AFL Round 17 – Richmond v Fremantle: The Importance of Being Dawson

Zac Dawson is a footballing enigma-

‘….Like a mule with a spinning wheel. Nobody knows how he got it and danged if he knows how to use it!’

Point being, there is no way of accurately defining why Dawson is effective, its easier to just admit that he somehow is.

Back in 2007, I stayed too long in the Box Hill Hawks’ social rooms post ANZAC Day clash. Long enough in fact, to get caught up in the Hawks’ presentations. It was a fairly subdued affair given the result (Coburg having dominated all day) but the man adjudged to be B.O.G was a footballer that was ‘renown’ for one negative incident. The memory of watching, with rather morbid fascination, as Clarkson left Zac on Anthony Rocca despite being obliterated stays with most of us. It was not pretty, Dawson spent a lot of time staring at a piece of turf directly in front of him, hands on hips, after Rocca had out-muscled him again. It was only fascinating to watch because it was so devolutionary. Coaching has moved on from the hot gospel ‘gee-up.’ The paint-stripping rants in the rooms and the Barassi fury in the huddle. They are now shunned by the new polite society of coaching motivation. Blokes don’t get dragged for a bake, or taught a lesson by being humiliated. You don’t get made to stay on a seasoned forward to learn a thing or two about getting whipped anymore. The stakes are higher and the percentages played tighter. You move the kid off the gorilla on the goal-square and show him footage later of what went wrong.

Still, given that was the memory most have of Zac Dawson, it was of little surprise that my mate muttered something along the lines of- ‘That’s about the end of his career then. Best on ground in a reserve side that got flogged,’ as Zac walked solemnly up to receive the award. Little did we know, little did anyone know, that Zac Dawson was only just beginning to have his impact on AFL football.

I was frankly underwhelmed with Ross Lyon’s decision to bring him to the Saints. He appeared to be a classic bit-part player, a spare-parts piece that you only wheel out if there are injuries. Yet, the fortunes of football can shift so quickly. When Dawson was given the spot in the 2009 Grand Final over Hudghton I wasn’t happy, but I understood. Sometimes the form of a player is impossible to deny, no matter how unfashionable they might be. Zac Dawson is unfashionable in every sense, it doesn’t make him any less effective.

The Dockers lost to the Tiges Sunday and Jack kicked four. On any day you would suggest that was not a win for the ineffable Dawson. And yet Jack only managed two marks for the entire day, and both were in the last term. If your opponent kicks four on you, most measures would score that as a loss, yet the job Zac did denying Jack easy ball kept Ross Lyon’s faith in his reliability.

The real truth of this contest was in the two marks Jack Riewoldt took in the last quarter. The point can be made that Richmond’s most important moment this season occurred in the second half of this match. With the game being played within the parameters of classic Ross Lyon defensive intensity, it was easy to see the Tigers wilting. When the Dockers hit the scoreboard hard to begin the final term it came with ominous undertones. That they had already done so to begin the third meant that this repeat dose was testing the Tigers resolve to the limit. Freo are a top four side this season for that very reason. You can’t bury them with one big shovel-full. You need to keep piling the dirt upon them until there is too much for them to dig through. It was the hardest part of supporting a Lyon coached side. As a Saints fan you always felt your posterior edging further forwards on the seat. You were never really out of striking distance, yet you always had to work for every scoring option. Games were never busted open, they were dragged down and wrestled into submission. My wife went into labor straight after the 2009 Preliminary Final….I don’t blame her. I’m pretty sure I did too. Nothing came easy for the Saints under Lyon and it is hard to remember a free-flowing, end-to-end move that netted an easy goal. We won by grind and grit, a war of attrition that demanded opponents get their hands dirty and play unattractive footy. If you want to win, you’re better be prepared to go the distance.

Granted Fremantle are not exactly the same type of defensive brickwall as Lyon’s Saints but they do force teams to find something extra to beat them. Richmond did just that- It should be the making of them. They dominated the game in the areas that reveal important details for finals bound teams. They smashed Freo in the clearances, their contested ball stats were good and they tackled often and relentlessly.

Tackle counts are one of the few statistics that still mean exactly what they always have. It is the only piece of old style footballing maxim still adhered to faithfully- If you’re tackling hard, you’re creating pressure. Jake King and Dan Jackson are old fashion players in that regard. They simply relish dragging blokes down in a ball-and-all. It makes a team walk taller to see a ripping takedown. I don’t care how old-fashioned it makes me sound, I love a bloke who’s nuggety and the Push-up King is the very definition.

Sure, there is still a great deal of poor disposal across the team. Kicks are misdirected, poor options are taken and there are too many overly ambitious kicks to make Dimma happy. But Richmond are a classic work in progress. What makes them promising is the pressure they bring, not the ball they butcher. I suspect that finals pressure will be an awakening to this team. It is hard to explain finals intensity to the uninitiated, you have to get there to realise the level required. It creates two paths for a team to venture upon. Either they rise to that level or they drop like a stone.

Right now Richmond could go down either trail. They are Zac Dawson standing Anthony Rocca. The question posed of them is whether they are Dawson in brown and gold or Zac in purple?

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