Preliminary Final – Fremantle v Hawthorn: Fat Men Rising

Freo v Hawthorn. Fat Men Rising.


There were a lot of big questions to be asked on Friday night. Really big. Larger than the match itself. Let’s face it, unless you were a Hawk, the game was as boring as batshit.




Sorry to all those players who flog their clappers off all year, who submit to on and off the ground disciplines we could only dream of. To the blokes who thought they had a blinder, to those who did. Roughhead, Mitchell, big Sandi. But Hawthorn are the most brilliantly boring team I have ever seen. Or is it the game in general? Come Semi Time, when only the teams with the best defensive structures get that far? When it becomes about who makes less mistakes?


The game started well enough. I was in a dinky little pub in Sydney, just off the Cross. An ambulance screaming by swallowed all volume at the first bounce. After that a Maori woman, disgusted Australian football was on one of the two tellies, replaced the commentary with music.


The only noise was from a faceless half-crowd of people getting too drunk too early, and crappy country songs in the heart of one of the world’s most dynamic cities. It was pretty perfect, really.


Just me and finals football.




Momentum is everything I


Sandilands smacked the first bounce right down the throat of a runner, and Freo were away. He did it again, and Freo were away again. Just brilliant to watch. He negates the opposition leap with his body, wearing the knees, won’t be pushed off the ball, while barely jumping himself. He brings them both to flat feet then outreaches them. Height and strength and touch. Fyfe was on the bench. When he came on he was good for a bloke with clipped wings, but had no more or less effect than any other on-baller. If he wasn’t there, Sandi was hitting it to others.


Then the umpire gave Hawthorn two goals. It changed everything. Suddenly, rather than play catch-up, rather than have to stop a momentum train, Hawthorn merely had to, from that point, play their game.


Their defensive work was brilliant. Twenty minutes into the quarter Freo stopped running with the ball. Hawthorn were too well zoned. Both teams chipped relentlessly out of defence. Both played to the modern game – possession at all costs. Then, when in doubt, long bombs down the line. It was finals crisp, the coaching. You could see it. Set plays, defensive structures. With both teams mirroring each other, it came down to Hawthorn having the better players. By a mile. Freo had to be the frisky, unpredictable young colt. But they dummied up, instead going by numbers.


So many times I speak to ex-players who say, “We should have won in _____ (fill year in here), but they got an early break and we spent the rest of the game playing catch up football.”


Those frees changed everything.



One-On-One is Not Dead.

Where the game was won over the next two quarters was on the wings. Freo were winning the clearances, but under pressure, slapping it out of packs into a wall of Hawthorn defence that divided and ran it back through the middle without genuine contest. A Freo-won stoppage was a Hawthorn half forward advantage.


The Freo defence held up to storms, though. Led by their half back flankers, they were brilliant. Except for when the Hawthorn machine had to start from deep in defence. Then, there was genuine room through the middle. Room for real one-on-ones, without the crush of zones, with unmanned space either way for the winner.


Three or four crucial times, the ball was kicked to two opponents on the wing, and, without the protection of team, or safety in numbers, the Hawthorn players blitzed. It was great to see Stratton, I think, used a little strength, and amazing speed and balance to hold his feet, shrug a tackle, take it and charge forward unopposed into the most open of forward-lines. In moments like that the game was won. The goals in the last 20 minutes of the game were just dead air. The spills of margin.




Stats Lie.


I don’t care what the stats said, and, with some homeless man arguing with the bouncers over why his wife left him twenty years ago, I didn’t bother to look at them when they flashed on the screen. The drunk had more to say than the Chanel 7 version of history.


Despite countless balls bombed long down the boundary, I only counted four genuinely contested marks all night.


No-one was brave enough to leap in the air, like Howell and Russell Robertson, and Knights, and Murray and so many throughout history. They didn’t want to land on their bums and have one less around the contest. They don’t seem trained in using their bodies.


I did not see a power forward once storm hard at the ball, clunking the air out of it. Goals were kicked by players on the break running forward of the ball, or dinky chips to blokes inside fifty. I understand, the age of romance is dead. But, on Friday night, I missed our gods. Our Richardsons, Abletts, Lloyds, Frasers, Ongarellos! Even our Roccas and Hawkins.




Clean Hands Win


In finals, when the ball’s in tight, clean hands are everything. Both teams got it lots on packs, but in the two years since they lost to the Hawks in a Grand Final Freo hadn’t learned the one thing that is so hard to teach. Led by Sam Mitchell, who pretty much single-handedly dictated the match, Hawthorn were crisp in close. Freo fumbled time and again. Two-grabbed. They seemed that bit faster, got more of it in the packs, but time and again and again, when half seconds are everything, just weren’t crisp with their fingers.


Mitchell is a freak.


He was the embodiment of Hawthorn – risk getting tackled, but don’t ever, ever, no matter how under the pump, waste a possession.



Momentum is Everything II


Watching a goal kicked on a siren is like looking at a little death. It’s like hearing the breaking of a heart. It is momentum feeding itself throughout the break, or, if shattered, dragging you down.


Again, Freo pressed. Again, with only seconds left in the third, Hawthorn got an iffy free on the fifty, and Suckling slotted it.



The This-Will-Haunt-Me-For-The-Rest-Of-My-Life Moment


Momentum Is Everything III


We all have them, the this-will-haunt-me-for-the-rest-of-my-life moment. Mine usually involve women. It was why I was watching the footy in a pub alone in Sydney. But, footy careers, too, are riddled by them.


Mugs get them in mug leagues, but some unlucky players have them on a grand scale. on a grand occasion, in front of a grand crowd, in games to get into Grand Finals. Mid-way through the last the Dockers were flying. It was a game. They had had what looked like ten in-side 50s to none, they were pressing. Not so much playing better football, but clawing back. How many times has a team simply hung on, and stayed close enough to roll the dice near the finishing line?


Enter Tom Sheridan. A good, solid Docker performer.


Somehow, Freo were only about ten points down, pushing hard, when the ball got switched to Tommy dead in front on the defensive fifty. Routine. Maybe he saw players coming? Maybe he was already thinking about what he was going to do with it? Either way, 101, he took his eyes off the ball. Uncontested, it slipped through his fingers. Rioli swooped, and the game was over. Momentum was gone.


As said, the scores at the end, they are no reflection. The match was lost in that sliding door instance. The history of AFL/VFL finals is riddled, overflowing, with less talented teams that won by seizing their moment.


Three momentum strikes and you’re out. Until then, anything still could have happened.


The time-keepers should have blown the siren there and then, left us feeling is was real contest, rather than with scores that reflected both teams’ basic standings.




I Don’t Know


Haha. I don’t. And didn’t on the night. There was little individual brilliance. Defensive players and systems are too good to allow for that with most Top 4 finals contests. There was process. Chip until all options are covered, then go long down the line. A flurry of handballs by the backline, a chip to gain full control and repeat. And repeat. And repeat. Hawthorn’s backline, all 22 of them, were simply mechanical.


The running everyone did, bar the back six, beggared belief. It was sub-human. But there was no romance in this game, no Port or Doggies taking them on, no Boomer or Jetta or even Danger breaking lines, no high marks, no goals of brilliance. Big Sandi wasn’t enough, and the Freo back-flankers just couldn’t keep repelling a team that was a bit better spread with a lot better ball-handling.




The Fat Men Rise


Deep in the last, each time another goal went through, the telly gave us slow-motion replays of fat men rising, brown and gold beanies blazing, fists pumping like walruses that had eaten all the fish, bellies showing. All that was left was Sydney, the city, at its worst. All drunken and obnoxious.


The game was over.



  1. Love it Matt.
    When a game is win by the side that makes less mistakes, you’re in boredom territory all right.
    Like 10-pin bowling championships.

    I, too, missed the spark of creativity, of daring.
    And agree 100% on the impact of those free goals. It changed EVERYTHING. Yes, Freo should have done better with set shots, with clean hands, with decisions generally, but they could have won it. Fyfe with broken leg.

    You describe the Hawthorn game style very well.
    Carn West Coast. Carn footy. Carn great stories.

  2. Neil Anderson says

    That vision of fat-men rising at the finish was a beauty. I had an image of bloated Roman emperors in their brown and gold togas looking down on on the arena, bored and angry they had to even bother with a Prelim Final .
    They seem to have had the Footy-gods on their side as well, making sure Freo dropped marks in front of goals and allowing demigods such as Rioli to swoop on the ball and goal.

  3. The highest scoring team – by far – for the last four seasons: boring.

    The sheer brilliance of Cyril Rioli, with or without the ball: boring.

    The unmatched football genius of Sam Mitchell, creating time and space while being the smallest, slowest bloke out there: boring.

    The unpredictable, unknowable Brian Lake, capable of anything: boring.

    The dash and dare of Isaac Smith and Brad Hill, who have begun the revival of the role of the traditional wingmen: boring.

    The fluid, unbound Shaun Burgoyne, bending the game to his will and skill: boring.

    Luke Hodge, bashing, crashing, leading, bleeding, pointing, goaling, sinning, winning: boring.

    The ability of Luke Breust to beat a tackle, by speed, guile or brute force: boring.

    The almost telepathic teamwork to winkle the footy out of tight spaces, fast, daring and skilful: boring.

    One of the great teams, lining up this week for a shot to enter the pantheon of the greatest outfits of all team, to achieve something that even their fabled brethren of the 1980s could not: boring.

    If I may mangle Samuel Johnson: ‘Sir, when a man is tired of Hawthorn, he is tired of football, for there is in Hawthorn all that football can afford.’

  4. Matt, your article takes me back to my first Grand Final 1988. I was 15 and snuck out of Standing room towards the end of the game and observed the Hawk faithful. The champagne was flowing and after a stunning end-to-end passage of play by the Hawks, I remember a bloke standing up with his champagne glass and shouting sarcastically, “And Mike Sheahan calls that boring football.”

    Apparently the “Boring football” label was directed at the Hawks that year. It probably seems like that when you smash sides week in week out. I have to agree with Mocca above – I have never seen a more skilled footy team than this Hawk outfit. Talk about taking your opportunities.

    I found the game absolutely riveting by the way.

  5. Yeah Mocca, but they’re still Hawthorn.

    Brilliant well-when-you-think-of-it-that-way style comment. Not that I agree with all of it.

  6. What Mocca said.

  7. Hawthorn naysayers out in force, clutching at straws. Boring.

    I watched The Winners Re-booted last night – Dermie’s first game in the 1982 semi-final. He kicked five. Compared to what I watched on Friday night, it was actually quite boring.

    Go Hawks!

  8. Wow MZ, so that’s what the game looked like through a misanthropic lens. The Kings Cross noise, the people were drunk and sad, the country music was crappy … and that’s before we get to your opinion of the game!

    Your analysis cannot go unchallenged. You are a very insightful observer of the game and yet you still fall for the mug at the end of the bar type emphatic statements:

    “Then the umpire gave Hawthorn two goals. It changed everything.”

    Really? Without going too far down this tired old rabbit hole just consider this. Freo’s initial ‘momentum’ was slowed, first by Mayne’s wayward shot on goal from 25 out dead in front. Then by the Hawks who were starting to get their rhythm. Only then did Ballantyne, who is surely on every umpire’s radar, produce one of his usual undisciplined acts. (Maybe even because of the pressure the Hawks were already putting on Freo).

    That free didn’t give the Hawks a goal. It merely gave the Hawks a free. Smith kicked it from 40m out. That was 13mins into the quarter, 3 mins after Mayne’s poor shot on goal and 9 minutes after the two quick goals scored by Freo.

    To try and join together Freo’s initial run of the game to an incident at least 9 minutes later to make the point that that “changed everything” is drawing the bow to breaking point. It denies a lot of footy played in the meantime. And MZ, we all know that at different moments in a game or a quarter either side will have control of the game. What they do with that control is the thing.

    Also, where you see fat men I see joyous supporters. MZ, surely you have played and barracked long enough to not deny supporters their moment. On a night that the TV captured extremely boorish behaviour by Freo supporters it is hard to fathom why a winning team’s supporters going the big cheer, knowing they have got through to the Grannie, is a thing that bothered you so.

    Mostly, if you reckon the Hawks play a boring type of footy then I don’t know what would please you. The highest scoring side in the comp, flying the flag for an attacking game can’t win you over then what will.


  9. daniel flesch says

    So far , Matt , you’re outvoted. (Mocca and Trucker slim – spot-on . At least i think so .) Greg Baum in The Age wrote something along these lines: Everyone not a Hawthorn supporter finds the Hawks boring. But if it was their team playing and winning like the Hawks it wouldn’t be boring at all.

  10. I think to a certain extent the point is being proven (apart from that this is an expressed opinion so it doesn’t need to be right or wrong). Hawthorn are only interesting / exciting to watch if you follow them. Otherwise the relentless suffocation and precision of their tactics, while impressive, are likely to leave the (mostly) impartial observer cold. Except Poppy – he’s awesome!

  11. Cheers Daniel! Yeah, I don’t barrack for anyone, so it’s not jealousy. Ha! Right from the start I tried to paint a bigger picture. It is nothing against Hawthorn, they are winning, and good luck to them, (and, of course Rioli, Hodge and Lake are brilliant when on song) but I was taking about their, and the modern, game plan in general. I have written countless pieces praising it, but this game, and maybe this year, as a spectacle, I’ve been a bit flat on. Geelong were fun when on top, Brisbane spectacular, Hawthorn I found, especially in a game where the opposition mirrored them, clinical. I am most happy to be outvoted. It is the joy of football.

  12. Dave, wouldn’t you agree “relentless suffocation” is hallmark of the modern game? Every side tries to “press” the ball in. But if anything, it is more a sign of the Ross Lyon/Freo game plan than any other coach/team.

    As a neutral, I find Hawthorn’s style of footy breathtaking. Absolutely, breathtaking. The pinpoint disposal by hand and (especially) by foot, the grunt at the coal face, the pace & flair on the outside, the execution of skill under immense pressure, the play maker Mitchell (who now is rivaling the Diesel), and the ability to take their opportunities – they had only 19 shots on goal over 120 minutes and yet nailed 15 of them – many from outside 50, from the boundary or from snapshots.

  13. Amen Matt. The game was boring. Hawthorn are not. Ross Lyon could coach the fun out of sex, Santa and …….well he’s already done it for the Freo players. Like the Saints before they are broken men after a couple of seasons of Ross regimentation. Pav will be glad to see the back of it, and inwardly lamenting that he did not sign on for a couple of years with Kenny from Camperdown.
    The GF will be a clinker. Footy how it should be played. From 2 teams.

  14. Fair point DBalassone – if forced to choose between watching Hawthorn and Freo, of course I would choose Hawthorn.

  15. Iggy i believe can lead us through:

  16. Steve Hodder says

    I barrack for the Mighty Mayblooms and I find their game very boring, but I find Port’s manic game plan boring too. The modern game is like a cross between basketball and Ice-hockey, but on a bigger field. Yet Hawthorn, mostly, wins which is a cross I’ll bear because winning doesn’t make you feel glum for the rest of the week.

    I think Mocca writes as swell as Matt Z!


  17. What are you talking about Peter!!
    Mocca and Rick are spot on.
    I think MZ wants a return to 60’s and 70’s football

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