Where were we again? The nearly epic grand final

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The grand final was its own saving grace. After such a tumultuous and disorienting season – the novelty season of the novel coronavirus – and for all the angst, heartache and chagrin about the necessary relocation of the finale two state borders away, the grand final is first and last a game of footy. This was nearly an epic.

Geelong legend Gary Ablett in his last game was emblematic of the match and year, badly hurting his shoulder in the first few minutes, but playing out the game in obvious and wincing pain, and in the end for no material gain. Hasn't that been all of us this year?

But that is not to undersell the immensity of the performance of the Tigers, who were a man down from early in the first quarter and under siege in the second, yet somehow willed themselves to another premiership. All things considered, this from 22 points down and nearly out, was the most meritorious of the three. Geelong are evergreens, but the Tigers are ever grand.

By the time these two heavyweights were done, it was not too sacrilegious to say it: for a moment it didn't matter where the game was. It had been moved, we were transported. At night's end, Richmond supporters might not have known where they were and Geelong's might have been glad that they were not there.

The beginning of the match was a parable of the year. It wasn't anyone's fault in particular, but it kept coming out wrong. Early injuries, accidental but severe, to Nick Vlastuin (concussion) and Ablett were akin to an exchange of key pieces in chess. Knights, perhaps?

But not quite. Ablett came back, Vlastuin didn't, or rather, was not allowed. Though by far the lesser sung of the pair, he was structurally more important to Richmond. Without him, the Tiger defence could not relieve the sieges as they were set.

In the first half, the Cats transformed themselves into Tigers. Let's say it's a feline. Geelong brought its usual array of sophisticated skills, and added to them a convincing replica of Richmond's patent all-court swarm. For long stretches in the first half, Richmond could not have gained a clean possession even if wearing full PPE.

At half-time, it was tempting to declare it all over, except for Dustin Martin's goal just before the break, kicked while being tackled, like Houdini breaking out of a straitjacket and chains.

Somehow, it re-awakened Richmond to its vocation. Martin grew, the Cats faltered. Impersonating Richmond took an obvious physical toll. For the balance of the game, it was nine goals to two. The Tigers made good on their mantra of the last four years, that their system would prevail as long as they kept faith with it.

One of the tenets of that faith is the singular Martin. With four goals this night, and a third Norm Smith medal, he has tattooed his name onto the history of the game. In all ways, he is irresistable.

This was billed as a grand final like no other. May there never be another like it. That's not to say it never can or will be staged outside Melbourne again. It is not to say that we ought to resign ourselves to night deciders. But it is to pray that it won't be under these grim circumstances again.

Inescapably, this felt as if the big one was being wrenched from the hands of its traditional owners, us, tearing away with it a piece of the city's soul at what is anyway a vulnerable time. It was a finale lost in space.

Good on the Gabba. Thank you Queensland for your goodwill. Hail and hallelujah for the superhuman effort made by so many to make the season possible at all, and this day. But we need time and space to mourn. Certainly Geelong do. And Richmond might feel a little cheated, too, to have won a premiership in a vacuum.

Melbourne survived this grand final non-day the way it has borne up to all the travail of 2020: stoically. Its absence was so acutely felt that it became a presence, a yawning, gaping, aching chasm of a presence. It was the tree falling in the forest, but with a twist: we all saw and heard it, and yet it didn't make a sound. In our lounge rooms, it was grand final day. Outside, it was Good Friday, apocalypse for now.

It's hard to explain, but easy to intuit. Typically, only one in every 30 of the grand final's audience get to watch it at the MCG anyway. The rest watch as did this night, on a screen somewhere. They're a virtual crowd, spread across the country, but in Melbourne the proximity of and link to the MCG makes them a palpable force. The remove was real.

Others will scoff, but Melbourne takes its sporting capital vocation seriously. Without all the other rites and rituals, it didn't even seem to matter that it was a night game, except that it made another long and featureless day. We've grown used to those.

At the Gabba, everyone tried so desperately hard. Beaming in Mike Brady from the MCG to sing Up There Cazaly was a good idea, but the empty stands behind him served only to emphasise what was missing, and a little syncopation added to the sense that he might as well have been in outer space.

As heard on TV, gee-ups to the crowd came across as tinny. At the 'G, they would not have been needed.

For the Cats, there was a saving grace. If they'd lost in Melbourne, it would have been hard to escape the triumphal Richmond atmosphere. In losing a remote, night finale, refuge was one push of a button away.

Congrats Richmond. Commiserations Cats. Thank you Brisbane. If Melbourne ever took grand final day for granted, it won't again.

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