Two imposters



Around this time last year the Eagles were premiers. A sporting triumph.


Immediately the talk turned to the chances of going back to back. So rare and so precious; a greater sporting triumph.


On Friday night the reigning premiers were knocked out of the 2019 premiership race. A sporting disaster, at least for the players, club and fans.


The last few minutes of the 2018 grand final were dramatic. The passage of play which began with Jeremy McGovern’s mark and ended with Dom Sheed’s goal, which was one of the most exhilarating in recent memory. Reflecting later on the final minutes of that game I called to mind lines of the poet Rudyard Kipling in his famous poem “If”:


If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’…

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run…



One of the Eagles involved in that passage was Willie Rioli, who kept Collingwood defender Brayden Maynard from spoiling Dom Sheed’s mark. Rioli had kicked the Eagles first goal that day and was a crowd favourite as the players received their medals and did a long lap of honour, celebrating with the fans.


It was a moment of great sporting triumph. But with their Family, Friends, Flags philosophy – and with an abiding grace and humility led by their coach Adam Simpson and captain, Shannon Hurn, the Eagles had earned great respect in their come from behind win after a long and tough season with significant setbacks involving Nic Naitanui, Andrew Gaff and Brad Sheppard.


There were high hopes for 2019, and more particularly for the chance for those three who missed the grand final, and had been clearly suffering after the game as their mates celebrated, to have their chance to share the joys that come with winning the ultimate prize in footy. But back to back flags are hard to come by. I visited some of the reasons for that earlier in “Winning Ugly, or Just Winning” on this site.


But on Friday night the Eagles were knocked out of the 2019 finals by Geelong in the semi-final. The mountain of going back to back had proved too high and the team had stumbled at important stages, most notably the final game of the home and away season against the Hawks in Perth when they lost a game that put them out of the top four and the chance of two home finals which had proved so rewarding in their premiership year.


The week before they had lost to Richmond by a goal after playing one of the best quarters of football by any team this season in the first quarter. But Richmond had fought back and as the rain set in at the MCG, the contest evened and became a slog. In the end, after dramatic swings each way, Jack Riewoldt nailed a final goal to win it.


In the elimination final against eighth placed Essendon in Perth, the team welcomed back Nicholas Naitanui from an ankle injury, to dominate ruck taps and centre clearances, resulting in an unprecedented seven goals from centre bounces. Willie Rioli showed his class as he kicked a classic small forward’s goal, roving off a pack and slotting a curving ball through the goals.


But Rioli would not play the next week against Geelong in the semi-final. On Thursday, word emerged that Rioli had been charged with an anti-doping offence by the AFL and ASADA, to do with substituting another liquid for the required urine in a sample taken in the week after the Richmond game. He had been suspended immediately and, although he had travelled with the team to Melbourne, he left and headed back home to the Tiwi Islands, reportedly inconsolable and in a fragile state, to be with family and friends. As the game played out on a cool Melbourne night I thought of Willie in the balmy humid air of the Islands, watching the contest in Melbourne, which, like the tumult and the shouting of the premiership twelve months ago, must have seemed like a million miles away to him.


The Geelong Cats, who had finished top and who had been doubted by certain parts of the football media all week, came out firing and showed a vital intensity for contested ball which sent them 31 points ahead. But just as had occurred in the grand final last year, the Eagles, led by Shuey, Yeo, Hurn and, this time, Andrew Gaff, by sheer force of will, pushed back and hit the front just before three quarter time. As Adam Simpson lamented afterwards, the Cats just seemed to want it more in the final quarter and emerged clear winners, despite a massive quarter from Gaff who seemed a driven man.


I felt that Simpson’s comment might actually have been the epitaph for the Eagles’ year; at critical points in the game, as in the season, when the ball was up for grabs on the ground, when that acceleration was required into that (Denis Pagan) “final yard”, when intensity required to be raised and maintained, when tackles had to be made and to stick, that too often some of their opponents seemed to want it more than some (though by no means all) of the boys from the west.


Perhaps it was the self-satisfaction that came from winning the year before, or the attendant difficulties that come from trying to climb the mountain, this time a little higher and a little harder than the last time, to win back to back premierships. As Simpson lamented, ‘Who knows?”.


Hopefully stung by the events of the last month, the team will regroup. There is certainly the quality and the potential. And there is still the unfinished business for Naitanui and Gaff and Shepherd for motivation, to which now add Hickey and Allen and Petrucelle and Nelson and Ah Chee and Waterman. Plus whatever inspiration might emerge from Willie Rioli’s lessons or, (more unlikely) reprieve. Or, from whatever real life triumphs and disasters might be endured, that so clearly played a part in motivating some of the 2018 team, like Tom Cole and Will Schofield.


Last Saturday I was flicking through the channels after the Bulldogs-Giants game. I caught a bit of “Bounce” on Fox Football and smiled as Danny Frawley and Jason Dunstall employed their usual shtick of ridiculing each other’s opinions and attitudes all the while calling each other “Chief” (Frawley to Dunstall) and “Spud” (Dunstall to Frawley). A birthday cake was brought on for Frawley’s 56th birthday and he blew out the prank inextinguishable candle which kept coming back to light. As it was my birthday this week and I was hitting a milestone I was not that happy about, I took an interest. As I said to a friend of the ‘milestone’, “too many miles and a very heavy stone.” But I didn’t linger on Bounce.


The next time I heard Danny Frawley’s name was on Monday coming home from work, after he had been killed in a single-car crash not far from his old hometown of Bungaree. Like everyone, I was stunned. Single car crashes on Victorian country roads involving men over 40, I had once heard, overwhelmingly meant that the driver had taken his own life.


What was most stunning about the revelation and subsequent grieving, was that it seemed that Frawley had so much to live for; it was clear that Frawley had been much loved by his own family, wife Anita and three daughters, and that he had deeply loved them. And that he was, to all the world, a successful media performer on television and radio which would have provided a reasonable income and which had earnt genuine respect and warmth from his fans. He had given his best to a footy career, which by most measures had been successful. But all of that was not enough to save him. The power of whatever was haunting him was so strong that all of those other things – the things we generally regard as the markers of a happy and fulfilling life – must not have been enough in that dark and dreadful moment, alone on the straight road at Millbrook, near Ballarat. He was younger than me.


Whatever else happened this week, Danny Frawley’s life, and larger than life personality, and his sad death, hung over and gave perspective to everything.


Willie Rioli’s troubles, the Eagles loss, my concerns at getting old, all seemed so much less traumatic and so unimportant in the face of real disaster. The premiership and the hope for back to back flags or winning a game of footy, still seemed like triumphs, but of a lesser kind.


On the wall of the centre court at Wimbledon is another line from Kipling’s “If”;


“If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same”.


Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2010, the special lines of Kipling hang above him. [First published by Rolex in 2010]

Those words are there to remind the players that pass by them, that what lies ahead for them may end in triumph or disaster and that their attitude and bearing should be the same no matter which prevails. And that in the real world, such results, masquerading as triumphs and disasters, don’t really count for a hill of beans.


That is fine for sports. That is why they are imposters; they are not like real triumph, or even more compellingly, real disaster. In a sporting context they are also feelings and emotions relative to the amount of hope and need invested in them. The more you emotionally invest in the outcome of a game, the better it is to win (a triumph) and the worse it feels to lose (a disaster). But relative to our lives in the real world, sporting triumph – like winning an AFL grand final – is never as objectively important as it subjectively seems. And sporting disaster, like an adverse drug test or missing out on a grand final, or not going back to back, is never as bad, a week, a month or a year later, as it seemed it might be at the time.


So sporting triumph and disaster are not real life, in your face, life or death, triumph and disaster. These are things that really matter and they are not imposters. They are for real and they affect us forever.


Real disaster is horrific, it steps up and slaps you in the face like it did this week after a crash on a lonely stretch of road outside Millbrook when, in an unforgiving second, a seemingly inextinguishable candle was finally snuffed out. That, I think, is real disaster.


And real triumph, I think, might be to keep real disaster at bay, for at least just one more day.


Back to back.


To back.




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  1. Well said John. Some seasons you’re the windshield, some seasons you’re the bug. Frawley’s suicide reminded me of another poem “The Man In the Mirror”.
    “When you get all you want in your struggle for self,
    and the world makes you king for a day,
    then go to the mirror and look at yourself
    and see what that man has to say.”
    Thought the Eagles Friday night mirrored their last 6 weeks with losses to Collingwood, Richmond and Hawthorn. Midfield is ordinary. Yeo needs to step up. Poor disposal and gives away lots of frees. Sheed and Redden honest plodders. Need Kelly for his hands and disposal to win another flag. Other teams are more disciplined. We fly for marks against each other too often. Geelong and other sides notably have one up with the other blocking. Teams have worked McGovern and Barrass out and we did not adapt.
    AFL comp is very even. In 2018 the cards fell our way. 2019 was fun but we squandered our hand. Much to look forward to in 2020. Rioli and JK perhaps only likely losses. Plenty of promising youngsters. No one ever killed themselves with a yearling in the paddock.

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