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Hawthorn in a class of its own

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Chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age

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250 games: SHaun Burgoyne and Sam Mitchell.

250 games: SHaun Burgoyne and Sam Mitchell. Photo: Pat Scala

HAWTHORN 4.7 6.9 14.10 18.10 (118) RICHMOND 2.0 3.1 4.6 7.10 (52)
Goals: Hawthorn: C Rioli 4 D Hale 2 J Gunston 2 L Breust 2 L Hodge 2 B Hill B McEvoy J Lewis J Roughead P Puopolo S Burgoyne. Richmond: J Riewoldt 2 B Ellis D Jackson D Martin R Petterd S Edwards.
BEST Hawthorn: Mitchell, Birchall, McEvoy, Hill, Rioli, Hodge. Richmond: Ellis, Astbury, Houli, Conca, Riewoldt.
Umpires: Brett Rosebury, Brendan Hosking, Leigh Fisher.
Official Crowd: 52,990 at MCG.

There are ways to beat Hawthorn. One is simply to be Geelong, with all its skill, hardiness and corporate memory, and even that is not necessarily sufficient in a final. Another way is to be Richmond; by a historical anomaly, in the last two seasons, that was more than enough.

It was too good to be true, and Richmond knew it.

Trent Cotchin leads the Tigers on to the ground. Click for more photos

AFL Round 6: Richmond v Hawthorn

With Cyril Rioli's help, Hawthorn's fortunes rose, resulting in a win over Richmond at the MCG. The Hawks' won the match with a final score of 18.10 (118) to 7.10 (52). Photo: Pat Scala

Time
FT
Team
RFC
Score
7.10.52
Team
HFC
Score
18.10.118
Richmond versus Hawthorn
View Match Statistics
Players Riewoldt (2.3), Ellis (1.1), Jackson (1.1), Petterd (1.1), Edwards (1.0), Martin (1.0), Gordon (0.2) Scorers Rioli (4.0), Hale (2.2), Hodge (2.1), Breust (2.0), Gunston (2.0), Lewis (1.1), Roughead (1.1), Burgoyne (1.0), Hill (1.0), McEvoy (1.0), Puopolo (1.0), Duryea (0.1), Mitchell (0.1)

There's no foolproof way to beat Hawthorn. On Sunday at the MCG, the Tigers tried all they knew. They tagged Luke Hodge with Reece Conca, kept a weather eye out for Sam Mitchell at half-back, engaged Hawthorn on conventional terms and could only watch as the Hawks sliced them to pretty ribbons. Mitchell and Hodge did what they have been doing to allcomers for years. Forewarned was not in anyway forearmed.

Hawthorn has been at this game for so long that it is easy take for granted the sublime talent it takes to play it. Only one flaw was apparent, kicking at goal. It is age-old, and has cost the modern Hawks at least one flag. The Hawks were 4.7 at quarter-time should have been 7.4 at the very least. By contrast, Richmond scored with both its shots at goal.

That way didn't work. So in the second quarter, the Tigers knuckled down, tightened up, played one-on-one and made the Hawks work for every kick and pay for some. There were passages of play in which the Hawks looked as susceptible as any mortals. Mitchell and Hodge both made mistakes in the same quarter, unprecedented these last 10 years.

Steve Morris tackles Hawthorn's Luke Breust.

Steve Morris tackles Hawthorn's Luke Breust. Photo: Pat Scala

The trouble for the Tigers is that the Hawks can play this way too. Remember last year's grand final? As the competition's hunted, they know every trick and trap the hunters might pull. Whether in the wide open spaces or in the clinches, class outs. How other clubs would love the quick-footed, quick-witted Bradley Hill as their spare part in midfield.

For all their gut-busting, lung-bursting, eye-popping endeavour, the Tigers kicked 1.1 for the quarter. Hawthorn kicked 2.2. One was from Hodge's hit-up of David Hale, from chapter one of the Hawks' playbook. The other was by piercing Richmond's siege and setting Paul Puopolo loose, with half the MCG to himself. Richmond had changed the look and tempo of the game, but not its inexorable course.

In the third quarter, a third possible way to prevail against Hawthorn emerged: lull it into a false sense of security.

Cyril Rioli.

Cyril Rioli. Photo: Pat Scala

For a little while, the Hawks outsmarted themselves. Some kicked on their non-preferred feet, into smothers or to opponents. Some were caught, so undignified, so un-Hawthorn. The great Hodge cribbed a mark, conceding 50 metres and a goal. It was almost as if the Hawks needed the stimulus of more competition than the Tigers could provide this day.

Then again, if you're as good as Hodge, why not show it? He hit up Hale again with a 60-metre pass from a centre bounce - with his right foot. Goal.

And if you're as good as Cyril Rioli, why not add a bit of mayonnaise? He kicked four goals this quarter, a now familiar Cyril cameo.

Space does not permit a catalogue of them, but one is suffice to stand for all. From a standing start, he leapt seemingly to twice his height to pluck Ricky Petterd's intended clearing handball out of midair. The rest you know. The Hawks' sense of security wasn't false. It was the competition status quo.

Three last possible means by which Hawthorn might succumb remained. One was that the Hawks would get bored and go home. But why would they? Their football is exhilarating to watch, so it must be to play. So on and on they glided, until 11 players had kicked 18 goals, now a standard afternoon's walk.

Richmond tried playing with an extra number in defence; unfortunately, he was an invading fan. Then, when Josh Gibson upset the Tigers with a forearm that almost divided Conca, they flew the flag. But they were too late by at least two hours, and for this type of rallying, probably 20 years.

In truth, the last quarter was about statistical accumulation, useful only in contract negotiations. The 10 minutes were like the last minute of any other game, for marking time.

The competition was back to as your were. In two demoralising hours, Richmond's bunny had transformed into a beast all too recognisable to the rest of the competition, Monty Python's killer bunny.

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