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Lessons learnt on the rocky road to grand final day

Illustration: Matt Golding.

Illustration: Matt Golding.

Take me away
Break me away 
Take me away 
- Avril Lavigne

Well, ask and you shall receive. Last week's ramblings had me yearning for our game, our AFL finals series, to whisk me away. For the game to scale a new height and leave me without a thought in my mind except for the one that matters most in sport - the bounce of the ball, the bounce of fortune.

I watched Friday night's title fight between the Cats and the Hawks from the three-star comfort of a Swan Hill motor inn.

I was due at the Mallee Eagles grand final breakfast the following morning, and my little family and I had driven all afternoon in the fading sunlight.

When we rolled into town the big game was about to start and I had all the jumpiness of someone who was running out onto the field with Luke Hodge, Joel Selwood and co.

My hopes for the game were high - perhaps unreasonably high - but it wasn't long before the intensity and drama of the contest had crashed through the ceiling of expectation.

The classic momentum shifts that ripple through finals footy like the great lakes of Canada were on show and the result wobbled on the edge of the cliff all night.

I caught myself muttering to no one in particular, for the third or fourth time, deep in the last quarter: ''This is some game of footy.''

When Josh Caddy put the Cats 19 points up in the last quarter with some fancy footwork and innate skill, I thought they might be home. Just like the Tigers a few weeks ago, my early call was the kiss of death for the Cats. In a flash, the Hawks were not just back in the contest but were able to get their noses just in front.

As is the case with lots of big games at this time of the year, the result was just as affected by costly mistakes (often in front of goal) as they were by acts of skill or heroism.

As the siren sounded you could feel the weight of history on the shoulders of those Hawthorn players lift into the air above the MCG, and I got the feeling this year's premiership may have just been decided.

Surely the Cats and Hawks were the two best sides of 2013, if you went by the performance of that preliminary final alone. Weren't they?

If this was Ali versus Frazier, then the Dockers and Swans was like watching Ivan Drago versus Apollo Creed (I knew this boxing metaphor would come unglued eventually).

The next night, the once dogged and mighty Swans were swaying and buckling under the ferocious attack (and defence) of Fremantle. Have you ever seen a football side as hungry as the one we saw rip apart the Sydney Swans on Saturday night?

Still holed up at the motor inn, I lay awake in silence and couldn't help but think that football was changing before our eyes on the back of this hostile performance. How it will change I am not exactly sure, but I do think that regardless of the result this weekend, what we saw on Saturday night may become the new standard for the other clubs in the league.

Ross Lyon has plenty of disciples already and I'm sure he gained a few more after Saturday night's efforts.

When I was 12 I played in an under-14 premiership for the Warragul Gulls. Weeks after the game I was watching a tape of our win back at a teammate's place.

In one piece of play, the ball came my way on the wing and, as I saw it at the time, it went over my head and I turned to run on to it.

My mate's older brother was standing over us watching the wobbly replay, and he said to me sharply: ''You gotta go back for that ball in a grand final.''

I was only a kid, but the critique stayed with me for a long time and changed the way I thought about footy.

It may have been the moment that football changed from a kids' game into something far more real. The lesson was clear - on grand final day you have to pay the price. Body and soul for the team.

We know almost nothing about which way the ball will bounce on Saturday, but I think we all have a pretty clear picture of what these two sides will bring this weekend.

It's going to be a bitter and frightening battle to the very end. I can't wait for the decider to pick me up and whisk me away.

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