IF LAST year's was the AFL grand final we had to have, this year's was so breathlessly nearly the finale that no one could have predicted.
When Adelaide nudged into the lead with just more than five playing minutes to go in the preliminary final against Hawthorn - and its disbelieving crowd - at the MCG yesterday, next Saturday's grand final stood to be contested by the Crows and the Sydney Swans, 14th and seventh last year.
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Hawks edge Crows in thriller
Hawthorn has booked a spot in next week's grand final after an almighty scare from Adelaide.
- Rohan Connolly's match report.
- Jake Niall writes that Hawthorn didn't choke, Adelaide choked them.
- Michael Gleeson reports on the pain suffered by the brave Crows.
For the Hawks, a familiar calamity loomed. Beaten by Collingwood by virtually the last kick in last year's preliminary final, they slaved and grafted this year to establish themselves as the minor premier and flag favourite - and as unbackable yesterday. But so often, the finals have their own mystifying logic.
In the end, Hawthorn's blushes were spared by two of the most charismatic players in the competition, two that help to set their club apart. First, the elfin Cyril Rioli, all 177 centimetres of him, clawed down a mark in the forward pocket and kicked a goal to restore the Hawks' lead. Then Rioli floated a handball for Lance Franklin to kick another, and this brace would prove to be enough, just. Franklin had been wayward this day, but the 11th hour is his by birthright.
Not the least grateful was defender Ryan Schoenmakers, whose indiscipline - augmented, it must be said, a pernickety umpire's decision to reverse a free kick that had been paid to Hawthorn - had opened what should have been a bolted door to the Crows. Poor Schoenmakers had a nightmare day-night, yielding four goals to Kurt Tippett, who had been invisible for a month before yesterday. Mulletted Taylor Walker also kicked four.
Here was Hawthorn's Achilles heel, bared, and Adelaide's dart almost had enough poison. Sydney, laying up in wait, will have taken careful note. All the vital signs, but most particularly the imbalance in inside 50s - 64-38 in the Hawks' favour - said that this should have been a resounding Hawthorn win. The scoreboard gave the lie to them.
Adelaide was devising another attack when the siren sounded. Almost to a man, the Crows collapsed to the MCG turf, like toy soldiers, a study in still, defeated life. Nor could the Hawks find it in themselves to celebrate; the spectre of the defeat they so narrowly
avoided still danced before their eyes. Atypically, the winners scurried from the stage before the losers. Hawthorn was grateful still to have business to attend to. Adelaide was left to please itself.
Darkness was falling like a gauze curtain as this match began, a reminder that it would be lights out this night for one. Finals are full of counter-intuitive developments. In the first quarter, there were two. One was that Hawthorn's waves of attack yielded it little. From 20 inside 50s, it kicked two goals. Adelaide, from nine inside 50s, netted four. The other surprise was Tippett, who bestrode the match, taking five marks and kicking two goals.
Weight of numbers told at last in the second quarter. Hawthorn claimed the lead as a feudal lord claimed tithes. Still, the Hawks squandered their chances and the Crows - scavengers by nature - took theirs. Three marks and three goals for Walker, the last after the half-time siren, regained them the ascendancy.
Hawthorn's four-goal burst in the first eight minutes of the second half should have settled this eliminator. It was an exhilarating cameo. Forward pressure did the trick, crushing Adelaide. The Crows sabotaged their own cause by giving away two goals by fundamental mistakes.
But their tall forwards, nothing if not resilient, persevered in the last quarter until Graeme Johncock goaled for the lead.
Hawthorn's profligate goalkicking, irritating at first, now looked disastrous. It ached for the cool of captain Luke Hodge, a late withdrawal because of gastro. It did not kick a goal until Rioli's in time-on. But it was enough.