The week of an AFL Grand Final is like no other.
For context, in the 146-year history of the South Melbourne/Sydney Swans football club, we have won five premierships. We have lost twelve deciders.
The traditions of the week, including the Grand Final parade on match eve, are entrenched, but for some, they are far from enjoyable. All-Australian defender Nick Smith indeed found this to be the case. "The Grand Final parade instruction was to enjoy it, but relax and know that you don't have to switch on the whole time. I found it difficult to relax during the parade with the Grand Final on the next day, but it was unbelievable with the number of people that were there." He adds, "Getting up there on the steps of the Old Treasury Building in Melbourne and seeing people up in all the windows, looking out of the buildings, just people everywhere, was incredible. I remember lots of my family and friends came out and hearing them yelling as we drove past. But for me, it's quite a shame that it wasn't a more enjoyable experience. It was great to do, but you're certainly on edge a little bit."
The enormity of the task at hand ensures that the pressure to win a Grand Final can be all-encompassing, and for key defender Ted Richards, the unwanted stress of a severe ankle injury, sustained in the Preliminary Final win against Collingwood, only heightened his uncertainty. "I went into the game incredibly worried that if I couldn't get through the game and had to sit on the bench injured all day, then I could cost the team a Premiership. I was especially nervous as the physios and doctors didn't want me on the leg throughout the week, so I couldn't really test it."
However, amid the trepidation, confidence and focus lived deep within this group. Former captain and club-champion Kieren Jack recalls a strong sense of belief among them. "I do remember, actually in the lead into the finals, we had a couple of close losses, and one was against Hawthorn at the SCG. And we lost against Collingwood just before the finals too. But the group still had had a lot of confidence going into the final series. After that Adelaide game in our first final, we rode a bit of a wave of confidence because we had to play Collingwood in a prelim at ANZ, who we hadn't beaten for a long time. But we won that, so we ended the hoodoo there, and then I think that gave us a lot more confidence heading into Hawthorn as well. I think we knew how to beat Hawthorn as we'd beaten them earlier in the year."
The late season Hawthorn loss especially resonated as the team was in a winning position with only seconds to play. This lesson would prove to be valuable, as two-time premiership player Jude Bolton explains. "In the previous Hawthorn game, Ryan O'Keefe had kicked what we thought was the sealer and then we didn't get the structure right, the ball came out of the middle and Shaun Burgoyne kicked the winner at the other end." He continues, 'Those things hold you in good stead for the finals, and you think, we're not going to let that happen again and sure enough, that's how it all ended up playing out in the Grand Final. In the final moments, when Malceski kicked the winning goal, you could see so many people screaming, let's get everyone behind the ball, we're not going to let that happen again! Those things stick with you."
As one of the many congregating in Young & Jackson's Hotel on Grand Final morning in Melbourne, I sensed the magnitude of an AFL Grand Final for the very first time. The intensity of energy, the brilliance of colour, and the lively enterprise were infectious. A wave of footballing symposium surged through the establishment, and I felt alive. Very much alive. A Swan stranger engaged, and collectively we predicted a win for our boys; O'Keefe to be best on the ground. Was this to be false bravado or measured forecasting?
While we swilled, the team's preparations intensified. "We used to do these pre-match soccer games, and they called them activation sessions," says ruckman, Mike Pyke. "These soccer games, particularly towards the end of the year, were getting really rowdy. This one on Grand Final day, just across from the Crowne Plaza, it got outrageously rowdy. Guys were jumping over each other, doing headers, sliding for balls, kicking the ball as hard as they could at each other. It got to the point where our fitness guy turned away and couldn't watch. He might have even left. I know I was carrying an ankle injury, and I just went and stood in a corner and watched, staying away from everyone. I was watching these guys carry on like lunatics. But, we seemed to have this ability to focus on the moment, and we took that into the game, which was great."
Fortunately, the team remained unscathed, and as they headed to the mighty MCG, the imposing stands began to fill with what would be a crowd of almost 100,000 people. And, as the early-Spring winds circled and swirled around the ground, so too did rumours that colossal ruckman Shane Mumford would be ruled out of the game. Medical staff only decided that he would take his place 40 minutes before the bounce. The relief in my jam-packed standing-room bay was palpable.
Kieren Jack can remember the group's excitement as they finally entered the arena to commence hostilities with the Hawks. "We were a young group that was just excited by the feeling of running out onto the MCG with 100,000 there and playing in the Grand Final. Just having that opportunity was so exciting, so I think while we started pretty slowly that day, there's that second quarter where the shackles came off, where we played with real confidence, and we played some of the best footy that we'd played all year and probably ever. So, I think, if you combine it, it was a young group that had a lot of confidence in where they were at and just excited by the opportunity that was on offer on Grand Final day."
For Smith, his coach's and more experienced teammates' words were ringing in his ears; switch on. "I can remember the advice we got on the Monday morning when we sat down for a chat because a couple of guys from the '05 & '06 Grand Finals and Horse said to make sure you take it all in. When we come into the footy stuff, make sure we're really switched on and training well, but other than that, just have a normal week. Switch off when you can, if you can, and then when the game starts, you know what to do."
Early signs were worrying. Apart from Nick Malceski's miraculous snap from the boundary-line, highlights were few and far between in a first-quarter dominated by Hawthorn. However, when Daniel Hannebery bravely ran back with the flight of the footy, marking in front of a rampaging David Hale, he most definitely set the tone – we would prove immovable. "It was my turn, and I had to go and have a crack at it," he said after the match.
Equally significantly, during the opening quarter, Lewis Jetta received a handball from Heath Grundy deep in our defensive half, and he embarked on one of the most iconic Grand Final sprints there has ever been. Immediately pursued by the fleet-footed Cyril Rioli, Jetta glided across the hallowed turf, pure poetry in motion as he raced down the wing, bouncing the Sherrin three times in a seventy-metre scamper before driving the ball deep into attack. It was just a glimpse of the outside run and speed that our Swans would utilise to inflict significant damage later on.
Early signs for Ted Richards, though, were in fact, positive. Receiving painkilling injections at every break was planned so that he could endure the challenge of standing Lance Franklin. "We went in with a plan, and it worked. It got me through the game, but Buddy still played so well. Every time I thought they had momentum, we managed to get ourselves back into the game," Richards says. Clearly hobbled, he responded well to the early onslaught, as did the rest of the team. While faced with a 19-point quarter-time deficit, spirits remained high as they would be kicking to the City End, where a strong breeze was blowing.
The match began to turn our way after the first break as Kennedy, Jack, McVeigh & Reid all goaled within the first fourteen minutes of the term. Pyke recalls this quarter as the time when the team clicked into gear. "That was just the classic case of everything coming together at the right time. We had an unreal team just galvanizing together. Our lead up was great; we were filled with confidence, but not over-confidence that may have been the case in '14, but I remember probably because of where the group was at, in terms of age profile, we could just focus on the moment. We were so good at that."
Staying in the moment inspired a match-turning run of goals. "There were so many ups and downs in that game. I've only watched the game twice since it happened, but there were certainly a ton of ups and downs. My overwhelming memory of that game is that everyone contributed and did their job," says Pyke.
Perhaps, none contributed more in the way of fortitude on that day than Adam Goodes. After leaping for a mark during that sensational second quarter, he landed and damaged the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He momentarily left the ground, then returned and, in a pivotal three-minute stretch, expertly assisted Mitch Morton in snapping two opportunistic goals.
Many of his teammates were unaware of the severity of Goodes' injury, but none were surprised when they learned of it. "Goodesy was my neighbour for eight years, as we sat next to each other in the locker room," Pyke says. "He was there when the Bloods ethos was born, and he was one of the best at passing that on to the next generation. Goodesy was always such a great team man and so revered. He was always so competitive. He'd get pissed off when I lifted heavier weights than him in the gym, we had ice bath challenges, we were in rehab together, he was one of those guys who did some pretty special things, but when he played that game on one leg, kicked that winning goal to put us ahead in a Grand Final on one leg, then just smashed through Buddy after that, it was just, wow!"
With Goodes, Richards, Mumford & Bolton now playing under significant duress, we all welcomed a 16-point halftime lead. With Dr. Nathan Gibbs overloaded, John Longmire prescribed a healthy dose of Bloods culture to see this one through.