Round 9 – Hawthorn v Sydney: Life takes precedence over footy

It is a brave person who readily uses cliches to assess the state of play in AFL these days – tolerance for that kind of thing is understandably low when footy’s commentators, players and coaches so persistently and instinctively reach for them, and you immediately leave yourself wide open to criticisms of being tired and oversimplifying things.

Yet there is one phrase that never seems to lose its relevance or originality, no matter how many times it is used: “A week is a long time in football”.

Friday night’s match goes a long way to explaining the lasting currency of this old chesnut.

Last Sunday, this match was only ever going to be about the footy.

FOX Sports, afl.com and The Age threw the regular barrage of details our way, analysing everything from the two sides’ see-sawing recent history to who’d take Buddy to free kick differentials – all variations on the same theme of “A modern day rivalry continues”.

But then, on Tuesday, the real world interrupted the footy world – it was revealed Jarryd Roughead’s melanoma had returned and spread internally, leaving Hawthorn’s key forward and one of footy’s most widely loved characters facing an uphill battle to ever play again.

In the blink of an eye, footy’s merchants of match analysis turned their attention to selling tributes to “Big Rough”, and this new focus of compassion over footy would come to define Friday night’s game.

In fairness, it might have been like this even without the Roughead news.

Footy was again relegated to the periphery at the start of the match, this time in favour of mental health. The light towers were switched off, to be replaced by the lights of thousands of camera phones, as a lone guitarist sang a song in recognition of beyond blue.

Of course, the candlelight vigil was given purpose by the fact Buddy, who had a well-publicised withdrawl from footy last year over mental health concerns, was playing this game.

Then the ball was bounced, and we were presented with an arm wrestle between two teams destined to go deep into September. But not even a match as engrossing as this could wrest attention away from what had happened off field.

In the second term, as the Swans began to make the most of their opportunities and put valuable breathing space between themselves and uncomposed Hawks, a swell of applause overcame the G’ in another tribute to Roughead.

Something occurred to me in that moment – something I first thought of during those memorable spectacles players of locking arms after every match in the round following Phil Walsh’s death: the AFL community has grown up.

We once viewed real-world concerns coming to the game as something to begrudge – rude, unwelcome interruptions to our sporting dreamworld. Now it seems the AFL’s fans recognise they have a responsibility to acknowledge and appropriately observe these concerns when they arrive.

The value of this new mentality was also evident in this match, in the form of Lance Franklin. When Buddy kicked those two enormous last quarter goals that ended up being the difference between the two sides, it was the latest proof he is in the form of his life.

Few would have expected such a triumphant return, even from someone so superhuman as Buddy, but this successful comeback is due in no small part to the understanding he was shown during his recovery by the Swans and the fans – the same understanding that was on display during the pre-game vigil.

When the siren sounded, Franklin embraced his former teammates.

It marked the end of an extraordinary few days for both sides, the coming together of two off-field affairs that had defined these days, and proof that the walls between the AFL world and the real world are coming down, to the benefit of all concerned.

About Alex Darling

Melbourne-born, NSW-based footy fan, lover of the Saints, classic rock guitar and good writing on each of these topics.

Comments

  1. Keiran Croker says

    Well done Alex. A good piece of writing.

Leave a Comment

*