RON BARASSI. Norm Smith. Don Cordner. Ian Ridley. Ivor Warne-Smith. Max Gawn.
The first five names are the official legends in the Melbourne Football Club Hall of Fame. The sixth name is headed that way, and unofficially will be added as early as the evening of Saturday, September 25.
Gawn's incredible performance last Friday against Geelong was the game of his life, coming in the second last match of a season in which he not only secured a fifth Therabody AFL All-Australian jacket but was named as captain.
It was the game of a man at one with his skillset, each of his five goals having footy smarts, major leadership impact and theatre. And with Gawn these days, there is an aura attached to his play, a quality at full force in those dying seconds of the round 23 match against Geelong where he willed himself into the dangerous zone 20 metres from goal, demanded the ball be kicked toward him, marked it and goalled after the siren to secure for his side top place on the ladder.
Gawn has jammed so much into an AFL career which, despite beginning at the 2009 NAB AFL Draft as a third-round pick, has a mere 158 matches to it. There have been knee injuries, initial form issues and confusion around his actual role in the 22. The entire 2012 season was one where he was sidelined totally. In both 2014 and 2015, he was unable to play before round nine.
Everything clicked for him in 2016. Entering that year with just 39 matches to his name from six seasons of toil, he emerged from it with the first of his All-Australian honours, and has completed a near perfect record of such acknowledgment since, with the 2017 season being the only one in that sequence that he failed to find himself inside the competition's best 22 in a year.
All-Australian jackets and goals in a preliminary final only tell a small part of the Gawn legend. Just ask anyone at Melbourne if they have come across a better person in life than their captain.
Barassi, Smith, Cordner, Ridley, Warne-Smith, Gawn. Yep, it's a name that belongs, particularly if he achieves on Saturday week what the others long ago have – a Demon flag.
STORYLINES EVERYWHERE FOR THE UNDERDOGS
AS WAS the case in 2016 where heroes emerged from nowhere and established, bigger name players were out injured, the Western Bulldogs have burst through the 2021 Toyota AFL Finals Series in the most unpredictable of ways.
Where to start with this club's incredible storylines? Let’s go with Mitch Hannan, an ex-Demon who booted an equal-career high three goals in Saturday night's preliminary final against Port Adelaide.
Onto Cody Weightman, who was ruled out with concussion after a semi-final win against Brisbane – he will be one of the key Dogs forwards in the Grand Final.
Bailey Smith – the ice in the veins operator who hasn't missed one single match of football since being drafted. He has now kicked eight goals in the three finals of 2021, including four against Port. He is the standout Bulldogs player of the finals series to this point.
Easton Wood – has looked near-finished at some stages of 2020, including in the first quarter against Charlie Cameron in the semi-final. But his class and smarts have again emerged as crucial in the backline operations.
Stef Martin. Turns 35 in November. Before Saturday night, hadn’t played since round 12. After Saturday night, might be THE reason the Dogs have a chance against Gawn and Luke Jackson.
Alex Keath. The ex-cricketer who at his second AFL club looked at home. Missed the prelim with injury. Does he return for the Grand Final?
Laitham Vandermeer – the regularly injured speedster who had the presence of mind to ensure a match-winning point was scored against Brisbane, but who was subbed out with injury against Port.
Josh Bruce – at this third club and having his best AFL season before rupturing a knee in round 21.
Kylie Watson-Wheeler. The senior vice-president and managing director of the Walt Disney Company Australia and New Zealand, now in her first season as Bulldogs president.
Josh Schache. Looked only a remote hope of playing any meaningful role in a Bulldogs flag push only six weeks ago. Got his chance as a medical sub and played well to cover a hole in defence, played magnificent team roles in the past two weeks up forward.
Roarke Smith. Since 2015, seemingly forever being injured with knee reconstructions, rookie-listed, delisted and re-rookied. Game No.37 will be a Grand Final.
NON-VIC CLUBS BLOW BACK-TO-BACK CHANCES
TWO CONSECUTIVE seasons of COVID-19 ravaged football in Victoria, two consecutive seasons of non-Victorian teams failing to capitalise on rare opportunities and comparative life freedoms to progress to the Grand Finals.
Richmond-Geelong last year, Melbourne-Western Bulldogs in 2021. It was the Lions who madly missed their calling to play in a Gabba Grand Final in 2020. West Coast didn't even make the finals in a year in which the last game is to be played at Optus Stadium. And Port Adelaide players, able to spend most of the year in their own beds, butchered their dream red carpet run into a potential Grand Final with consecutive Adelaide Oval finals.
The second of those games, Saturday night's preliminary final loss to the Bulldogs, was a disaster, a full-blown choke and an embarrassment. There was simply not one excuse for the events which unfolded, and how this plays out in the next few weeks in a series of reviews is going to make for very interesting storylines, for the non-presence of so many big-name players could not have been predicted.
Coach Ken Hinkley's nine seasons in charge has seen three preliminary finals exits. The first two, 2014 and 2020, were by a kick, Saturday night's by 71 points.
Port Adelaide exists to win premierships. It hasn't done so since 2004. It appeared beautifully poised for the past month to at least make the 2021 Grand Final, but now must face internal and external doubt for another 12 months.