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Norm Smith: Bulldog Jason Johannisen springs a medal surprise

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 01: Jason Johannisen of the Bulldogs in action during the 2016 Toyota AFL Grand Final match between the Sydney Swans and the Western Bulldogs at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on October 01, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media)
Jason Johannisen was somewhat of a surprise winner of the Norm Smith medal

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THE WESTERN Bulldogs' 2016 fairytale stretched all the way to Johannesburg on Saturday when South-African born defender Jason Johannisen won the Norm Smith Medal.

A dazzling half-back who plays with a flair and freedom encouraged by his coach, Johannisen became the Bulldogs' first Norm Smith medallist in a Grand Final he turned with his bravery.

The 23-year-old finished with a team-high 33 possessions and a game-high nine inside 50s, breaking the match open in the second half and providing the outside class needed in a brutal contested game. 

Johannisen polled 10 votes to win the prestigious medal from Swan Josh Kennedy (eight), and teammates Tom Boyd (seven) and Liam Picken (five).

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"It's been an amazing ride and I just love being a part of it," he said when he accepted his medal.

"To all the supporters, it's been a long time coming, we did it!" 

Boyd was an enormous contributor with his three goals and six contested marks, with the recruit coming of age on the biggest stage to be awarded the maximum three votes by two judges.

Kennedy was given votes by all five judges after an enormous first half, finishing with a game-high 34 possessions and three goals.

There wasn't a Norm Smith Medal when the Bulldogs won their first premiership in 1954, making the medallion presented by 1999 winner Shannon Grant even more rare.  

The cool Bulldog known as 'JJ' went numb when he heard his name read out.

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"I couldn't believe it," he said after the match, still grasping his team's achievement.

"As a kid you dream of playing in a Grand Final and winning it, and it's definitely a special moment I'll look back on.

"I'm speechless really. To see all the other players who have won this award, I'm truly honoured. I just can't believe it.

"The club took a massive gamble on me as a young kid. I'm just thankful for the opportunity this fantastic club has given me and I just try and repay the faith."

Johannisen's match will be remembered for the goal that wasn't.

A 50m running effort that all but sealed the win until it was overturned on review, with video showing it was touched by Dane Rampe millimetres before it crossed the line.

 

While that goal didn't count, the mindset Johannisen had to leave his backline teammates and push up the ground when he had the chance was crucial to the result.

Having what would have been the enduring goal of the premiership denied did not worry the laidback Bulldog.

"It's all good, I've got two medals now," he said.  

"We were keeping it in our forward 50 for the last five minutes pretty well, so I knew we were going to score sooner or later."

Johannisen mimicked NFL star Odell Beckham Jr with his bleached top hair during the pre-season, and young fans are sure to be asking their hairdressers for the 'JJ' after Saturday's match-winning performance.  

His journey to newfound stardom began as an 11-year-old when he was convinced to join training at his cousin's junior football club, Willetton, in Perth.

His father Eldrick and mother Sonya had moved to Australia from South Africa and their son was a Rugby player until that point.

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You can see the fundamentals of that game in the devastating sidestep Johannisen uses in his frequent bursts out of defence.

Eldrick cut a proud figure in the Bulldogs' rooms post-match, having flown into Melbourne on Thursday with Sonya and their daughter Simone to be at the MCG for their son's big day. 

"He's just like a normal 23-year-old kid until you put him on the field and he seems to transform into something else," Eldrick said.

He described his son as a "very laidback person" and said he was never flustered.

"I've never seen Jason angry, he's just a very calm person," he said.

He credited the speedster's junior coach at Willetton, Murray Glaskin, for instilling the flexibility in his game that allows him to defend and attack in whatever measure the team needs.

For Beveridge, it is a crucial trait for one of the team's most important role players.  

"He's given a licence to do certain things, but he's got to take that and still have an instinctive side that is in balance," Beveridge said.

"We pride ourselves on team defence and if you're too adventurous it really hurts us.

"'J' has found a way to find a balance in his game and be able to defend when he really needs to but also go like the clappers when it's his opportunity.

"I think it causes an enormous amount of concern for the opposition with his speed and you have to start thinking, 'What are we going to do with Johannisen?'"

The moment that turned the Grand Final

It's a question the Bulldogs would have asked themselves earlier this year when their valuable high defender went down with a serious hamstring injury.

It was a setback so severe Johannisen didn't play for 10 weeks, but he stepped back into the team in a big way, kicking the match-winning goal against the Sydney Swans in round 15.    

Towards the end of his stretch on the sidelines he returned to Perth for a 10-year junior premiership reunion, telling his parents he was confident he'd be straight back in the team.   

"One week he's with us and the next week he's kicking the winning goal," Eldrick said.

"Now this, it's unbelievable. We're so proud of him."

Norm Smith Medal voting

10 J Johannisen
8 J Kennedy
7 T Boyd
5 L Picken

How the judges voted

Brad Johnson (Fox Footy) - Johannisen 3, Kennedy 2, Boyd 1.
Emma Quayle (The Age) - Boyd 3, Johannisen 2,  Kennedy 1.
Wayne Carey (Channel 7) - Boyd 3, Picken 2, Kennedy 1.
Michael Voss (SEN 1116) - Johannisen 3, Picken 2, Kennedy 1.
Jay Clark (Herald Sun) - Kennedy 3, Johannisen 2, Picken 1.