Beaten $1.18 favourite: Essendon v Carlton 1999. Photo: Pat Scala
WHATEVER happens in today's Hawthorn-Adelaide preliminary final, it's a game that has already created history of sorts. Seldom, if ever, can a joust for a grand final spot between sides that finished first and second on the ladder have appeared as such a David-and-Goliath clash.
The Hawks and Crows were only separated at the top by percentage. You'd never believe that if you glanced at the betting for today, though, with Hawthorn starting an unbackable $1.12, and Adelaide value to say the least in a two-horse race at $6.25.
Only one side in memory has gone into a preliminary final as a hotter favourite, Geelong in 2008. The Cats had lost only one game all year and started $1.10 to beat the Western Bulldogs. Even Essendon, which infamously lost the 1999 preliminary final by one point to Carlton, started that day at $1.18.
Narrow winner as $1.10 favourite: Geelong v Western Bulldogs 2008. Photo: John Donegan
They are two games, though, that might have been a source of some comfort to Adelaide this week. The Blues' memorable win is still one of the most talked-about triumphs of an underdog, and even the 2008 Cats had to do it pretty hard before blowing a grand final the following week.
A major finals upset could be just a twist of fate, an untimely injury, some inaccurate kicking or a performance out of the box from Adelaide away. Not that the Crows have shied away from their outsider status.
Coach Brenton Sanderson conceded the other day: ''Hawthorn's best is almost hard to get near. We will do everything we possibly can to be at our best, hopefully our best is good enough. We certainly need Hawthorn to not play at their best.''
That raised the odd eyebrow in coaching circles. Said one assistant coach from another club: ''It's not how I would have gone about it. Doesn't that just promote hope rather than expectation? Surely, you want them to go in thinking they deserve to be on an equal footing.''
Sanderson did, though, as did his rival coach Alastair Clarkson yesterday, point out the scoreboard would start at 0-0, with the stakes exactly the same for either side.
Clarkson wasn't about to get caught up in more mind games. As in-form and healthy as the Hawthorn line-up looks today, and as careful as the Hawks' coaching brains trust will have been to avoid any complacency in the camp, high expectations can prove a psychological burden hard to shake.
On preliminary final weekend in 2008, Geelong was rested and raring to go, having torched St Kilda in the qualifying final by 58 points. The Bulldogs had been on the receiving end of a similar result against Hawthorn and, while having recovered well to beat Sydney by six goals, went into the play-off for a grand final spot rank outsiders. They ended up giving Geelong more than a few heart flutters. Still a winning chance late in the last quarter, a few missed shots at goal spoiled the opportunity to inflict what would have been a massive boilover.
Then Bulldogs coach, Rodney Eade insists, though, that the underdog tag was never part of his planning. ''I've never been one for that mentality,'' he says. ''It was more about giving them a plan about how we could win, which they embraced, and we went in with confidence that we were there to win it, not to make up the numbers.
''The plan [which involved focusing attacks through loose Geelong defender Darren Milburn's man Shaun Higgins] worked pretty well and we were right in it till about 10 minutes to go. I've always hated that expression 'nothing to lose'. I remember Michael Voss did it with Brisbane against us the next year [in a semi-final] and I really tapped into that and said to the guys, him saying that meant they didn't expect to win. My view is you've always got a lot to lose.''
The 1999 preliminary final has been raised several times this week as an appropriate comparison for today's apparent mismatch.
In case you have forgotten the detail, Carlton, which had finished sixth and lost its first final by 12 goals, still scrambled into the preliminary final, jumped Essendon, which had finished on top, with eight goals to three in the first half. The Blues survived a withering but off-target third term by the Bombers, who kicked 7.7, then surged again courtesy of a rampant Anthony Koutoufides, Lance Whitnall, and a desperate last-second tackle from Fraser Brown on Dean Wallis to cling on by a point.
Former Bomber Chris Heffernan disputes some of the assumptions made in retrospect, one that his side had blown a certain flag. ''I don't know if it's just a coping mechanism, but while we'd been a good side that year, we weren't a great side, and we were without James Hird, Scott Lucas and Jason Johnson,'' he says. While he remembers feeling shattered by the result, Heffernan also recalls not anticipating the ''choke'' claims which followed. ''We had such a rivalry with Carlton, it was a huge game in its own right, whatever the odds were. I was a little surprised over the criticism, I didn't realise people thought we were such morals.''
In contrast, few people seem to remember much detail about the preliminary final rematch the following year, when Essendon started a similarly hot favourite and the Blues were only a little shorter than in 1999. That one did go according to plan, the Bombers gradually building their lead and winning by 45 points en route to a grand final win over Melbourne.
''Everyone was so focused that whole year, it didn't become a bigger deal than it should have been,'' Heffernan says. ''Any thoughts of a 'bogey' didn't even come into calculations.''
Teammate Adam Ramanauskas backs that up. ''We never mentioned what happened in 1999 once,'' he says. ''I don't think we were even singing the song after we won games about the last six weeks that season, we were so fixed on one goal.''
And though the ''happy team at Hawthorn'' refrain hasn't been put on hold in 2012, you could imagine Hawthorn having trod a similar psychological path this week.
Adelaide, alternately, might be able to make its role as David today work in its favour.
''I guess the upside of playing that up is you can play with abandon, take the game on, not worry so much about making mistakes,'' Eade concedes. ''The danger is you give it a go, get behind and think it's OK, because you're expected to.''
If the Crows can defy logic, form and that expectation today, it will certainly be a win for the ages - and just as famous a victory for any punters who find that amazing head-to-head price of $6.25 for a potential grand finalist a little too hard to resist.