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The 'G will divide and conquer

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Chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age

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Timelapse - grand final parade

A timelapse of the wild and rainy buildup of the grand final parade.

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SOME would have this grand final as a contest for Melbourne-Sydney honour. They are like uniformed Japanese sentries who, until the '70s, periodically emerged from the jungles of Malaysia, still fighting a war that was lost more than 20 years previously. This is, first and last, a meeting of two forces of football nature, equal and opposite.

Their mutual respect was manifest at yesterday’s rainy parade. The captains, Luke Hodge and Adam Goodes, are friends, who talked on the Treasury steps yesterday as easily as if at a summer barbecue. The coaches, Alastair Clarkson and John Longmire, are old teammates. Their first coach, John Kennedy, is the patriarch at one club, a grandfather at the other. Kennedy versus the Kennedys; it is almost presidential.

Hawks and Swans meet as peers today down to the last detail: one player from each team, each a regular, neither a star, tore a late-season hamstring and is out. It is akin to an exchange of sacrifices. Moreover, the unlucky Swan, Ben McGlynn, is a former Hawk.

History beckons: Captains Luke Hodge (left) and Adam Goodes hold aloft the premiership cup on the Treasury steps.

History beckons: Captains Luke Hodge (left) and Adam Goodes hold aloft the premiership cup on the Treasury steps. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo

The Sydney Swans barely exist in Melbourne’s consciousness. Hawthorn almost disappeared from it, and then came roaring back. Hawthorn once was almost forced to merge, Sydney this year had to divide. Sydney is everyone’s second team, Hawthorn no one’s. Sydney is admired, Hawthorn feared — but both are envied, today especially.

Both clubs had to move out of home to survive. Neither left without heartache. The Swans went interstate, the Hawks into the suburbs. But they keep a spiritual home at Glenferrie, and will gather again there tomorrow, come what may. The Swans, much more than Fitzroy/Brisbane, kept a place in Melbourne hearts; that was clear at the parade. Tomorrow, they will commune in South Melbourne.

Each wears its heritage on its sleeve, or thereabouts. The Sydney guernsey has SMFC inscribed on its collar, Hawthorn’s sports on its breast ‘‘Tasmania’’, the club’s regular weekender.

The Auskick kids rug up for the wet weather. Click for more photos

2012 AFL Grand Final Parade

Fans gathered on a drizzly Melbourne day to support their favourite Hawks and Swans players ahead of the 2012 Grand Final tomorrow. Photo: Pat Scala

History matters to both. Hawthorn recruits are given a crash course in it by club legend Peter Knights. It is not so much about the colours, which Knights admits are a particular taste, as all that has happened in them.

It works. Shane Crawford has watched rookies absorb the litany and silently mouth: ‘‘Wow.’’ Knights says Clarkson’s feat has been to graft an ultra-modern game plan onto this rich history; he has synthesised future and past.

For the Swans, Sydney was a chance to leave behind what had become stale in its past while cherishing the best of it. It has become the club of the rejuvenating second chance.

Still smiling: It rained on the AFL parade today.

Still smiling: It rained on the AFL parade today. Photo: Pat Scala

A former player said  emigres rejoice in an almost  childlike way at the opportunity to play football and ‘‘hang out’’ with teammates weekdays with the Melbourne clutter. ‘‘They fall in love with the game again,’’ he said. It is a love that keeps conquering.

Sydney is the team that never goes away, Hawthorn the team that keeps coming back. Each has memories of a recent premiership to draw on, Sydney in 2005 and Hawthorn in 2008. Yet of each flag, only remnants remain: four of Sydney’s team, 10 of Hawthorn’s. Modern footy is about never standing still.

Hawthorn’s team is largely draft-built, customised if you like. Sydney, like Geelong, eschews manoeuvring for draft position. Its team is off the rack, and much of it second-hand and brilliantly revitalised.

But these generalisations hold only up to a point. Goodes, Sydney’s captain and greatest modern player, was unearthed from deep in the draft. And Josh Gibson, who will play on Goodes today, is one of three Hawks from the recycling bin.

At ground level, the state-versus-state fantasy begins to look ridiculous. There are 11 Victorians in the Hawthorn team, but 13 in Sydney’s. In fact, a sizeable chunk of the Swans went to Hawthorn schools. Two from Scotch, schoolboy contemporaries, are likely to play on one another. More than state versus state, this is mate versus mate.

Both clubs have been trailblazers in the ever greater compression of the modern game. But both have had to adapt, too. Today, philosophies collide. Hawthorn is statistically the best attacking team of the season, Sydney the best defensively.

Historically, the best defence prevails. But historically, there have been few Lance Franklins and Cyril Riolis.  The form line says Hawthorn, loudly. The Hawks have won 14 of their past 15 games, and lost the other after the siren. Sydney lost three of its past four home-and-away games before regathering itself in the finals.

But last week the Hawks got a hell of a fright from Adelaide, and the Swans did a little frightening of their own, against Collingwood.

Some think the fright will have done Hawthorn good. Some think the frightening will have done Sydney even better.

Another history inflects on this game. For Hawthorn, the MCG is home, where it mostly plays and usually wins. Sydney rarely plays there, and almost never wins, losing 14 of 15 there since 2009.

Chief among the theories advanced is that the Swans, denizens of the compact SCG, are not suited to the MCG’s broad acres. But last week Lewis Jetta looked like the sort of exception that could quickly become the rule.

Besides, hoodoos are like records, there to be broken, usually inopportunely. Until last week, Sydney had not beaten Collingwood since 2005.

About today, there are two forecasts: rain, and Hawthorn. History teaches that one is bound to be wrong.

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