HAWTHORN'S two tumbles from grace, almost to extinction in 1996, and down the ladder again after the 2008 premiership, have reminded fans to cherish what they have.
Yesterday, an estimated 8000 of them wedged into the remnants of Waverley Park and its encircling condominiums - now called the Ricoh Centre - to watch the 2012 Hawks limber up ahead of tomorrow's AFL grand final. Of course, they were all for one and one for all - except one who bravely wore a Sydney scarf; if not a shag on a rock, a swan on an abutment.
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''Someone said the last time there was a crowd this big here was for Simon and Garfunkel,'' said coach Alastair Clarkson. ''It feels like a country grand final.''
Clarkson's second favourite football memory, after the 2008 flag, is of winning one playing alongside his brother for the Kaniva Bulldogs in 1985, when he was 17. The difference yesterday was that there were no cars parked around the fence. Even in its heyday, Waverley was a problematic place for cars.
Grand final week is waiting week. One man epitomised the necessary stoicism yesterday. For an hour he stood with his hands above his head, holding aloft a scroll that read: ''Cyril 'Delicious' Rioli.'' Another had prepared an ''Isaac Smith Stand'' banner to hang over a condo verandah. Through these painstaking endeavours, fans feel at one with their heroes: all are getting ready.
On the greensward, a staffer sent picture-perfect, low, skimming downwind passes to a colleague. It might have been Matt Suckling, except for two details: the kicker was a right-footer, and she was Georgia McLean, a community officer and the best female kick this reporter has seen. It is part of legend that Hawthorn has rebuilt as a power by filling its list with recruits who can kick, but surely this was overreaching.
At last the Hawks appeared, to raucous applause, followed by … nothing. This is one of the conundrums of grand final Thursday. Once, it was Show Day, a holiday until a former Hawthorn president and premier summarily abolished it. But it remains show day. There is no match, no opposition, and not the least inclination in any mind for a player to do anything that might lead to an injury now. The players perform the most perfunctory drills, the fans cheerfully twiddle their thumbs, an hour passes.
It is not so much an event as a rite. Yet, in it yesterday there were lessons. Luke Hodge was contained; whatever energy he has left after last week's bout of gastro, he would not spend it here. Buddy Franklin was a commanding presence, large in the eyeline of any player who had the ball, always demanding it. Cyril Rioli always was, well, not where he was a second ago.
There was just one omen. Waverley Park is in a wind tunnel, and yesterday the wind blew. Periodically, a pass wafted off course, a kick at goal drifted. Hawthorn more than any team depends on its exquisite skills. Tomorrow's forecast is for rain and hail, which some think will interfere with their skills but others say will put an even greater premium on them.
Assistant coach Chris Fagan said the Hawks were ready for anything the day might throw at them. ''They are all looking forward to tomorrow's game,'' he said, so advancing the grand final by a day. Truly, it is the day that cannot come too soon.
Hawthorn is the most successful postwar club by far, but for a long time that gained it no traction among fans. The near-death experience of 1996 and transfiguring premiership 12 years later have changed all that; the Hawks now boast the second-highest membership in Victoria and, to judge from the demographics of yesterday's school holiday crowd, there is still wide-eyed power to add.
So it was yesterday that, at the end of the session, the Hawks practised handing out souvenir footballs, and the crowd practised being enraptured. Both were convincing.