Finals Week 2 – Geelong v West Coast: Blind-sided



There was a great moment early in the second quarter of Geelong versus West Coast. A modern moment, for a modern game, made for telly. Ablett got a free on the wing, played on quick, running past the mark, driving it long and low to Hawkins, one-on-one with McGovern.


AFL players read the ball impossibly early. Off the boot McGovern must have known he was in trouble. The ball fell too low to spoil, and on Hawkins’ side.


Tom could use his massive hips. He held his space, then fell into the mark.


The camera behind both giants showed him falling to the ground, ball to chest, as a wall of players, the flood, still ten metres away, stopped running.


There are modern legends on an AFL oval. Some with impossible speed, others monsters. All with skills that make it another game to the one I play. Ferocious, breathtaking. Finals bring out their full muscle, their top pace. When they collide with everything on the line, I sit back in awe.


Yet the Geelong versus West Coast Prelim started, for me, in July, when an American came to my coastal footy club.


Damien was in Tassie to do a piece on one of my writing projects for the New York Times. He knew nothing about the game, it was a training night.


We were there early, so I said: “You want a kick?”


He thought about it.


“Yeah, sure.”


I phoned a bloke to bring an extra pair of boots, we scrounged a training jumper.


“First, you’ve got to sound the part,” I said, and Damien became Damo.


Now and forever on, Damo.


Damo had played quarterback in college, so knew sport, eye-hand, I was amazed at how quickly he figured out how to kick. Sure, they went up high, like a place kick, but they spun, they hit me at 35. Some blokes don’t get that in 20 years.  We built a small sweat kicking and leading. Soon, training started.


It was a joy.


His kicks sprayed under the spotlight of 40 players, his handballs were as bad as mine. But he had a go, 200% out of his comfort zone, everybody in an ambitious club watching.


When the complex competitive drills started, there’s both a flow and impact to them you need knowledge of. We gave each other a nod and he stood back.


For the rest of the night he didn’t say a word. Watched from the boundary, came in on the huddles, listened to the coaches. Observed, absorbed. Every single bit of it. The piece he was writing wasn’t even about footy.


A journalist? Born to it. All night I watched him sponging. A case study of a man made for his vocation.


I’ve always been fascinated with how outsiders see our little jar of Vegemite. With what they see. I play Aussie Rules. I asked Damo to watch a game of AFL with me down the line, even if once he’d returned to civilisation, over distance, through telly.


“The Cats started like they were the underdogs. More desperate, as if they knew they had to be more ferocious,” Damo tells me down the line.


It’s now a shitty, windy night in Tassie. I’ve just run 10kms down a rocky goat track to get from work above remote coastal cliffs to my wife and baby. Damo is watching the footy in Sydney with his 10 year old.


“The Eagles seemed to have no time,” he adds.


His observation goes to character, intent, things he is well versed in, not strategy. And are perfect. I’m starting to regret asking him to be the other side of this experiment. He’s not the average punter I was after.


It takes a quarter for me to get out of my wet, sweaty work clothes and settle. In that time, it’s obvious Selwood has stepped into the ghost of his former self. “Remember this?” it asks, and gets the hard balls, and intercepts, and tackles, and charges. It’s a thing to behold. As good as high marks and brilliant goals. Pure work and courage.


But, finally, midway through the second, led from their backline, the Eagles steady. They shift the tempo to things less desperate. Mark out wide, wait… kick backwards to the middle, switch to the other side, so their forwards can now run sideways, or up to space, rather than wait under the ball in the middle of  overcrowded zones.


Gaff is brilliant, no fist pumping, no shouting. He’s running too hard for that bullshit. He kicks one goal, then another, goes floppy, sucking in air, before bracing for the next bounce, the next contest. Pure (Sydney’s) Josh Kennedy.


Geelong keep being Geelong, working to their template. Crazy handballs, high risk through the middle.


Damo texts me: My son says it’s like the Eagles are playing soccer and the Cats are playing rugby.


Ten years old and perfect.


Ablett is down, so is Kennedy.


“You can tell it’s a final,” Damo says. “The extra levels of effort and desperation. Every player is giving everything. There’s a higher level of impact and intensity.”


He’s right again.


Under such pressure, the big men, the big names, of both teams, contested or not, are dropping everything. There are no high marks. No power forwards to carry a game up and beyond mortals. But there is that fierce contest. There is speed and bone-crushing. Forward pressure. This is still a final.


Only two lesser lights are roaming the air. Ratugolea breaks out. Every time I’ve watched him, it’s felt like something approaching. He just has that build, that walk. Pure strength and height. You expect it to happen. He took pack marks, kicked goals, while all others were slapping and juggling. And Hickey for the Eagles, forever an almost-not-quite, seemed, to me, to shine. Plucking a few, turning chaos to order.


At half time it was anybody’s. I asked Damo about the game in general. Aussie Rules footy.


“It’s fun, exciting! I don’t know all the rules. The gist is there, the head-highs, and so on, I can see them. The rest I just go with, no problem. With the shape of the ball, it’s on the ground so much, but then, when they kick it like they do sometimes, the precision… You go… ‘Oh’… and start to understand the skill of it.”


I ask him about the handball. In this game alone, the way players just seem to know, under intense physical pressure, where their teammates are running, how to get an outside knuckle to a flying ball so it weaves through moving arms, elbows, legs, to hit a target running at speed away from them.


He just talks more about the kicking, which is interesting. I was born into football. To me, it’s the handball that’s stepped up twenty notches in my time. That’s what’s new. That and how good defenders are.


The pace of the game has picked up, the skills, delivery, it’s more open, yet scores haven’t increased.


Their timing, their ability to leap with, the hardness of their spoils, their run, their shear creativity… I know flooding has played a huge part, still, defenders are now on another planet.


If each game is its own game for every person that watches it, in the game I’m watching, the Eagles push and push more, but Zac Tuohy and Tom Stewart are the stars. The glory! Time and time again, under pressure, they turn a mass of charging arms and legs and panic, into sweet attack.


Zac, the bull. Tom the grace. He runs, replacing the blind turn, the weave and/or balk, with a simple faked ball drop. Flat pace, he decides, as the ball is falling to boot, on better options, switching to short or longer kicks or handball.


On-ballers rack up 30+ touches, every week. The one who gets two more that the rest has the press drooling, spouting stats as if sperm counting. I’m talking about finals, about influence. Simple, slight wizardry, I’d watch a game just for Tom Stewart’s ten punches and eighteen possessions.


It looks to me like Geelong have thrown the kitchen sink at the tradie. But the tradie has worn it and gone on building. West Coast feel like they’re going to pull away.


I tell Damo sometimes it’s easier to follow a game’s structures and strategies by watching the one player, and see how things are built around them. Suggest, for the second half, he watches Selwood for the Cats and Nic Nat for the Eagles.


Three times I’ve noticed I haven’t been noticing Dangerfield. I almost mention him, but don’t. And should have.


Second half starts with ebb and flow. Selwood fades, Nic Nat refuses to play in more than patches. But every time there’s a crunch time, high marks or big kicks needed, a clean break from the middle, there Danger is, defying his bad game, using force of personality to impose himself.


His stats don’t increase much, but the timing and impact of them are perfect. There’s a hardness to how he is playing, a desperation born of the pride of a champion. It opens the game up for players like Hawkins.


Come the last, now that Geelong have the lead, they start controlling the tempo, getting the ball out wide, switching backwards, into the middle, then across. The Eagles, desperate to catch up, start taking more chances, bombing long, cutting through the middle with handball.


So much of team structure and game plan is formula these days. To keep up with the best you have to imitate it, do it better. Coaching staff switch and shuffle from club to club, but never seem to leave the system. Maybe, I briefly think, there is no difference. Maybe it all comes down to paying lists?


“Bastards! You’re making a liar out of a ten year old!” I shout at the telly, which only wakes the baby.


That’s why I rate Collingwood. They’re the innovators of this place and time, with their relentless, all game, every position pressure.


But no, the kid was mostly right. When the game was on the line, each club’s true character showed plenty.


Geelong have their buffer and hold it.


It’s almost sad watching last year’s Premiers struggle and push against a shrinking hourglass, seeing the look in their faces as they realise they’re not going to beat it.


Every West Coast player, in the last ten minutes, enthrals me.


When the siren blows I call Damo.


“No real insights,” he tells me. “I enjoyed it. The Cats just seemed to have that bit more want in them.”


The “pretty one” stood out most for him, in the first and last quarters.




He’s probably right, damn it. I just think like a backman. 6 votes, Tough and Stewart, share them however you want to.


Damo tells me he’d like to have actually been there. To see the movement off the ball, the stir that leads to set plays and happenings.


Unreal. I wanted to watch the footy with a blind man, but he’s too cluey. We saw the same game of footy. I always enjoy someone with that ability to absorb and roll. I don’t care if he’s only watched a dozen games, I’d love to sit beside him at a game, without cameras, watching formations. Be the one asking him questions.


Outside, the rain’s really blowing in. Saturday will be shitty, but the heat pump is going and my team got bowled out last week in the Preliminary. I say goodnight to the man formally known as Damien, and spare a thought for the Huonville Lions, a great club, and their reserves, who beat us, and have their own Big Dance in 12 hours.


Beyond that, I don’t give a damn about the weather.




GEELONG             5.2     7.3      9.9       13.10 (88)
WEST COAST       1.1     5.5     10.7       10.8 (68) 


Geelong: Hawkins 4, Ratugolea 3, Kelly 2, Atkins, Selwood, Bews, Dahlhaus
West Coast:
Darling 3, Gaff 2, Petruccelle, Ryan, Hickey, Masten, Kennedy


Geelong: Selwood, Guthrie, Ratugolea, Hawkins, Tuohy, Menegola
West Coast:
Gaff, Hurn, Darling, Naitanui, Yeo, Jetta


Geelong: Nil
West Coast:


Reports: Nil


Umpires: Stephens, Nicholls, Meredith


Official crowd: 51,813 at the MCG




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  1. Matt, the greatest compliment I can give you is “I wish I could write like Matt Zurbo”!
    Loved your piece and the game certainly threw up many special moments. The Cats were angry at the start and Scott still was at the finish. he must have been reading some of the “stuff” about him from cat supporters.
    Like you I love the way Gaff plays – just gets on with the game and hardly ever makes a gaff.
    Sellwood – that granite exterior (thanks Dips) threw of his shackles as well.

    Look forward to a similar report against Richmond with the same result!

  2. Congrats on a very fine bit of writing, Matt. Tom Stewart must hold up the cup or life makes even less sense.
    Two questions: why don’t you write regularly for a paper? (Sorry JTH)
    And what is a heat pump?



  4. As a neutral supporter, I really enjoyed this match. Selwood superb and Dangerfield magnificent in final term but Ablett not at his best. Great to see Nicnac playing good footy and always appreciate Hurn’s rebound in defense. Really looking forward to Cats v Tigers big clash should be another ripper.

  5. Gorgeous writing and observation. Selwood my highlight. Memo to self – “never call a champ a light of other days”. Hawkins strikes me as Dermie Lite these days. With the youthful athleticism gone he has every big forward dirty trick without the overt malevolence. The leg across when McGovern went to follow Ratugolea was pure Dermie. Cats have perfected the Cyril pack crash to take out defenders while vaguely showing marking intent. Dalhaus landed some perfect 10’s on an Eagles head.
    For my mob the creaky midfield has been obvious all year. Don’t get why Yeo is called elite when he can’t hit a barn door with a bucket of wheat. Teams have worked out how to block McGovern and Barrass and we have failed to adapt. Unsociable footy is the new black and we are still playing see ball/get ball.
    Are you available in an Assistant Coaching role next year?
    Regards, Simmo.

  6. Thanks y’all!

    AJC, non have asked. Though a few have stolen many an idea! Fortunately, I love the Knackery!

    Simmo, some ripper points and observations////!!

  7. Hickey describes perfectly…. I loved to see his influence and I was stoked when he’d one grab pack mark all the while wondering how I’d not noticed him before that game. We all love cheering a goal and I’m sure Damo felt the vibe too yes Zurbs another great read and makes me stoked to know that backman still have the respect they so rightly deserve. Keep it coming mate

  8. You never let us down Old Dog.

    Novel (and engaging) piece. Tremendous observations from Damo and your good self.

    The Pretty One was very good!

  9. PS Old Dog, we love publishing your words, and if we could we would love to send you a brown paper bag from time to time as a thank you. Perhaps I should pass one around.

  10. So good.The win and your story.

  11. A ripper, Matt.

    Agree totally with the observation about Dangerfield. He’s regularly had twice the possessions for half the impact he had on Friday night.

    How will the Cats replace Hawkins?


  12. hmm. poach Cameron, or just throw Harry forward and hope for the best?

  13. Dangerfield as a lead-up deep forward? At least to start.

    Might cause some confusion early. The Cats need to do find a way to unsettle the Tigers.

    Looking forward to finding out.

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