We live in an age where the word ‘legend’ is thrown around ad nauseum – yet if anything, it fails to do justice to the legacy Ron Barassi leaves behind.
On Saturday, the AFL farewelled one of its greatest icons – a champion footballer, coach and above all, advocate of our game, responsible as much as anyone for its spread into traditional rugby league heartlands (and past the famed ‘Barassi Line’ which takes its name from him) and into the monolith the league and sport is today.
An inaugural Legend in the AFL Hall of Fame, winner of 10 premierships as player and coach first as part of the all-time great Melbourne team of the 1950s and 1960s and then at the helm of Carlton and North Melbourne into the 1970s, Barassi is an immortal of those three clubs, but the rest of the football world feels his passing just as keenly.
It is thanks to his famous tactical masterstroke in the 1970 grand final – perhaps the most well-known game of Australian Rules football ever played – that the handball became and remains an integral part of the sport.
It was he whose brief stint as coach of the Sydney Swans at their darkest hour in the early 1990s raised their profile in a previously hostile, rugby league-dominated city and began their rise to success in the decades to come, one of our code’s greatest success stories.
And it was he who remained a larger than life figure in our game long after his direct involvement with it ceased; the image of a delighted Barassi holding aloft the 2021 premiership cup won by his beloved Demons carries with it even more emotion and significance now than it did at the time.
CEO Gillon McLachlan summed it up best when he said Barassi had ‘contributed more than an individual could possibly give to our sport’.
As such, there is only one possible way for the league to both commemorate his passing and enshrine his standing in our game: the premiership cup should be renamed in his honour.
Many other Australian sporting competitions have already done this to honour their best and brightest. The NRL’s Provan-Summons Trophy, awarded to the premiers every year, has enshrined one of rugby league’s most iconic images and two of its finest contributors.
Women’s tennis pioneer Daphne Akhurst has had her name immortalised on the trophy won by the women’s singles victor at the Australian Open. And of course, Test cricket has countless examples, from the Border-Gavaskar Trophy contested between Australia and India, to the more recently coined Warne-Muralitharan Trophy between Australia and Sri Lanka.
The AFL, too, has named just about every other prize, both individual and team-based, accordingly. The minor premiers earn the McClelland Trophy; the AFL Players Association’s Most Valuable Player is honoured with the Leigh Matthews Medal; even the Brownlow Medal itself is named in honour of one of the game’s earliest administrators.
For a league which has commercialised just about every other aspect of our code, it has never been more of a relief that the most coveted prize of all remains purely ‘the premiership cup’ by name. There are no reasons, be they sponsorship ones or otherwise, to stand in the way of any name change the AFL deems fit.
And there could be no worthier choice than Barassi to have his name live on in permanence in our league. He won more of them than any other man who has featured in our game – six as a player, two as a coach – which would automatically make him a worthy choice if not for the myriad of other ways he helped grow the sport.
There would, naturally, be little opposition to his being thusly honoured; no football fan could deny his enduring and incredible impact on football both on-field and off, an impact that remains intact today.
It would be a PR win for the AFL so significant that they could even, if they so wished, sneak alongside it a plan to shift the grand final to a night match, against all public opinion, and still break even on goodwill.
Quite frankly, it’s a no-brainer, and Barassi’s passing in the middle of the finals series – the last game of his life being a thrilling clash between the two teams in Melbourne and Carlton he will forever be associated with couldn’t be more fitting – gives the league enough time to make the change now in time for the last Saturday in September.
Whoever ascends to the dais as premiership captain and coach in two weeks’ time should be lifting the Ron Barassi Cup, by name if not by engraving just yet.
And in so doing, the name and legacy of one of, if not the, defining Australian Rules figure of our time will be immortalised for all time.
There could be no higher honour, nor one more richly deserved.