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Sitting pretty for the run home

Date

Martin Flanagan

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

FINAL WORD

THE Tigers, in my observation, have more supporters who go to the footy dressed up and in costume than any other club.

Last Sunday, as the Olympics were closing and the Brits were preparing to put on a show to dazzle the world, Richmond was playing the Bulldogs at the MCG.

The Tiger Army, full of ribald chants, was about a dozen rows behind us. Around us were middle-aged women in black and yellow outfits that made them look like semi-inflated wasps and the odd young man in a head-to-toe Tiger suit. In front of us were two demure young Asian women, both dressed in black, one wearing a head scarf which suggested she was a Muslim.

At half-time, unable to contain my curiosity, I leant forward and asked the young women where they were from. They were international students from Malaysia. Someone had given them free tickets to the match. They had cardboard sheets with autographed photos of all the Richmond players.

''The game,'' I told them, ''is crazy, but beautiful.''

They nodded and smiled as if to say that was as they had found it. The Tigers gave the Dogs a thumping. The Dogs played some pretty football but lacked the big, capable players who hold a football team together the way buttons hold a cardigan. It's hard for me to look at the Tigers and think they shouldn't have done better in 2012 but I think about Carlton, too. It's a bias I have towards teams with recognisably individual talent as opposed to teams like Sydney and North Melbourne that have a near-uniform identity.

In the case of the Tigers, I like watching Dustin Martin play.

He's the football equivalent of a four-wheel-drive with a tray full of work equipment and red dust on its sides.

He's quick, strong, reads the play and kicks the ball long. He slaughtered the Dogs. And I like watching Trent Cotchin play. A lot of people do - he's young and good-looking, a one-touch player with a quicksilver mind who is deceptively slow in his movements so that it constantly seems like he is performing tricks or acts of football magic.

A Brownlow for Cotchin would be like an Olympic gold for Tigerland and be received by the Tiger Army with that degree of reverence.

Another team I like watching is West Coast. Mick Malthouse was a mighty coach but I would argue that John Worsfold's Eagles teams have been better to watch than Malthouse's Eagles even though Malthouse's sides had more talent. The Eagles teams of the early 1990s were strewn with great names - Matera, Jakovich, Kemp, Lewis, Mainwaring, McKenna - but the captain of that formidable unit was John ''Woosha'' Worsfold.

A pharmacist by trade, he played with a lot of nous and had a small boy's smile when interviewed after games. On the field, if he got the chance, he'd hit you like a semi-trailer and leave you in a trance. Malthouse's teams were solid as cement. Woosha's teams, for one reason or another, have been more fragile but, again this year, the Eagles are in the finals mix.

The big controversy in Perth this week concerned Geelong coach Chris Scott saying the West Coast crowd was the worst in Australia. This followed Geelong's Tom Hawkins being booed by a small section of the Perth crowd last weekend as he was being carried off senseless.

Seeking to further plumb the West Coast psyche, I found a website for West Coast supporters.

The post I read alleged the Eagles were cheated of the 2005 premiership through the systematic intimidation of the umpires during the course of that season by Sydney coach Paul Roos. It included this view of Worsfold: ''One of the things I most like and respect about Worsfold is that he keeps his trap shut when things don't go our way - he simply has far too much class and fortitude to go all crying to the media when things go wrong.''

It made me realise something I had either forgotten or not properly processed: Woosha is a hero in the West. These are the passions beginning to stir as we close on September and the finals.

Sydney and Adelaide, sitting one and two on the ladder, are looking at home finals, but Malthouse said this week they aren't the two best teams in the competition which, if true, is a serious indictment of the AFL roster. Beneath Sydney and Adelaide sit Hawthorn, Collingwood and Geelong.

Collingwood was built during the terrible depression of the 1890s on the principle that no individual is bigger than the club. As the suspension of Dane Swan showed, Collingwood is still Collingwood. The Pies are a tough, attractive team but Hawthorn played the best footy I've seen this year when it defeated Collingwood in round 17.

Geelong, meanwhile, is defiant, like Nellie Melba being told the time has come to leave the stage when she can see further great performances ahead for herself.

I have no idea who will win. I don't know anyone who does - it's that sort of year. All I know is that on the last Saturday in September, the season will have a crazy but beautiful climax. People around Australia, and around the world, some in costumes and some with painted faces, will be gathered in groups, shouting at televisions.

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