In round 22 the thoughts of those whose team sits atop the ladder can stray to “premiership”. This, as 2012 taught us, is hubris and folly.
Strolling to the ground, I recounted a favourite anecdote about the great American entrepreneur Warren Buffett. Years ago, at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting in Omaha, a shareholder asked him: “Chairman, we have a fantastic record in mergers and acquisitions. What is the secret of our success?”
Buffett answered that Berkshire usually bought down and out, unfashionable businesses no-one else wanted, but with potential. He prefaced his remarks with some homespun wisdom:
“The recipe for success in M+A is the same as for a long-lasting marriage… Low expectations.”
He was right you know. I’ve been married 28 years. My wife went in with extremely low expectations, and God knows I’ve delivered on them.
There was full disclosure. On our wedding eve, my mother warned her: “You’ll be a sport widow.”
And so it came to pass that 6 hours after arriving back in Australia from a fortnight-long sporting mancation in Europe with my mate Tim, I found myself at Etihad Stadium. Sitting next to Tim.
The idea of our trip to the northern hemisphere was conceived way back, as part of Tim’s program of recovery from his stroke. Something to shoot for. The day he flew out of Australia, independently, was the 3-year anniversary of Day S – stroke-day. It was the crystallisation of many arduous man-hours of physio, speech and other therapies.
In Moscow, we’d celebrated this milestone watching the Hawks’ round 21 defeat of Collingwood via wireless internet. At the McDonalds outlet just 100 metres from Red Square. As Hawthorn vanquished the traditional representatives of the proletariat, we toasted the triumph of capitalism.
Back at Docklands Tim decided that the Buffet maxim applied to footy as well as marriage and mergers. “High expectations,” he concurred, “just cause trouble.” He cautioned me to keep mine under a bushel and produced two well-chosen words to make his point: “North, nemesis.” We watched the Roo-boys burst through their banner with a kind of morbid dread. We’ve known disappointment. Over the previous 12 days we’d sat together through the disastrous final day of the 4th Test in Durham and Sally Pearson’s silver medal at the World Athletics Championships.
(Tim and I also saw Usain Bolt win a couple of gold medals and the Ukrainian Bondarenko take the high jump, leaping an inch shy of 8 feet.)
Our fears were well founded. Hawthorn were fast out of the blocks but clipped quite a few hurdles on their way to a 13 point half time deficit.
The first half was played at North’s tempo – frenetic. Direct footy with hardly a sideways footpass. One-on-one all over the ground with players from both sides hitting packs hard. When the ball was in dispute it was most often a Kangaroo that finally extracted it, and after 3 or 4 short handballs it would be kicked long. The Hawks were sucked into mimicking North’s preferred style.
Wells, Ziebell and Cunnington shone, dominating clearances. Harvey was held early but, emancipated when his ordained tagger Shiels re-injured an ankle just after quarter-time, he went on a hard-running tear. At one stage the shinboners got out to a 26 point lead. But clusters of goals late in each of the first 2 quarters kept Hawthorn in touch.
It’s likely Clarko delivered a half time bake, for in the third quarter some missing pieces clicked into gear. Bailey and Hale became effective tall marking targets out wide. Smith and Birchall began bursting through the lines. On top of this Mitchell, who was good all day, stopped playing as a half back and exerted his influence at centre breaks.
The match-turning third quarter, in which the Hawks kicked 7 goals to 4, was a case study in the relative effectiveness of forward play. It’s a treat to have weapons you can produce when needed and Hawthorn’s guns displayed their calibre.
Four times Rioli weaved through congestion to either snap for goal or set others up. When he leapt to the peak of a pack off 2 steps to oh-so-nearly pull down the mark of the year, I let out an involuntary squeal: “Bondarenko, you beauty.”
Then there was Buddy. His resemblance to Usain is eerie. Both aged 26, both 6’6″. Similar stride patterns and prospective incomes. Lance has superior tatts though, and he flexed them to the crowd as he hooked through his 4th, and later his 5th, goals.
North by contrast were let down by very ordinary kicking to their leading forwards, who were repeatedly out-anticipated by Hawthorn defenders, especially Hodge. The captain’s decisive, brave ten minutes in the middle of the 3rd quarter earned him my 3 votes.
Having established a small buffer by the last break, the Hawks methodically, predictably slowed things down in quarter 4. They outscored North 17 points to 10 to eke out the victory, giving the impression they had a gear-shift in reserve, if needed.
Hawthorn were second-best for most of the day, and were hammered in all key statistical measures – kicks 191 to 213, handball 135 to 174. But they showed sufficient poise to win a tough game. This is encouraging. The Hawks are undoubtedly a good side, but are they good enough?
The upshot is a set of straightforward numbers: 1 round to go; a top 2 finish assured; 5 weeks to the big dance.
As Tim and I meandered to the exits, one very dangerous word encapsulated our mood: Expectant.
Hawthorn 4.2 8.7 15.10 17.15 (117)
North Melbourne 4.4 10.8 14.9 15.13 (103)
North Melbourne: Black 2, Goldstein 2, Ziebell 2, Bastinac 2, Wright, Wells, Jacobs, Thomas, Harvey, Mullett, Macmillan
Hawthorn: Franklin 5, Roughead 4, Breust 3, Rioli 2, Smith, Hill, Hale
North Melbourne: Cunnington, Wells, Harvey, Ziebell, Macmillan, Bastinac, Gibson
Hawthorn: Hodge, Mitchell, Rioli, Franklin, Lake, Stratton, Roughead
Umpires: Farmer, Kamolins, Mitchell
Official crowd: 33,039
Our Votes: 3 Hodge (H) 2 Mitchell (H) 1 Cunnington (NM)