Yesterday had been long and hard with many miles. Eventually, I made my way to the city, where I drank a bit while bustled by Saturday night, thinking about things.
In this time of lazer passes, precision handballs, and chipping out back, in this Dark Age of no torpedoes, or drop kicks and backmen so good forwards can’t fly, surely, the most beautiful thing in football has become the slap on the boot.
I am in love with the slap.
Its heart-in-mouth randomness. That was close! Where will it go? One of theirs? One of ours? A contest? They make backmen who can read the flight and ruckmen who drop back relevant again.
All players are good at AFL level. Every one. The standard blokes are well drilled to hit targets. But when the game reaches its crunch, they’re often undone. In those fractions of seconds between touch and tackle they go through their processes and miss their chance to push it forward. A lot of that is faith, or lack of it. They have none in the one-on-one down the ground.
The great players, though, they know when to take time to aim, how to hit targets, fling a handball out back, and, when the game is on the line, to close their eyes and sink every bit of heart-and-soul, through their boot, into the pill.
To embrace chaos and do it better than the rest.
The good games have those times, appearing throughout, in ebb and flow. Slapping time. Of no strategies, or calling, or organising. Just will and randomness and cold nerve.
The slap makes the game primal. The good teams are relentless with their pressure. When one plays the other, like the Hawks did the Swans, there’s no air, no time. It pulls everything back.
In the last quarter, while Dean Towers took off the vest after just one senior game and 2 years of first emergencies, to provide silk in close, McVeigh and Hodge both took the moment on their shoulders. They went the ball in straight lines, outnumbered, under the pump, elbows and knees flying, a kick or so in it, time running out, and pushed the spinning ball from the air, off their fingertips,
They backed Roughie, they backed Lance, more-so, they backed their wingers and half forwards like Puopolo to turn it into a shitfight further down the ground. They backed themselves and heat-of-the-moment and Fate.
Great marks and crowd noises are made from slapping the ball onto boot. I heard startled “Yeahhhh!”s at pack grabs, painful moans as the opposition took uncontested chesties, and saw zones go all pear-shaped as the ball came in hard and ugly, and players ran at it and each other from unpredictable angles.
It brought the human in.
Bizarre as this sounds, Saturday’s game gave me the feel of country footy, and old, fat men selling bags of peanuts out West, and biddies at the canteens, and mud, and jumpers you had to lace up. Not all the time, just in the glorious, visual un-symmetry found when a pill was smacked out of pack.
In the end, the Swans had no Hannebery or O’Keefe in close, and the Hawks dried up Buddy, leaving him bored on an empty full-forward line, mostly because their half-back line read it better through the air. And like that, the game was done.
On a biting winters night, I sat back in a small nowhere pub, still dirty from a hard, rainy day of mountain footy, and watched the AFL in its absolute prime. The best I’ve seen it in the longest time. Two great teams under incredible weight, punching hard, moving it forward at breakneck speed, then, when in packs, bashing it on with enormous muscle, however they could.