The AFL Grand Final holds lessons for followers of other footy codes, and those engaged in litigation, and other blood sports like politics.
It is trite to say that a champion team will generally beat a team of champions. But all teams want champions. Tina Turner was wrong. We need all the heroes we can get.
The Grand Final came in three surges – first by Melbourne, then by the Western Bulldogs, and finally by Melbourne. The first two surges took the attackers to a match threatening lead. The third won the match. The two Melbourne surges were led by two of their champions, Petracca and Oliver. The Bulldogs’ surge was led by their champion, Bontempelli. During each surge, those champions seriously challenged the morale of the other side, and they looked like they might take out the match and the medal for best on ground. But the morale of the side under attack held up during the first two and then collapsed in the face of the deadly ferocity of the third.
Champions by their nature threaten the morale of the other side and lift the morale of their own side. Someone said that when Warne played for Australia, they always thought they could win. That’s how Melbourne regards Petracca and Oliver and it’s how the Dogs regard Bontempelli.
And it was the way that these champions kicked their goals that really frightened the other side – especially the second of Petracca, a dribbled goal at 75 degrees drilled through with alarming purpose and conviction. The effect of that goal on the Dogs may have been like the effect of Warne on the English dressing room when he bowled yet one another around his legs. I was watching on TV and could not see heads drop or hands on hips, but the desolation was unconcealable when Oliver slammed one through on the run. With hindsight, we know that that was the death blow.
Another truism is that footy is a game of momentum. This is especially so with the AFL as there are many more scoring chances and what is called ‘scoreboard pressure’ becomes as obvious as it is escalated. The Melbourne surge well into the third quarter came bang, bang, bang – and then bang, bang, bang, bang. Seven goals – just like that. The momentum, like the crowd, became crushing. It would be tart to say that the crowd there, and the millions around the nation, were electrified. This is about the highest form of drama you can see on a sporting field. You cannot get anything like it in any other footy code. That is why most people brought up on AFL cannot see anything of interest in any other code. Their scoring barometers look just awful.
The damage to the Dogs’ capacity to fight on was terminal. That momentum in AFL could I think only have been broken by a serious injury requiring a stretcher. In rugby, that momentum could have been broken, and the whole history of the game changed, by the intervention of the TMO, the off-field referee.
There were two incidents in the Grand Final that in rugby could have led to such intervention – contact to the head and a sling tackle on to a hard surface when the ball was dead – and where the tackle was inherently dangerous. On my experience following rugby this year, a red card – losing one player for the rest of the match – would have been far more likely than not for the second incident. I have no idea of how the game may have panned out if that had happened, but it is now clear to me that the AFL will not and should not let that ever happen. It is in my view a serious threat to rugby and I gather a source of grief in the round ball game.
We go the opera and the footy to see character on show and tested. Test matches are well named. Football matches are tests of strength and character, as is most litigation. It surprises me that more people involved in those contests do not take more notice of Clausewitz On War. He makes the obvious point that while you can count casualties, you cannot measure morale. It is evanescent.
Melbourne this year has shown a level of composure under fire that they had not shown since 1964.
An army that maintains its cohesion under the most murderous fire; that cannot be shaken by imaginary fears and resists well-founded ones with all its might; that, proud of its victories, will not lose the strength to obey orders and its respect and trust for its officers even in defeat; whose physical power, like the muscles of an athlete, has been steeled by training in privation and effort…. such an army is imbued with the true military spirit.
That seems as obvious as it is relevant.
Melbourne has built on the foundations of its defence.
We have already stated what defence is – simply the more effective form of war: a means to win a victory that enables one to take the offensive after superiority has been gained ….the transition to the counter-attack must be accepted as a tendency inherent in defence….a sudden powerful transition to the offensive – the flashing sword of vengeance – is the greatest moment for the defence.
And for the crowd behind the fence. It is this which makes the All Blacks so fearsome.
‘The lower the defender’s morale, the more daring the attacker should be.’ That was Melbourne at the end of the third quarter. ‘Everyone rates the enemy’s bravery lower once his back is turned.’ That sadly for them was the condition of the Bulldogs in the last quarter.
We Melbourne supporters have seen it all before – at the wrong end. It is all so very human. That’s what gets us in. You can probably find it all in Homer’s Iliad – although if someone sought to inflict Achilles on any footy team of mine, I would wish to sue them for what Roman law called the wrong of outrage.