Saving the season

Two great finals have helped rescue Andrew Demetriou's annus horribilis.

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The football year started with the unprecedented punishment of a club for striving to lose games, and was nearly concluded by the time another club was punished for taking extreme measures to win.

Melbourne's tanking wounded the game, then Essendon's exotic supplements turned those wounds into gangrenous sores. Meanwhile, not to be outdone on the scandal score, the St Kilda Football Club's playing group contributed a rape charge and the burning of a dwarf on a Monday that wasn't so much ''mad' as completely brain dead.

As the season progressed, it was sadly soon apparent that a flat-out Melbourne still wasn't good enough to win, or even to get within eight goals of most teams. That club was so weak that it was placed under AFL supervision, as if it was a child in custodial care. As the finals began, the Demons had found their saviour, but the question remained: Would the finals be the saviour of Andrew Demetriou's annus horribilis?

If Essendon had been taken out of the finals, would the finals - spring time for a battered game - ''take out'' the Essendon story? Could the finals produce contests, subplots and excitement sufficient to salve the wounds that Essendon, plus other catastrophes, had created.

The answer is a qualified ''yes.'' Two games, in particular, have provided a measure of redemption for the AFL.

On the Sunday of the first finals weekend, the long-dormant Richmond Football Club confronted its most hated rival, the Blues, who had come to this game with an asterix affixed to their name, having finished as the lucky ''ninth'' and thus qualified as the substitute.


Nearly 95,000 people flocked to the MCG for this heavily tribal contest. In many ways, this mass rally was really a throwback to the old VFL of the '70s and '80s when the brutal Tigers terrorised the competition and the ruthless Blues had the kind of winning aura and self-confidence that exists at Geelong today.

Richmond, true to type, jumped out and was overrun. Carlton's hold on Richmond - a second-tier version of the Kennett curse - was evident in the third quarter, when its champion Chris Judd, despite a sore knee and depleted athleticism, led the charge.

Carlton's so-so season - 11 home-and-away wins and clearly beneath expectations - was seemingly redeemed in one half.

Criticism of the club for the replacement of Brett Ratten by Mick Malthouse and calls for shake-ups abruptly ceased.

Collingwood had suffered the reverse the night before against the season's Cinderella, Port Adelaide. The Pies' season had been on course for par - the top six, despite injuries and eight debutants - but ended in dissatisfaction and disquiet, with a clamour for cultural change. A couple of goals here and there could change an entire club's outlook, it seemed.

Carlton folk didn't care about where their club stood in relation to Malthouse's premiership clock on that sunny Sunday. They were able to revel in the intoxicating moment. Richmond v Carlton, really, was a celebration of footy's tribalism. The highlight wasn't a mark, goal or even the comeback. It was the roaring goose-bump atmosphere - all the more celebrated for the fact that it cannot be replicated at the AFL's shamefully corporatised and neutralised grand final.

I cannot remember a game in which there was more riding on the outcome for the Hawks, who were destined to be cast as footy's Greg Norman had they lost.

If Carlton v Richmond was a great occasion, Friday evening's preliminary final was just a great game. Alastair Clarkson struck the right note in comparing Hawthorn and Geelong to Federer v Nadal. There was recognition from both clubs that they have elevated one another's station. Without Hawthorn to conquer, Geelong would be the lesser and vice versa.

I cannot remember a game in which there was more riding on the outcome for the Hawks, who were destined to be cast as footy's Greg Norman had they lost. Who knows what scars and consequences might have ensued? Clarkson, not known for his appreciation of the Divinyls, astutely remarked on the ''fine line between pleasure and pain''. For Hawthorn, this was a great and glorious escape. To win a grand final berth from 20 points behind at three-quarter time, while fighting collective anxiety and a formidable adversary, takes some character. Sam Mitchell and Shaun Burgoyne were the steady hands that steered the ship to safety.

Geelong had entered the game without great form or Corey Enright, yet with that Olympian self-belief - especially in relation to Hawthorn - intact. The Cats' advantage was in their greater composure and speed, but they tired in the final quarter, as Hawthorn took complete ownership of the ball. The extra game for Geelong (and the week's break for the Hawks) surely was decisive. The Cats will need to sort out their rucks, which cost them the Fremantle final and thus, in all probability, a grand final berth.

That the Hawks were clearly jittery - missing targets by foot and relatively easy shots - added to the drama and the sense that this was a match that would define their legacy. A defeat would have completed the journey from ''kill the shark'' (Clarkson's famed pre-game address in the 2008 grand final) to becoming football's Shark (as in Norman). Still, if they lose next week, though, it will be for naught. The Hawks are the only club for which a premiership is the pass mark in 2013.

This was not the case for the Cats, whose astonishing, rapid rebuild continues while they compete for the premiership. The Cats will lose more veterans. Josh Hunt, unfortunately, played one game too many. His replacement by Josh Caddy was timely and nearly won the night. The performances of Caddy, Jordan Murdoch and the electric Steven Motlop underscored that the Cats need to shove a couple of veterans in order to make room for the next batch, in what is a very tricky balancing act.

Hawthorn's victory gives it an opportunity for a day of atonement on Saturday. For the AFL, Friday night's curse-killer - and the Richmond-Carlton classic - have already atoned a little for a season lost.