Hawks and Cats a rivalry to savour
THERE can't be a genuine fan of AFL who isn't salivating over the prospect of another epic between Hawthorn and Geelong at the MCG tonight, whatever their club allegiance.
Over the past five years, this has become a joust which seems to transcend parochial loyalties, never any sense of a likely outcome, only the certainty that we're going to be treated to a gripping contest; tough, tight and always seemingly very close.
Hawthorn's massive upset of the Cats on grand final day in 2008 created the template, and Geelong's determination and success so far in making the Hawks pay at least some sort of price for stealing a premiership from its grasp has enshrined the legend.
They've been gladiatorial bouts, usually among the most physical contests of the season, yet never short on skills or individual brilliance. And in eight games since the 2008 grand final, which have been decided by an average of just nine points, always full of drama. It's a classic modern-day rivalry, the natural successor to the series of struggles between Sydney and West Coast from 2005 to 2007, which similarly kept an entire football public enthralled. And in that sense instructive.
For those battles and the ongoing story that Hawthorn and Geelong provide have been football rivalries in their purest sense. They don't need dressing up in history, cultural legacies or tales of yore to keep them alive. It's the football that does the talking all on its own. And plays a critical role in helping shore up the credibility of an AFL competition that needs it like seldom before.
The league of the 21st century is in some ways a curious beast, a complex mix of the old and the shiny and new, the contrast never more stark than in 2012 with the introduction of a second new franchise in as many years.
While such clubs as Collingwood and Carlton have been part of the framework for 116 seasons, there's (counting Sydney) eight clubs, nearly half a league, which have been in existence for 25 years or less.
The West Coasts and Fremantles, the Crows and Port Adelaide have their own histories and cultural reference points, their own stories to tell. And no longer can the AFL's spruikers rely on a great portion of their public to be held as transfixed by the history of old-world rivalries such as Collingwood's form of class warfare with Carlton, or the territorial battles between the Magpies and Richmond over the long stretch of Hoddle Street and Punt Road.
Yet there's been plenty of times over the last couple of decades as those various combatants have resided at opposite ends of the ladder that history and geography have been about all that have prevented their clashes from sliding into irrelevance, even in this town.
West Coast and Sydney, meanwhile, was a rivalry born out of nothing more than a series of incredibly tight and gripping games of football, several of them coming at the pointiest end of the season. So consistently dramatic were the storylines that even the most parochial of Victorians couldn't help but be drawn in.
And that is precisely the appeal of the Hawthorn and Geelong clashes of today, even to those outside this state's borders. It's all about the football. Again this week, there's been a noticeable absence of brinkmanship or psychological sparring, the mutual respect between the Cats and Hawks obvious.
The talk has been all about Lance Franklin's availability, James Podsiadly's return, the impact of Joel Corey's absence. The fact that Hawthorn has led at three-quarter-time in five of those eight straight, albeit narrow, losses. The recollections about Jimmy Bartel's post-siren winning behind in 2009 and that amazing last-quarter slog in the wet on Easter Monday this year.
The only game played on a public holiday, that match had most football fans hanging on the edge of their seat. Tonight will be the same. Hawthorn and Geelong is a rivalry for all fans to share, and very much a rivalry for the new football age.