I don’t recall ever feeling prouder after a loss.
The Adelaide Crows have now lost the last four Preliminary Finals they’ve taken part in. All four of those losses have been painful experiences, but this one was by far the most tolerable. That may seem baffling; especially considering the margin in this one was closer than any in the other three, but there are reasons. In 2005 the Crows finished top, and when you finish top, there is an expectation that you should at least make the Grand Final. They didn’t, and it hurt. In 2006 Adelaide had got themselves a home Prelim, and managed to turn that into one of the most disastrous losses I’ve ever witnessed. That one stung even more.
This time though, no one gave Adelaide a chance. There was no burden of expectation. No one expected us to even make the finals at the start of the year. We’d finished 14th the year before, so I’d say the doubts of the wider football public were certainly not without foundation. To make the finals was pleasing, and to finish top four was astounding.
I was realistic about our chances leading into the match. I did the whole “well no one expected us to get this far, it’s been a tremendous season” spiel in my mind, but as it drew closer I was becoming more and more desperate for a win. I wanted it, badly. It wasn’t that every man and his dog were tipping Hawthorn. That’s fine. They were deserved favourites. It’s more that nobody gave Adelaide a chance. Nobody could envision a situation in which the Crows might just snatch a win. They were talking as if Hawthorn were already in the Grand Final. They were guessing how big the margin would be. How ugly it might get. I wanted to show these people up. I wanted to make them look stupid. I wanted them to feel stupid. And if I, just a lowly supporter, felt that way, I can’t imagine how the players and coaches felt. They played like it bothered them, and I couldn’t be happier. They didn’t roll over. They fought. They were supposed to rock up, let Hawthorn have a bruise free run into the Granny, and be grateful for the learning experience. The whole game reminded me of Rocky.
He doesn’t know it’s a damn show! He thinks it’s a damn fight!
To see my side give their all, then give some more, was uplifting. I can be disappointed with the result, but I can’t be disappointed in them. Not a single player could be faulted for their effort. They may not have won, but they stuck it to Hawthorn and every single talking head who dismissed them as fodder.
The list of valiant Crows was extremely long. Kurt Tippett chose the biggest stage of the year to remind us Adelaide fans why we would actually like him to stick around. It felt as if he took more marks in the game than he had in all those that preceded it. Tippett, who is the very definition of shaky in front of goal, looked anything but. He radiated confidence when lining up the goals. I felt it through my television. I’ve believed for a while now that Tippett was probably going to go. Over the past few months he’s been playing like a man who had made up his mind. He didn’t on Saturday, and as a result I have a new flicker of hope that he will stay.
Taylor Walker. Let me tell you everything you need to know about Taylor Walker. There is not a single forward I would willingly trade him for. Not even Lance Franklin. I’m not saying Walker is better than Franklin. He isn’t. But I am saying I wouldn’t swap him for Franklin. Walker was born for finals football. He was created for the big moment. He delivers when the pressure is on, and he is 22 years old. With any luck I’ll have the privilege of watching him play for the next ten years.
Adelaide should just save some time and plaster the faces of Walker, Sloane and Dangerfield on every single piece of membership advertising next season. I’m waiting for the episode of Mega Structures where they show how Dangerfield was built. There is no way he is human. His performance in the final term was inspiring. Sloane wasn’t far behind at the end, and was Dangerfield’s superior in the first half. If there was a one on one contest, in football, cooking, or a spelling bee, I would pick Sloane as Adelaide’s combatant. At worst I know he is going to make his opponent fight like hell to beat him.
Adelaide’s defence, at least when defending, was spectacular. Rutten, who was fumbly in possession, won his duel with Franklin, and it is a testament to Franklin that he can kick 3.5 in a “losing” effort. I think the pass mark for the matchup with Franklin is “don’t let him beat you single handedly”, and he didn’t on Saturday. Luke Thompson filled the void left by Talia with aplomb. No Bock? No Davis? No Talia? No worries. Adelaide’s slogan should be ‘we grow key position defenders’, but, you know, in latin. We just have to go a year without exporting them. In his last game for the Crows Michael Doughty was superb. I hope he changes his mind, as his last fortnight has been amongst the best football he has ever played. Andy Otten and Ricky Henderson plucked plenty of marks in the back half, and came third man up over the top for a spoil countless times. David Mackay, who has been a revelation since his move to the halfback line, once again provided much needed run in the back half. Likewise with Brodie Smith, who showed his finals mettle once again. He is a fantastic kick of the sherrin and makes superb decisions, perhaps the best combination of any two skills one can possess. Mark my words; it won’t be long until Smith is mentioned alongside Sloane and Dangerfield as Adelaide’s midfield young guns.
But despite all these efforts, Adelaide didn’t win.
In the end, they got pipped by a side that has a few tremendous footballers of their own. Sam Mitchell may be the best handballer of the pill I’ve witnessed in my relatively short time on this Earth. It’s lethal. Whether he is looping over the top to a teammate in space, or firing it between three opponents and hitting a Hawk square in the hands, a Mitchell handball always seems to wreak havoc. On a day where Hawthorn was shaky in disposal and wasteful with opportunities, Mitchell stood out as being cool, calm and collected.
While we are on the topic of havoc, Cyril Rioli was electrifying. Legitimately electrifying, not “Bruce why are you salivating over the fact Rioli handballed it to an open teammate?” electrifying. If he has played a better game, I haven’t seen it. Rioli cops a lot of flak amongst opposition fans as a result of the seemingly overwhelming amount of love that is lavished his way by those in the commentary box. Perhaps he isn’t quite as good as Channel 7 would have you believe, but I think you can tell a lot about how good a footballer is by how they make you feel when you play against them. Rioli? All I’ll say is I was nervous whenever he was around the ball. Schoenmakers? Decidedly less so. Brad Sewell was at his workmen like best, matching the efforts of the more celebrated Mitchell. Up forward, Luke Breust was very impressive.
Hawthorn did what it took to win, and deserved to do so. They won the contested possessions and smashed the Crows in tackles and forward 50 entries. Early in the third the Hawks showed how devastating they could be with a four goal burst in about as many minutes. They stormed out of the middle with alarming power. Every Hawk fan thought it was over. Brian Taylor and Luke Darcy certainly did. Adelaide looked in trouble, but to their credit and my delight they fought back. They made Hawthorn beat them and they showed the rest of the football universe that they weren’t as far behind the Hawks as presumed. When the Crows seized the lead with less than five minutes to play, I could scarcely believe what I was witnessing. My wildest dreams were being played out before me. I don’t know if I’ve ever made as much noise in my life. The Hawks snatched it back only seconds later through Rioli, and when Franklin added another I knew it was done. The Crows didn’t quite have enough, but showed they had more than most folks had given them credit for. The siren went, and I felt an odd mix of pride and disappointment. The knowledge we were so close to a Grand Final berth and denied by less than a goal was gutting, but the performance from the players was outstanding. In 2005 and 2006 we had thrown away opportunities. In 2012 we had manufactured one nobody expected us to have, and I couldn’t be prouder of the players for doing so.