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High five: My greatest of the great on the grand final stage

Nick Malceski, with just 34 seconds left, about to clinch the 2012 flag, a great moment in one of the greatest grand finals. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

High five: My greatest of the great on the grand final stage

Rohan Connolly    


Nobody fortunate enough to have attended an AFL grand final ever forgets it. I saw my first in 1973 at the age of eight, sitting just a few rows back from the fence behind the Punt Road end goals of the MCG, and I can still clearly picture two vivid images from the day.

I don’t need a replay to recall exactly the sight, and sound, of Richmond’s Lawrie Fowler collecting Carlton captain-coach John Nicholls with a huge shirtfront very early in the game, nor the moment later when Neil Balme flattened Geoff Southby.

I was already a footy tragic, but being part of 100,000-odd people on the game’s day of days became a sort of personal quest, one which continues into my 53rd year. I’m fortunate to be able to say that (including two grand final replays) I’ve now been there 46 times in a row.

The catalogue of classic games, huge moments and players who peaked at the perfect time contains some of the fondest memories of my life. Ranking them is no easy task, but everyone loves a list, and a debate. So, with grand final No. 47 hours away, here’s mine.


No.1 – 2012: SYDNEY v HAWTHORN
For sheer quality of football, a see-sawing game and a thrilling finish, Sydney’s 10-point win over the Hawks remains the best I’ve witnessed in the flesh. It’s the only grand final to feature not just one comeback, but three, Hawthorn in charge early, the Swans striking back, the Hawks surging again and appearing to have it won before one more dramatic twist. Sydney had peeled off eight unanswered goals to lead by 28 points midway through the third term before the Hawks in a spectacular burst slammed on five in just 10 minutes. They looked home after Luke Breust and David Hale goaled early in the last. But the Swans came again. With Adam Goodes on one leg, they continued to attack, the veteran’s solo effort giving them the lead before Nick Malceski’s unforgettable snap for the sealer with only 34 seconds left on the clock. An epic.

No. 2 – 1989: HAWTHORN v GEELONG
This was a game in which for the vast bulk one team led by six or seven goals, but ’89 is a bona fide classic for a number of reasons, the seasoned pros the Hawks up against the precocious, all-guns-blazing Cats. It had courage in Dermott Brereton’s KO at the first bounce then recovery to kick an inspiring goal, and an amazing individual performance from Gary Ablett, who equalled the grand final record with nine goals. It had brilliant end-to-end attacking and high-scoring, a 42-goal game the second highest aggregate in history. And it had bravery as a whole by the Hawks as they lost a succession of players injured, hanging on desperately by six points at the finish as Geelong piled on eight goals in the final term. No other grand final has been both as tough and at the same time as free-flowing as was the 1989 classic.

Dermott Brereton fights through the pain barrier after being crunched by Mark Yeates at the opening bounce in 1989. Picture: THE FINAL STORY

Hawthorn had beaten Essendon three times in 1984, and early in the second quarter on grand final day, appeared every chance not only of a fourth, but of repeating their record 83-point smashing of the Dons the year before. Gradually, Essendon, with coach Kevin Sheedy throwing the chess pieces all over the board, began to regain its composure, but even at three-quarter time, still 23 points in arrears, victory looked a long shot. But having kicked just five goals to the last change, Essendon washed away 19 years of flagless frustration in a hailstorm of goals, the biggest comeback from a three-quarter time deficit in grand final history. Leon Baker lit the spark, and his second goal of the last quarter and fourth for the game, following a sublime blind turn, gave the Dons the lead for the first time. Hawthorn regained the lead, but Essendon surged again, adding another five goals in time-on for a then record final term 9.6, the largely pro-Essendon crowd roaring in appreciation.

The “Colliwobbles” were the stuff of football legend by 1977, but at three-quarter time on grand final day they were about to become history, the Pies set to break a 19-year premiership drought, leading North by 27 points, the Roos having been held to just four goals, Len Thompson dominant in the ruck and Peter Moore with four goals. Suddenly, though, North got a sniff. Darryl Sutton started the comeback, skipper David Dench pounced on an errant Phil Manassa handball for another, and Phil Baker began plucking them from the air. When Baker booted his sixth, the Roos led by seven points. But one last attack, a mark to Ross “Twiggy” Dunne in the middle of a huge pack, and suddenly we had our second grand final draw. Like the other 100,000-odd people there, this 12-year-old sat stunned for several minutes as the players collapsed on the ground, knowing they’d have to do it all again.

Collingwood seemed to have this in hand with a four-goal half-time lead that should have been more. But Lenny Hayes and Brendon Goddard were colossal in the second half as St Kilda chipped away, the margin down to just eight by the last change. An epic final term ensued, two goals in two minutes to Hayes and Stephen Milne making it just one point. When Goddard soared then goaled on the stroke of time-on, St Kilda was a goal up and it seemed like 1966 all over again before Travis Cloke restored Collingwood’s lead. The final five minutes were as tense as anything I’ve seen in a grand final, a ridiculous bounce of the football eluding Milne and levelling the scores with 90 seconds left. Cue more desperate acts, the siren, stunned faces and the knowledge that while the game couldn’t find a winner, in terms of sporting drama we were all victors.


No.1 – 2005: LEO BARRY’S MARK
Sydney defender Barry’s huge pack mark in the 2005 grand final would be memorable enough had it been taken midway through the second quarter. That it came as the very last act of play with his team attempting to break a 72-year flag drought, just four points in front of West Coast and under assault deep in defence, made it arguably the single most important mark in grand final history. Barry launched himself sideways across a pack of no fewer than half-a-dozen players to latch on to this game-saver, no sooner rising to his feet than the siren heralded a historic victory and his immortality.

Sydney’s Leo Barry takes the match-saving mark moments before the final siren to break a 72-year drought for the Swans. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

It still bemuses me that this incredible solo effort isn’t remembered with the same awe as “Jezza’s mark” or “Gabbo’s run”. At a critical stage in the final term, the Geelong speedster was involved on three separate occasions in all parts of the ground in the goal which clinched the win over Collingwood. First, Varcoe camped under a high ball deep in his defensive 50, creating a contest. He ran to support, his next touch a kick off the ground from the wing. Still Varcoe kept running, finally roving the crumbs from another contest at half-forward, his cool left-foot snap from 30 metres bouncing through. Amazing.

Baker was already close to best-on-ground with three goals for Essendon against Hawthorn, his third having started a last-quarter comeback by the Bombers. At the eight-minute mark, the Dons now just five points in arrears, a hurried centre clearance from “Daisy” Williams bounced up awkwardly. Baker got there ahead of Hawthorn’s Gary Ayres, gathered the ball, gracefully blind-turned around Hawk defender David O’Halloran, steadied, and from 25 metres, put Essendon in front for the first time. The Bombers would storm away to win their first flag in 19 years. I still scratch my head about how Baker didn’t also win the Norm Smith Medal.

Collingwood was in big trouble in the last quarter of the 1977 grand final replay against North Melbourne, trailing by 25 points. Bullocking runner Manassa wouldn’t have felt great, having handballed straight to North’s David Dench in the goal square in the previous week’s draw. Now, he’d redeem himself, picking up the ball at half-back, taking four bounces and running past three North opponents with a final balk for good measure, before at full tilt and from out wide slotting a goal from 40 metres. Had the Pies won, his name would be recalled as often as St Kilda’s Barry Breen. It still should be, for this was an incredible individual effort.

Malceski twice kicked the last goal in a grand final. The first time, in 2006, it still left Sydney agonisingly short of West Coast. Six years later, it sealed a 10-point premiership win over Hawthorn. The Swans led the Hawks by just four points as Lewis Jetta’s set shot fell short, leading to a ball up 20 metres from goal with 50 seconds left on the clock. Sydney’s Dan Hannebery got the first clean hands from the resultant ruck contest. His hurried handball went to Malceski, who threw the ball on his trusty left foot. The snap floated up and up, seemingly in slow motion, but with just enough carry to clear the goal line and confirm an amazing win in one of the greatest grand finals played.


No. 1 – LUKE HODGE (Hawthorn)
Hodge played in five grand finals for four premierships. Not coincidentally, the only one of them in which he didn’t feature among the best on ground was the one the Hawks lost. In the famous 2008 grand final upset of hot favourite Geelong, Hodge led the way to win his first Norm Smith Medal. He won his second in the 2014, and finished fourth in the voting in both 2013 and 2015. In all of them, his hardness at both the contest and the opponent helped set the winning tone. All up, Hodge averaged 26 disposals and a goal per game in grand finals. That’s some record.

Luke Hodge with the spoils of grand final day 2014, a cup, a premiership medallion, and a Norm Smith Medal. Photo: FAIRFAX SYNDICATION

No. 2 – KEVIN BARTLETT (Richmond)
Had I been old enough to have seen him play in the first three of his seven grand finals for Richmond, Bartlett would be a runaway No.1 here. He famously won the second Norm Smith Medal awarded in 1980 with seven goals against Collingwood, but in 2001 an AFL Record panel of judges voting on hypothetical medals for the years 1965-78 also named him a clear best-on-ground for 1973, second-best in 1967, and third in 1969. He was Richmond’s best in the shock ’72 loss to Carlton, had 27 touches in ’74 against North Melbourne, and at nearly 36 in 1982, still managed three goals. That says it all, really.

No. 3 – DERMOTT BRERETON (Hawthorn)
Brereton had one much-publicised stinker among his eight grand final appearances, in 1987, but he was consistently good or great in almost every other, a total of 25 goals giving him an average of better than three per game. Apart from his incredible eight-goal effort in a team thrashed in 1985, he managed five in 1988, 4.5 in the Hawks’ 1991 triumph, and a heroic three in 1989 after being famously crunched by Mark Yeates at the very first bounce and playing with a lacerated kidney. Few players I’ve seen on the biggest day of the year have loved the big stage as much or so obviously revelled on it.

No. 4 – WAYNE JOHNSTON (Carlton)
Carlton’s effort to win three flags in four seasons between 1979-82 has perhaps been undersold over the years. Maybe so has the performance of “The Dominator”, still going strong when the Blues won in 1987, too. A perfect blend of skill and aggression, Johnston never won a Norm Smith Medal, but could easily have won three, in 1979, ’82 and ’87. He was the Blues’ second-highest ball-winner in the first of those, set the tone in the 1982 upset of Richmond with a goal from the first bounce and tackle which led to the second inside a minute, finishing Carlton’s biggest possession-winner, and was second-highest ball-getter in 1987, also kicking two goals. Tough and polished.

No. 5 – GARY AYRES (Hawthorn)
There’s just something about tough, no-nonsense Hawthorn defenders and grand final day which has seemed to go together. Ayres was the Luke Hodge of the 1980s, indeed the first man to win two Norm Smith Medals in arguably the Hawks’ two most complete grand final performances of that era, 1986 and 1988. Ayres also stood up as one of the Hawks’ best in the losses of 1984 and 1987, too, his strong body, judgement and long kicking perfectly suited to the pressure-packed grand final stage. Those brilliant Hawthorn sides had bigger stars, but none you’d be more prepared to wager would have a good game on the day it mattered most.


Leigh Matthews embraces Collingwood president Allan McAlister seconds before the final siren on grand final day 1990. Picture: THE FINAL STORY

LEIGH MATTHEWS (Collingwood/Brisbane)
Not counting two replays, I’ve seen Kevin Sheedy, Allan Jeans and Mick Malthouse all coach in seven grand finals, Tom Hafey and David Parkin in half-a-dozen, Ron Barassi and Malcolm Blight in five each. It’s five also (for four wins) for both Leigh Matthews and Alastair Clarkson, and it’s Matthews who gets my nod here just ahead of Clarkson. Both led teams to a hat-trick of flags, both won grand finals going in as outsiders. But Matthews’ performances in getting a Collingwood team in 1990 to calmly deal with the enormous psychological weight of both a 32-year flag drought and the “Colliwobbles”, his leading of Brisbane to its first flag in 2001 then completing the hat-trick in 2003 as underdog playing a fourth week in a row, making a third road trip, and with close to half a team carrying injuries, were masterpieces of man management. Matthews’ capacity to cut through the crap with brutal pragmatism served him very well as a player and commentator, but perhaps never more successfully than in the grand final coaches box.

  1. The 89 GF must have been totally different at the ground. Barracking for Geelong, they were never in it till the last qtr. When Cameron took his shot to cut the deficit to six points, you could see there was only 10 odd seconds left and Geelong were not going to win. Had the game gone another 5 minutes, they probably would have won, but it didn’t!! High scoring, great courage for sure, but the difference in scores made for an uninteresting contest until it was too late. The final margin flatters to deceive.

  2. I agree about Varcoe’s run.


    An extraordinary effort; perhaps because it was somewhat out of character for him (even Anthony Hudson decided to call him “casual” TWICE during the run!) and that has unfairly lessened its status.

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