TWO PLAYERS, both at their third clubs, teammates at their second clubs. Both with at least a dozen current teammates ahead of them in profile. Both the most unlikely of heroes in week two of the 2023 AFL finals series.
As Carlton and Greater Western Sydney respectively eliminated Melbourne and Port Adelaide, the performances of journeymen Blake Acres and Jesse Hogan came to symbolise the layered facets of these extraordinary form surges which have taken these teams from bottom four positions on the ladder (the Blues were 15th after round 15, the Giants 15th after round 12) through to preliminary finals.
The in-season recoveries by the Blues and the Giants have been based more on system and equal reliance on every player in the selected 22 than the resident superstars within their operations, and on the weekend Acres and Hogan were standouts.
There are many differences in the career paths of these two, but their common preparedness to toil through difficulties and have true, impactful connection in big finals with teammates at their third clubs has helped keep the most impossible of premiership dreams alive.
Hogan was meant to be the next big thing when Melbourne secured him as 17-year-old as part of special access to elite young talent when GWS was in its early stages of AFL life. He gave Alex Rance a great deal of trouble in just his fourth match, and booted 44 and 41 goals in his first two seasons, 2015 and 2016. But he was also dealing with regular injury, cancer, mental health problems and family grief.
He was transferred to Fremantle at the end of 2018. Headlines raged about his social life and he was lucky to escape unhurt after rolling his car in a suburban street. GWS provided him with a third, and clearly final, AFL chance at the end of 2019.
Eight shots at goal for 4.4 - taking his tally to 48 goals for the season - on Saturday night at Adelaide Oval against Port Adelaide in a semi-final was his most significant performance as a Giant, bettering even his nine-goal haul against Essendon in round 23.
For the second consecutive finals match, Acres kicked Carlton’s final goal on Friday night. His seemingly indefatigable ability has placed him deep inside Carlton's forward line to be ready for match-winning moments. Carlton won by six points against Sydney in week one, and by two points against Melbourne.
Acres' hard running also saved the Blues against the Swans, where he twice had pushed himself to the last line of defence in the third and fourth quarters to twice place fingers on balls which would otherwise have sailed through for Sydney goals.
There was something mesmerising about the Blues final minute surge across, and then down, the field against Melbourne. Jacob Weitering's kick to Ollie Hollands. Hollands' pass to Sam Docherty. Docherty's long bomb to Acres. Acres playing on, and in his haste nearly hitting the goalpost with his kick. The stakes weren't quite as high as West Coast's 2018 Grand Final-winning play of Jeremy McGovern to Nathan Vardy to Liam Ryan to Dom Sheed, but they weren't too far shy, either.
Acres' entry to the AFL came in the same national draft as his now-captain, Patty Cripps. Carlton took Cripps at 13, St Kilda took Acres at 19. Cripps is the reigning Brownlow medallist and was enormous with his impact against Melbourne. But in this new Carlton team, Acres is an equal.
As Carlton and GWS now prepare for preliminary finals, their opponents will be plotting to combat many players before they come to focus on Acres and Hogan. But if, respectively, Brisbane and Collingwood, don't have back-up plans for these supposed role-players, they will be leaving themselves exposed to the heartache suffered by Melbourne and Port on the weekend.
No one will be tipping a Carlton-GWS Grand Final. No one, not 10 weeks ago anyway, tipped Carlton and GWS to be in the final four. And no one had Acres and Hogan getting them there.