It was once said that great grand finals have as many subplots as they do players on the field, and the 2011 decider was no different.
Steve Johnson would go down in the preliminary final with what appeared at the time to be a serious knee injury. His grand final week would be a kaleidoscope of hyperbaric chambers, media packs, ice packs and aerial shots of fitness tests.
Daniel Menzel, after five goals against Collingwood in his 20th game in Round 24, is lost to an ACL injury in the Qualifying Final.
Eventual Norm Smith Medallist Jimmy Bartel spent the week the subject of rumours that he’d secretly broken his ribs. He had apparently been spotted at an Ocean Grove Medical Clinic getting treatment. He was on the couch at the time.
James Podsiadly went from a VFL captain and part time fitness coach to the Cats’ number one forward in two seasons, while club stalwarts, Cameron Mooney, Darren Milburn, Brad Ottens and Cameron Ling would all be wrestling with their football mortality.
And then there’s Tom Lonergan. In 2006 he’d lost a kidney and the prospects for a while there were as bad as it could get. And now he was about to play in an AFL Grand Final.
The list goes on, and the ball was yet to be bounced.
An hour from the MCG on the morning of the game, defenders Matthew Scarlett and Corey Enright were carpooling up the highway to the sound of a burnt CD that Enright had made for the trip consisting of old football songs, at Scarlett’s request.
“Well, you work to earn a living, but on weekends comes a time…” You can’t make this stuff up.
Melbourne, 1 October 2011.
When they arrive, the ‘G, arguably the greatest sporting arena in the world, is heaving. It’s high grey walls and colossal light towers are almost foreboding when silent, but on a Saturday afternoon on grand final day, it’s an intoxicating place.
And nothing fills the MCG quite like an expectant Magpie army.
Collingwood had spent the year on top of the ladder, reigning premiers, and the logical successor to the once mighty Geelong dynasty. But the Cats’ Round 24, 96-point drubbing had forced a rethink.
Mick Malthouse’s men had finished on top of the ladder having lost just twice for the season – both times to Geelong.
Any doubts or fears Collingwood and its fans had been harboring that morning came to life in one glorious passage of football almost immediately after the first bounce when Travis Varcoe burst out of the middle like a slingshot to register the Cats’ first goal.
Barely 11 seconds had passed.
Another quick one from Varcoe, whose game that day remains oddly underrated, and the Cats were away to the best possible start.
Enter Travis Cloke.
A match winner on his day, but he had a kicking boot that would regularly let him down when the pressure was highest, particularly when close to goal. Sit him outside the arc free of expectation and Cloke could be utterly lethal, and on that day, he was precisely that.
Cloke became the catalyst and the Magpies, and their supporters were back in it. By the 18-minute mark of the second term, Collingwood were out to a 16-point lead and threatening to get off the leash.
The Podsiadly Injury
Then, James Podsiadly is upended in a marking contest and dislocates his shoulder. He said later he felt like his arm was behind him when he landed. If you watch the footage, you physically brace for impact as he hits the ground. It’s ugly.
The sound around the ground falls to a low murmur.
Some Cats supporters politely clap as he is taken down the race, others just stare. Part in disbelief, part in the hope he can come back, and part in helplessness if he can’t.
It’s wet, cold, the ground is heavy, the Cats are three goals down and their number one marking target is done for the day.
Geelong is on the precipice.
Is this where it ends? Could this seemingly mighty team ride off into the sunset with just two flags to mark their period of dominance?
Enter Tom Hawkins
At half time, Cameron Mooney approaches Tom Hawkins. The exchange is caught by the TV cameras. It’s intense.
“Your workload is about to increase, get to as many contests as you can,” he told him.
“Move. Start presenting. Don’t wait for it to be kicked on your head.”
Hawkins would later say the Mooney speech calmed him down and focused him.
What happens next isn’t the reason Geelong won their third flag in four years that season.
There’s not enough space to talk through the contributions of the likes of Joel Selwood, Bartel, Varcoe and Paul Chapman on this day alone. Ling’s lockdown job on Dane Swan can’t be overstated and Steve Johnson, a man who couldn’t walk the stairs in his own home during the week, added four crucial goals.
Even Harry Taylor’s decision to switch off Cloke as he was threatening to tear the game apart - without consultation with the coach’s box – deserves a mention. It’s a study in bravery, a stunning move. It’s what great teams are built upon.
But the Hawkins story is what we love about grand finals, and why we love the game the way we do. It’s the reason those opening lines of Up there Cazaly that Matthew Scarlett is so fond of, work.
Hawkins delivers beyond all expectations. Seven contested marks and three goals from five shots, and one given away to Steve Johnson, in a half of football. Words genuinely can’t do his performance justice.
They just can’t. Go back and watch it.
In the moment, it was something else. You really do feel like you’re witnessing something extraordinary. It’s the stage of the story when the music changes, and Geelong were again, on top of the mountain.
Premiers, for the third time in five years.
“Does Geelong win [that] premiership without Tom Hawkins? No way, Mooney told the Herald Sun recently.
“We watched a boy become a man and it was so good to watch.”
But perhaps it’s the wrong question. Does Geelong win without the level of commitment to team that Cameron Mooney showed as his career was coming to a close.
It’s one of many, many stories from that season, but Tom Hawkins was standing on the shoulder of giants that day, and that team first ethos, that selflessness and care for the jumper is to this day what makes the Geelong Football Club great.