AFL Finals Week 1 – Richmond v Carlton: Journey’s End.

There is always a defining moment in the match that all football faithful dread. The dark night-time of the soul for the true believers. That moment is the unwelcome arrival of reality. Denial is a vital element of the supporter’s armoury, it is what keeps us coming back for more. When all the signs point towards defeat, it is remarkably easy to hold on to the dream- We’re not dead yet, there’s still hope…No matter how far back you fall, there is always that remote chance. It wafts on the breeze far longer than logic suggests it should and it will sustain the hopes and dreams that are not quite extinguished yet. It whispers its sweet nothings in your ear-
“Just one more push, just one last roll of those dice. We’re still in this, all it takes is a five minute burst.”

Both combatants experienced those careless whispers on Sunday. Only one survived it. That is the cold-hearted reality of the finals football.

Nothing comes close to losing a final. The end of the regular season is strangely comforting, a ritual, shared by all, regardless of the possibility of finals contests or not. Everyone says goodbye to the season as one, a sign off on one more entry into the history of the game in a ritualistic gathering together of the tribes. Lowly serfs or kings-to-be, the season draws its curtain on them all.

Then there are eight and there is no more shared exit from the stage. In the finals everyone leaves alone. You don’t know when it will be either so it’s hard to prepare for. One minute you’re dreaming of the road to glory, the next you stand head bowed rueing that dream’s siren’s call. Parting, such sweet sorrow. One loss extinguishing a season worth of dreaming.

The 2013 dream died for the Richmond Football Club with the perversity that only sport can arrange. Ten points down and with Carlton running on top the turf the game had reached its end-game. The sense that ‘next-goal-wins’ prevailed. The Tigers needed to find something, they needed to invent a goal and keep their weary heads above the crashing navy tidal wave. Then Big Ivan Maric confirmed, once more, why he is the warrior the Tiges needed. With the kind of resolve that makes even the hardened old roughnuts smile. Ivan chased down the pill, weaving through traffic, forcing his ample frame through the congestion and glimpsed a sight of goal. None of it was elegant, he didn’t ever appear balanced or completely in control, but with his classic ruckman gait he found a way. His kick was wobbly, a bastard child of the clinical dribble across the turf that the games elite goal kickers now prefer but it was never missing. Up went the arms of Big Ivan, a guttural war cry rose from his raised mulleted bonce. This was the goal. This was the moment. This game got hung out in the balance again.

Then it was over.

Just like that, the moment passed and the end came. Carlton won the resulting centre clearance, forced it forward to Jarred Waite and kicked the immediate answer. Gone. Game over.

Waite is mercurial in his talent and infuriating in his consistency. In other words, he’s consistent in his inability to be consistent. He is also best described as reckless. A dangerous combination of Campbell Brown’s red mist and Dustin Fletcher’s awkwardness, that might just be well-disguised cunning. His penchant for getting rubbed out drives me to distraction, I can hardly imagine how Bluebaggers cope with it. Waite is just as ridiculous in his ability to take huge contested grabs and kick vital goals as he is in his unnerving ability to be the antagonist in a dumb show-of-strength.

To be honest, Waite has always struck me as a prototypical St.Kilda footballer- Super talented, obvious character flaws. Rhys Muldoon once perfectly described the act of watching Fraser Gehrig warm-up pre-game while trying to determine which G-Train would depart the station. He described it as akin to a relationship with a lover that has spurned you. You still want them to love you but you know it’s on their terms not yours. I have lived with Gehrig, Barry Hall and Plugger. I know Rhys is right with as much certainty as I know Jarred Waite would be a fine Saint.

The horrible emptiness of knowing the fight is over dawned on most Richmond supporters as Waite pumped his fists. There were still ten minutes of game time available but the recovery the Tigers needed was now beyond them. Ten minutes suddenly drags, the fight gone from the contest and only motions to go through. There is suddenly enough time available to begin to reflect on where it has gone wrong but not enough distance yet to accept it. Hope of a comeback is still alive but it’s a hollow commentators hope that sounds forced even inside your head-

‘Enough time if they’re good enough/ Still plenty of time for either side…’

Carlton have new tales of heroics- Nick Duigan called up after wolfing down a sub-sandwich to kick four goals out of position. Judd on one leg taking control of the third quarter. Waite standing up in the big time game.

Richmond have the pain of letting a final slip away. Nothing can salvage that frustration. Yet there is the satisfying image of Trent Cotchin looking completely at one with the heat of finals footy. This is his stage and he trod the boards with assurance. It is now the Tiges duty to make sure he gets there again next year. I don’t buy into the maxim that you have to ‘lose one to win one’ but I do believe you have to experience finals intensity to understand what’s expected. Richmond have a team that now knows why they strive to play finals. All they need to do is get back there. Easier said than done but from what the Tigers have achieved this season it would surprise if they weren’t back here with a point to prove next year.

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