A question that starts with ‘Who’ can be many things.

Interrogatory. Challenging. Offensive. Inviting. Inspiring. Stressful. Procrastinating. Affirming. Expected. Surprising. Rhetorical. Incidental. Rare. Constant. Terrifying.

Different people, with different characters, in different situations might react the same way. More likely, the types of reaction will differ with an exponential variance, the way your perception of how stars might twinkle in the night sky varies, should you care to look up.

There are situations in life which crystallise the word ‘Who’ though. Everyday occurances. Exceptional moments. Exigent circumstances. For an athlete competing in a sport that has a Finals Series to follow the regular season, all of these and more play a part.

For those that watch and follow them, whether it be with intermittent interest or religious devotion, Finals is the time when our questions become demands. When our expectations expand. Our exhortations take on an undeniable stridency.

At the core of that is ‘Who’.

Teams that know the answer to that, and are able to define themselves within the contest thusly, tend to do pretty well. Even given how homogenised our game of footy has become, there are still enough wrinkles for a club that’s good enough, to define itself.

The perpetual motion of Geelong.
The Collingwood press.
The accountability of Sydney.
The incisive skills and precision passing of Hawthorn.

They account for every Premiership bar one, in the game’s rapidly evolving identity post the acme of the Team of Champions / Champion Team era.

What started as ‘The Flood’ – the first demonstrable attempt at on-field equalisation (without [c]overt violence) – slowly developed into a move away from exclusively trying to find your best football. And eventually unfolded into today’s multi-faceted game of conditional probability and comprehensive burst participation.

All working towards taking away your opponents’ best game first … Then looking to see what you can do.

Basically, a little over a decade ago, the answer to ‘Who’ for a team could be short & sharp. A definable ethos mixed in with some (sometimes one) names of outstanding exponents.


The key clause, kind of like the ones listed above, is supported by enough defining articles and footnotes to fill a bible-sized instruction manual, most champions of yore would be loathe to open, let alone read.

From a game ultimately defined by the players on the field, footy tactics and players’ dispositions have become more & more beholden to the coaches’ imprimatur. The game is less & less about certain players defining what their coaches try to achieve. More and more about ALL players finding a way to fit-in to a coach’s preferred system, as definitively as possible.

Gone from the vernacular of discussion is ‘warming the pine’, ‘benchwarmers’, ‘engine-room’. To be replaced by ‘list-cloggers’, ‘bottom six’, ‘structures & rotations’.

The first weekend of Finals this year gave us some concrete examples of just how much the game has changed overall. But it also reminded us that bucking the trend – enough to allow, encourage even, your players some freedom to play – can produce some breathtaking footy.

After the years of success rigid taskmasters like Ross Lyon, Mick Malthouse, Paul Roos, et al have enjoyed, it is perhaps more than just a pleasure to see the coaching emancipators like Clarkson, the Scott Brothers, Thompson, Hinkley, creating a space into which their teams play some footy.

It’s a blessed relief.

In danger of losing its identity, footy can rest easier in the knowledge of what the four games on the weekend produced.

For starters, so long a victim of a crisis of identity in the crunch against Geelong, Hawthorn never lost belief in who they were on Friday night. Having got themselves into a winning position yet again, they did not lose sight of what they could do.

Geelong threatened to do what they’ve almost always done to Hawthorn, over the last six years.

‘Who are you?’ the Cats asked the Hawks in the first quarter and kept on asking.

‘We are Joel Selwood, our Captain, running, running, winning the hard ball, kicking the open goal to give us the lead; to draw us level. Running onto the loose ball to setup another.’

‘We are Josh Walker, bit player, jigsaw piece with doubtful fit, soaring into the air, once, again and again. Clunking mark after contested mark. Kicking a goal on the half-time siren to erase a gap that just bare minutes earlier, the pattern of play was strongly suggesting should be closer to five goals than two … Then one. Then, nothing at all.’

‘We are Jimmy Bartel taking a pack mark. We are Bartel goaling to give us the lead once again.’

‘We are Geelong.’

This time was different for Hawthorn. So long a waffling victim, rendered inert by such questioning from Geelong, the Hawks never stopped providing answers.

‘We know who we are.’

‘We are Roughy finding the room to rove the contest and kick our first goal, to get our evening started.’

‘We are Brad Hill (meep, meep) running, running … and running some more. To be where he can receive the ball coming out of defense. To be where he can tackle and hold anyone with a delusion of being able to break his grip. To be where he can cut through the lines and deliver the ball inside 50, over and again.’

‘We are Jack Gunston, believing in himself to hold the ball and run into space. Before calmly putting boot to ball. Ball to goal.’

‘We are Sam Mitchell moving slowly but surely to where he sees a space no-one else does. Winning the ball in & under. Feeding the ball with the 360° awareness and enlightenment of a Zen Master.’

‘We are Shaun Burgoyne running the wing in support. Running off half-back to cut the heart out of the MCG. Holding, bouncing, feeding the ball precisely to Smith. To Roughy.’

‘We are the discount king himself, ever the miser Brian Lake, denying destructive behemoth Tom Hawkins as steadfastly as a Bill Clinton press conference about extra-marital dalliances.’

‘Deny; Deny; Deny.’
‘You WILL NOT have marking & goalkicking relations with that Sherrin.’

We are Hawthorn.
Ball winners.
Precision passers.
Goal kickers.
Victors still.

‘Who are you?’

Pity Richmond weren’t prepared to answer at the first time of asking. They didn’t have any questions for Port Adelaide either. The only team this weekend overburdened with the page-turning minutae of the ‘modern game’, and no true sense of themselves … just one week after flattering to deceive otherwise.

Even Essendon lost as the ‘truest’ version of themselves they have produced all year.

Even Sydney won on the coattails of their Ten-Million Dollar Man, as he pierced the molecular bonding of Fremantle’s defensive shell with a fiery two minute burst, incandescently typical of the essence of Buddy’s Champion Nature.

Who were you Richmond? Who will you be next year?

The six remaining teams know who they are. Soon enough we will find out who knows it best.

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