versus Western Bulldogs
The combo doesn’t exactly scream heavyweight on a marquee, and let’s face it: the Bulldogs versus absolutely anyone would have been a ridiculous grand final match-up pre-2017.
For me this is one of the very best grand finals: the most furiously contested, the most skilful under immense pressure, the one with the most pivotal moments of interest, the match with one of the tensest moods.
I’ll nip something in the bud: Tom Papley, Luke Parker, Ben McGlynn, Gary Rohan, Xavier Richards, Kurt Tippett and Callum Mills all went missing for Sydney, an entire third of their team. Tom Mitchell dominated for a quarter then vanished. The only Bulldog that disappeared was Jake Stringer. Sydney reaped a mere two goals from their forward line. Who’s going to win a grand final with those stats?
The collective frenzy of a full 21 players constantly buzzing around like mosquitos, against a team who for all their defensive and (in the first half) midfield skill was carrying a third of their team, is surely reasons A, B, C, D and E of why the Dogs won the day, and of why all grand finals are won. The umpiring would be reason F.
I didn’t want a lovely game to be so confrontational but that seems to be the way the wind is blowing these days.
2017: Adelaide versus Richmond
Now this is random. The most random season gave the most random grand final match-up with a premier we never considered winning the flag until halfway through the third quarter of the grand final.
There was something weird in that Adelaide team even before this match and the camp. When they think they are getting on top at the end of the first quarter and the start of the second they start behaving poorly – divine justice is rarely so swift. And what was with the anthem stance?
I always enjoy the colours of grand finals. This one is the only one I didn’t – too yellow, and not in a good way like 2015.
2019: Richmond versus GWS
This was new and fresh, kind of the sequel of a two-parter the clubs started in the 2017 preliminary final. In hindsight GWS’ 2019 finals series was the last rage of a dying team, as their 2019 home-and-away season had been awful.
When I saw GWS dressed in white I got chilling Fremantle 2013 vibes. This grand final is probably best remembered for two things: Marlion Pickett’s unfathomable and stunning debut, and for now the final occasion of 100,000 people watching an AFL match in a normal world.
2021: Melbourne versus Western Bulldogs
Owing to 1954, this match-up does not feel as out of place as a grand final combination as it could have been. Historically yes, it’s only Melbourne’s third grand final since the 1960s, and the Dogs’ second. It has an old-school feel but is also extremely modern, in the sense that it’s proof that anyone can turn their woes around.
I once drew a table of which teams had played a huge, historical match against each other in recent times. Basically, all grand finals and fraught preliminary finals went in. Besides Geelong and Hawthorn, who each have a famous historical showdown against virtually everyone, much of the page was still blank.
It goes to show: the weirdest showdowns are still yet to come.