The Sky’s Limited

This is the week the sky stopped falling. Losses were piling up for both the Saints and Tigers but a win always holds the sky in place.

Just like that, Richmond did what a good side does, dealing with an opponent that shares their location- Swirling around in the finals mix. It was in stark contrast to the Bluebaggers, another mixer, who learnt how competitive the Saints have been all season. Previous results suggest otherwise but the Saints have been working themselves into matches, through discipline and hard work. Carlton forgot both concepts until the last stanza of Monday night and it cost them. The distance between winning and being competitive is measured through application. Carlton and Richmond are destined to bob up and down all season long on the tides of application at the contest. If they want to make the big dance, they need to apply now.

Port were on a tear until they met the Tigers. Their season under the eminently likeable Ken Hinkley started well. They look more likely than the liquorice allsorts across town, which is the first time in a while. Adelaide is a city that runs on reminding your neighbours who’s up and about and the Crows were heading to glory last season. The tide has drawn back from the shore this year for the Crows but the Power are surfing early swells. One up, one down. Let the gloating begin. This weekend flipped the script dramatically.

Bragging rights have always been an important currency in footy. I remember well, my school ‘mate’ taking the time on a Sunday morning to ring me with the news that the Tigers had done a number on my Sainters. The abject awfulness of both our sides in those dour late 80’s Saturday arvos meant that waiting for Monday was just too much. I was particularly displeased because our ruckman Paul Harding had hobbled off very early, which meant we were fighting with both hands tied, rather than just the usual one. It hardly mattered to my mate, he was ecstatic the Tigers had actually pieced together a victory. Excuses for the loss were hardly relevant to his gloating.

High School had important rituals back then. It was important to find the bloke/lass who supported the vanquished side as early as possible on Monday. Sure, the revolution of the smart phone has made the task instantaneous and perhaps a little less ritualistic but I still hope kids wear their scarves proudly to school at week’s dawn, eyes darting around to find their prey.

My schooling career coincided with an awful lot of poor footy by the Saints so the ritual of humiliating the loser had a little something extra. You got, maybe three scarf days a season, you tended to bask in the triumph. Perhaps it’s instructive that I still don’t like to talk up the win though. Knowing that you would play that side again and the chances of replicating the victory were slender, left me wary of going too hard. I simply wore the colours and smiled happily, leave the braggadocio to the consistently successful.

A Carlton supporter casually informed me straight after the ’99 grand Final loss that he wasn’t all that concerned because, after-all, it was Carlton- ‘I know we’ll just win another one soon enough.’ I felt a pang of envy at the sheer arrogance. Years later I’m still wallow in the schadenfreude of their plight but the confidence he radiated has never left my thoughts. He expects success, I can only dream it might arrive out of thin air.

Realistically, Port Adelaide have been more successful than the Bluebaggers since their last Grand Final appearance, yet Port are a classic of the rise-and-fall algorithms the AFL has factored into the league. The draft, salary cap and fixed numbers on playing lists are supposed to lead to this outcome. Sides get access to the draft, select young talent, rise to the peak, win the prize and then slide back down the slope again. Everyone gets a chance to be heroes, they just have to wait their turn.

So well have the processes worked, there was a time in the 1990’s when we seriously discussed the unlikely eventuality of another back-to-back premier. The competition was too even. The equality built into the systems weighed against one side’s dominance. We were never likely to see a great and mighty Hawthorn dynasty again. The more you win, the harder it became to stay on top.

Then Adelaide happened. Inexplicably. Underdogs in both ’97 and ’98, they found a way home in both Grand Finals. Darren Jarman still wakes Doggies and Saints fans from their slumbers in cold sweats. The Crows proved the theory of socialist football wrong, you could dominate for longer than you allotted time. What you required to dominate was a system of play that you could plug players into. You won by creating a ‘brand’ of footy. Suddenly it wasn’t enough to win, you had to win by sticking to your ‘key objectives.’

Armed with this understanding, we immediately heralded the dawn of the Essendon dynasty. From this distance, the near perfect 2000 season the Bombers put together is difficult to reconcile with the huge shock of Brisbane (I mean Brisbane? Really?) doing them in the ’01 decider. It felt like Essendon’s time, they were light years ahead and looked to be set to own the decade. What the Lions did was evolve quicker. Honestly, even with the knowledge that sides were still capable of going back-to-back, the idea of a threepeat was pure fantasy. The shape of football’s possibilities change so quickly. On the verge of winning four on end, none of us really doubted the Lions could do it….

And then along came Port. They halted the greatest march to history most of us have witnessed. Port found a way to end the Lion dynasty but not a way to bottle their ’04 vintage for any longer than it took to lift the cup.

Since then they have scratched around in the dust, trying to find more magic beans. The ’07 grand Final was the cruelest false dawn of all. It perhaps ended Port’s relevance, crowning the new power in the process. Geelong got close to breaking before breaking through. Perhaps its why they’re are still hanging on. Their time should be past, yet the bell has tolled for St.Kilda and it appears Collingwood, both rivals of the age, yet still the Cats persist. A stuttering Hawthorn and a consistent Sydney stand in their way but it might yet be that the odd-year magic is stirring again down the highway.

St.Kilda might be two games out of the eight but they have also only won that many games. The Tigers have double that amount and have Melbourne this week. The Saints can’t make the eight from here but the Tigers can. Carlton losing helps but it is too early in the finals drive to start checking in on who’s winning or not. Richmond need the Saints, Lyon-era ‘bubble’ mentality. It might have been rubbished and certainly it was contrived but with so much expected and too many years already on the countdown clock, the Tiges just need to block out the noise. Run your own race for as long as you can.

Perhaps ironically, the sides in the chase have much in common with the strugglers at this point of the season. St.Kilda are now completely focused on achieving a set of ‘key objectives,’ completely detached from their ladder position. They now measure success upon player’s improving work rates. Structures need to be implemented effectively and games have to be managed. Richmond are following those same guidelines. While Geelong and Sydney might be considering when to rest key players to keep them fresh for September, the majority of the comp are working to a plan they hope will not be cracked under the heat of finals. This is the beginning of the long middle stretch of the season -You are either playing yourself into contention or slowly drifting out of relevance.

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