Fleet of foot prevails over big birds

Cyril Rioli rejoices.
Cyril Rioli rejoices.

SOME will say that Hawthorn choked and very nearly expired. This is to ignore the nature of finals, in which skills are diminished by a lack of time and space. Adelaide closed Hawthorn’s space and was within a kick of an extraordinary upset.

The Hawks didn’t choke. Adelaide choked them.

The most striking anomaly of the match was the number of times Hawthorn had the ball in its scoring territory compared to the Crows, who converted with far greater efficiency. In part, this was due to their ability to exploit what everyone had long suspected was a Hawthorn weakness — the key defensive positions.

The game’s tale was told, to a degree, in the way each disadvantage —  a lack of size in defence for Hawthorn, and a lack of mobility in Adelaide’s back line — were exploited.

At one end, Kurt Tippett and Taylor Walker were in a different size division to the smaller Ryan Schoenmakers and Josh Gibson. Tippett is ruckman-sized, Walker a powerful beast with a Wayne Carey-like  physique. Gibson is among the competition’s shortest tall defenders.

In Hawthorn’s attack, the physical advantage enjoyed by Lance Franklin over Ben Rutten was no less pronounced, but it wasn’t stature or body shape. Franklin is probably the quickest and most agile key forward in the game’s history, while big Ben tends to lumber.

Rutten is difficult to best in contests of strength, but he cannot compete with Franklin when the ball is on the ground, or when the aerial battle involves speed or lateral movement. That’s not unusual. There’s no defender built for "Buddy". None that can play anyway.

Which advantage — mobility or size — would prove more decisive? Ultimately, it was Hawthorn’s agility — in the form of Franklin and Cyril Rioli — that prevailed, staving off what would have surely outranked the 1999 preliminary final and the 2008 grand final on the Richter scale for finals upset. Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson pushed Rioli closer to goal in the final quarter, where he and Franklin caused havoc.

But Franklin’s errant left boot kept the Crows alive. Twice he missed shots that might have put the Crows away. At the other end, the Crows were slotting them.

Tippett, like Franklin, can be an iffy converter, so when he lined up from 45 metres out, on a 45-degree angle six minutes into the final quarter, with the Crows trailing by 17 points, one wondered what would happen. You sensed that the Crows would have a pulse if he nailed the shot.

He did. The Crows were within two kicks and the Hawks began to falter. Tippett’s height had enabled him to mark, in a two-on-two contest — one of his seven contested marks for the match. He was playing the same role for the Crows that Tom Hawkins had played for Geelong. Importantly, Walker led hard and pulled Gibson away from Tippett. He played the part of James Podsiadly, contributing four goals in the process.

Adelaide’s forward line mismatch was striking from the opening quarter, when it surged to an unexpected lead on the back of Tippett’s  ascendancy over Schoenmakers.  Tippett marked five times, three of them in contests. There wasn’t much Schoenmakers could do.

Tippett shanked his first shot from a mark on the lead. Then he found his range, slotting two goals. One suspected that this might be his final game for the Adelaide Football Club, prelude to a defection to the Gold Coast. But Tippett’s contribution was such that it might not have been his final game. He was intent on helping the Crows to a grand final.

Franklin had been expected to run Rutten ragged. This didn’t happen in the first half, largely because the ball wasn’t delivered in a manner that suited Franklin, who likes to get it on the lead, or  out the back in a sprint to goal. Rutten positioned himself well in the first half.

Adelaide’s half-time lead was on the back of a goal from outside 50metres to Walker on the siren, a near carbon copy of the previous week’s goal that Channel Seven showed from another postcode. Walker’s second goal was from a mark between the goal and behind post, in which his size counted against Gibson. Otherwise, he mainly presented on the lead.

Franklin was instrumental in Hawthorn’s early third-quarter burst, the period in which the Hawks opened up a 20-point lead that the Crows would whittle down. He got a classic  out-the-back goal and was involved in a couple of others.  In the last quarter he twice used his mobility to get away, once on the lead another by outmanoeuvring Rutten in a marking contest. Those shots were botched. He had to think about them.

Then, with three and a half minutes left, Rioli zipped clear and into space. He looped a handball to Franklin who ran around to open up the angle. Franklin, so wasteful, nailed this last, easy shot. It was the shot that nailed Adelaide.

This story Fleet of foot prevails over big birds first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.