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Finals time a very tall story

The AFL finals are said to be their own season, as different from the home-and-away series as winter is from summer.

The AFL finals are said to be their own season, as different from the home-and-away series as winter is from summer.

THE AFL finals are said to be their own season, as different from the home-and-away series as winter is from summer. A sense of a change of seasons could not have been more acute at the MCG last night. If there was a shoulder season, it was Thursday morning.

There was the sudden return of meteorological winter, driving away a block of the likely crowd, greasing the playing surface, forcing the subs to rug up and the clubs to recalculate. Or not. Boldly, Geelong stuck with Plan A, a super-sized forward line to stretch Hawthorn's vertically challenged defence. At first, it failed if not for Daniel Menzel's two efforts, the Cats would have made no early scoreboard impression.

But at length, the Hawks backmen found themselves under two intermittent showers, misty rain and the Cats' high balls. Ten of Geelong's 14 goals came from marks. For another, Jimmy Bartel dropped a chest mark, but scooped up the fallen ball and snapped truly anyway. The crowning glory was for Trent West, the least sung, but not less tall, to hoist himself above a pack for a mark and goal.

At the other end, Geelong also was steadfast in matching Tom Lonergan to Lance Franklin. At first, Franklin threatened mayhem. In the second quarter, Geelong quelled him by keeping the ball almost wholly at the other end of the ground. In the first term, Franklin kicked 2.2. In the second, he did not have a touch.

So much else identified this as the opening of a new season. Perhaps the fact of so many pointless matches at the protracted end of the home-and-away season exaggerated the effect. The previous week, both teams had had nothing more than romps, Geelong with its full-strength team against Collingwood, Hawthorn with a shadow team on the Gold Coast.

But suddenly, from meaningless matches, there was one that meant everything. Hawthorn president Jeff Kennett had predicted the victor would go on to win the premiership. Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson had predicted that it would be brutal.

So it proved. The collisions were bigger. In the early skirmishes, Josh Gibson felled Joel Selwood, setting the terms. Soon, Jordan Lewis was sporting a head bandage. Then Lewis lowered Selwood again with a flying shirtfront. Once, it would have sparked a brawl now all, aggressors and aggrieved, were acutely aware of 360-degree TV.

Kicks were harder-earned. So were free kicks. Even at Lewis's crunching of Selwood, an umpire hesitated before whistling. More sling tackles were seen.

Perhaps the raised stakes were a factor in the dreadful injury to Menzel in his footrace with Paul Puopolo, every last sinew counted. Menzel's went. Then Franklin, marginalised for two quarters, gave more than he had in an effort to drag the Hawks back into the game, landed awkwardly and left the ground braced between two trainers.

Brad Ottens was exquisite in the ruck this is his time of year. The great players rose to moments: Franklin to begin, Brad Hodge at the start of the second half when for 10 minutes he bent the whole game to his will. But neither could sustain it. Both had shaven scalps, a leaner look for a meaner season.

At first, it worked as streamlining, but ultimately, the effect was Samson-like. In truth, modern footy works against the great man syndrome. Besides, the Cats' whole ethos is to spin good into great. The alchemy goes on.

One timeless characteristic of finals football is the unexpected emergence. For five years, Tom Hawkins teased the Cats.

Last night, he could not have pleased them more. In all probability, he was only narrowly preferred last night to a man who has announced his retirement.

Last night he provided the burly and bruising presence. The signal moment was when he held off Gibson with one hand at the top of the goal square, gathered, spun and goaled.

Since the 2008 grand final, this has become one of the great rivalries, in all details except the most fundamental: the Cats invariably win.

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