IT WAS always going to be like this. A smother here, an unpredictable bounce there, a late goal would decide it. Hawthorn and Sydney had played a similarly dramatic match at the SCG just a month ago. Now they would reprise it on the grand final stage.
Thirty-two minutes into the last quarter, neither team had been broken, though players wilted around the edges, exhausted. Sydney led by four points and there was a ball-up near the Swans goal. Plainly, a Sydney goal would be the winner. If Hawthorn could repel this attack and move the ball quickly, the Hawks had time to steal it. Game on, as they say.
Sydney half-back Nick Malceski, who would take centre stage in the final act of this classic, had sneaked down off his half-back flank into the vicinity. ''I don't know what I was doing down in the forward 50,'' he said later, feigning regret. ''There was a bit of traffic around. I know John Blakey, my defensive coach, tells me not to go in the forward 50.''
Frozen in time: Nick Malceski's winning kick deep into time-on of the last quarter. Photo: Wayne Taylor
But if Malceski was breaking any team rules, then Dan Hannebery, Sydney's flint-hard on-baller, was following orders. ''I was fourth at the stoppage,'' he said. ''I was playing my role in the wing spot.''
What happened next will go in the annals. The ball spilled from the ruck contest to the ground. Josh Kennedy was first to it, but he was beset upon in a tackle. Hannebery, playing the most famous game of his short career, grabbed the footy. ''The ball bobbled out to me, I gathered it, I heard Mal going 'roll back, roll back'. I was trying to find him,'' he said.
Hannebery fed a handball out the back to Malceski who fumbled momentarily, then launched his left boot at the Sherrin, almost volleying it. The football soared high, over the traffic but not with the authority Malceski would have liked.
The moment: Nick Malceski (with beard) after kicking the match winning goal. Photo: Wayne Taylor
Freeze the moment in time. It seemed to take forever. Hawthorn players launched desperate attempts to get to it. They could not; it carried the line by perhaps a metre. Malceski was mobbed by teammates. To the list of wobbly punts in AFL history, headed by Barry Breen's 1966 kick to hand St Kilda its only premiership, add Nick Malceski's rainmaker.
''If you look at a replay, I think I fumbled it a fair bit,'' he said. ''It was a bit like the 'Davo' [Nick Davis in the 2005 semi-final]. It wasn't quite in my hands. I kicked it out of mid-air. It went high. I was just hoping it went the distance. Once it did, I knew there wasn't much time to go and we were up by 10 points. I just went nuts. I can't explain how good this feeling is. Everything I've been through in my career, I've done my knee three times. It just does not matter.''
Hannebery was one of the first to him. ''It was an ugly kick, but it went through,'' he said. ''I knew that if we could win the next stoppage, it was game over.''
Ted Richards celebrates by hoisting Malceski onto his shoulder. Photo: Wayne Taylor
Mike Pyke, Sydney's Canadian ruckman, was nearby. ''I saw it floating through and I was thinking 'I hope it has the legs'. It was wobbling,'' he said.
Up in the coach's box, John Longmire was petrified that it might be touched on the line. That would have returned the football to Hawthorn, with the lead only five points. ''The worst result would've been a point,'' he said.
Such are the fine lines of games of football.
Agony and ecstasy: Luke Hodge in grief as Sydney celebrates. Photo: Paul Rovere
Malceski, the 28-year-old from Eastern Ranges, was an appropriate finisher. Like Ted Richards and Jarrad McVeigh, he was among the Swans who missed out on the 2005 premiership, playing in 2006 when Sydney lost by a point to West Coast.
''I was young, 21 back then,'' he said. ''You just think it's going to happen every year, and you know, it doesn't. You've got to take the most of your opportunities, and today we did.''
One of the significant things that happened at Sydney during the week was that the players who lost in 2006 spoke to the younger men about the pain of losing a grand final.
Craig Bird, Nick Malceski and Adam Goodes. Photo: Pat Scala
Richards and McVeigh and Malceski had their turn, and Rhyce Shaw spoke about his losing grand final at Collingwood in 2003. Don't go here, was the message. For Malceski, it was reward for perseverance. Three times he has had knees reconstructed, the most recent a LARS surgery on his right knee early last year. At that point, he thought his career was over until Sydney's doctor, Nathan Gibbs, told him about the LARS surgery.
''He said, 'you've got another option, it only keeps you out for three months'. I said, 'let's do it'. The club looked through all the pros and cons. If I didn't get that done, my career would have been over.''
He had already had a decent grand final. Longmire had been happy with his defensive work since he returned to the team late in the season. Now he wanted run and spread. ''He just came up to me and said, 'run your arse off today'.''
His first-quarter goal from the boundary in the forward pocket will go down as one of the great grand final goals. ''I've got no idea how that went in,'' he said. ''I was having a shot, for sure! It worked pretty well. I think I was in row six. It swung in there, nice.''
At that point of the game the Swans were leaking badly, and Hawthorn threatened a blow-out. ''We were gone, absolutely gone,'' said Hannebery. ''We just dug in. We stuck at it, and this is the sweetest feeling. It's going to live on for many, many years.''
As for Malceski, he was clutching a premiership medal. Finally. ''I couldn't be prouder of the group we've got here. Everyone will do anything for each other. It's just a great feeling when the final siren went.''