LEADERSHIP comes in many forms, and in an extraordinary round 23, three players with very different loads of it led their teams to season-shaping wins.
Travis Boak no longer carries skipper status at Port Adelaide yet he has never been more of a captain. His match on Friday night, his 304th, was one of his very, very best. He had five shots at goal against the Western Bulldogs, he never gave up hope even when his team had managed just one goal to half-time, and was the steadying influence in a tense final quarter.
At 33, having already secured three All-Australian jackets and been captain of the Power for six seasons through to the end of 2018, his importance to Port Adelaide has never been more pronounced than it is right now.
Dayne Zorko is 32. Brisbane Lions captain since the half-way point of 2018, like Boak, he too has never been more important for his team than upon entry to the 2021 finals series. His past month, and particularly his efforts on Saturday in one of the greatest moments in Lions' history as the club somehow managed to scrounge the required margin over West Coast to secure a finals double chance, has been Michael Voss-like in authority.
Brisbane exited the finals in straight sets in 2019. It badly fell short in a preliminary final in 2020. It has both nothing to lose and a dangerous self-belief in 2021. Zorko has instilled in his team a confidence that allows it to believe it can beat any opponent in any circumstance and that a positive attitude trumps 99 per cent of obstacles.
Coach Chris Fagan loves Zorko's unwavering belief. It is a quality that has allowed his team to overcome the adversity of losing Cam Rayner and Eric Hipwood to season-ending injuries, and to negotiate the tricky and extended injury absences in the past two seasons of Brownlow medallist Lachie Neale, Harris Andrews and Darcy Gardiner.
Max Gawn is a four-time All-Australian, guaranteed to become a five-timer when the 2021 team is announced. He was an inspired choice as captain for the start of 2020. His performance at GMHBA Stadium on Saturday night against Geelong was heroic, particularly his 11-disposal final quarter and obviously his after-final siren goal.
Melbourne's retrieval of a 44-point deficit was one of the performances of the season, Gawn's role in it as crucial as any of his 156 matches. Gawn will turn 30 late this year. That he was prepared to gut-run to the dangerous place in the Demons' forward line for the final incoming inside-50 entry underlined his mind power as much as his physical capabilities. And to kick accurately after the final siren, when he had failed once before in that same situation – also against the Cats, in round one, 2018 – will make him close to bullet-proof for the upcoming finals series.
The previous time a captain of a football club kicked a goal after the final siren in a final-round match to give his team victory and the minor premiership was Carlton's Stephen Kernahan in 1987. The Blues won that year's flag. The last time Melbourne finished top of the ladder was 1964, the last time they won a premiership. Ron Barassi was captain back then. Gawn has led this team to the brink of greatness, a status which would be confirmed with three more wins in 2021.
Don't panic, Cats, but you've gotta change
For Geelong, the glass half-empty version of round 23 goes like this: disastrous, and proof it will fall short of a flag, yet again.
The glass half-full: a 44-point lead against the best team of the 2021 home and away season is evidence that its best is indeed the best.
The Cats' loss after the siren to Melbourne meant it finished third, not first, on the ladder, and now requires them to play a qualifying final against Port Adelaide at Adelaide Oval.
That Geelong can have a loss of this magnitude in round 23, and not lose a finals double chance, is also in the glass half-full picture. Given its fall-short record in finals series since its last premiership in 2011, a defeat like that may have been impossible to recover from had it occurred in a qualifying final.
The Cats have played in 19 finals since the 2011 flag, for six wins and 13 losses. They have been doing a lot of things very right in home-and-away seasons, and other things significantly wrong in finals. They need to react to the obvious lessons of the loss to Melbourne. To not do so would be to risk another finals campaign before it even started.
THINGS WE LEARNED Bevo needs this big Dog back NOW
Geelong likes to play methodically. Yet its attacking game is competition-best. It paid a massive price for Jeremy Cameron, who alongside Tom Hawkins and Gary Rohan forms the best three-pronged forward line in the competition. That trio would clearly benefit if less focus was placed on chipping the ball sideways before it entered the forward 50.
Some of the biggest problems for the Cats in finals have been in the ruck. Rhys Stanley has to play, and was good until late against Melbourne. But Esava Ratugolea needs to be brought back as back-up for the qualifying final.
Quinton Narkle should play. Luke Dahlhaus maybe not. And get Mitch Duncan and Zach Tuohy fit sometime before September 25!