The finals countdown
Every game becomes cut-throat, regardless of whether you have a double chance or not.
o much can change in the space of seven days. In the last week of August, having played 20-odd games of footy and with the winter clouds still lingering, the body is tired, the mind is wary and each training session is a slog – but fast-forward just a few days and it's all different. It’s September. The spring sun is out, the body is fresh and renewed by a sense of adrenalin and, all of a sudden, you’re raring to go again. Welcome to finals footy. It’s amazing how much changes in that one week. It’s the lile things that make all the difference, but that’s what you look forward to as a footballer – playing on the big stage in front of the big crowds. Everyone is driving each other on in training and there’s a buzz in the air. It’s a weird feeling, but one that makes all of the hard work put in during training and preseason worthwhile.
Aendances at training sessions go from ten to 10,000, media aention increases and every detail of every game is analysed in more depth than ever before. This is what you play for.
I played in 21 finals across my career. Each one was as special as the next, but if there’s one thing I learnt, it’s how to harness the pressure that naturally comes with playing finals footy.
There’s a combination of factors that you have to deal with – added intensity, nerves and scrutiny. As a youngster, it’s easy to let these things weigh you down. If you do, it feels like you’ve played the match three times over before you even step onto the field. Your legs get heavy and you find it hard to focus on the task at hand. It’s important to instead harness the adrenalin in a positive way.
We had a lot of young kids on the Western Bulldogs’ list in my last three finals campaigns in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Of course there were nerves, but we found a way to turn everything into a plus.
The majority of our playing group had appeared in our 2006 finals campaign, where we upset Collingwood in an elimination final before losing to the West Coast Eagles a week later. The next season, we finished 13th and missed September action altogether.
By the time 2008 rolled around, we asked ourselves: ‘Where would we rather be?’ We had all experienced finals, and we’d experienced missing out as well. We knew what we’d prefer, so we used that as a driving factor and allowed it to be our motivation.
There was no point at all in being nervous – this was far beer than the alternative.
Although we finished top four in each of those three campaigns, we never won in the first week of the finals and never allowed ourselves the opportunity of progressing to the prelims with a week’s break. However, for us, it made lile difference to what ultimately happened.
When finals arrive, you immediately go into elimination mode. Every game becomes cutthroat, regardless of whether you have a double chance or not. We never treated one final differently to another.
Although we never managed to break the club’s longstanding grand final drought, losing in three consecutive prelims, I remain proud of what that group achieved in that time. Our effort and intensity was always first-class and we aacked every contest as though it was our last. We le everything on the field. In the end, we were just beaten by three beer sides.
Finals is a funny time, but an incredibly special time. I know all too well how good you have to be to make it to the big dance. It has its highs and lows, but as a footballer, that’s what you play for.
Richmond Tigers coach Damien Hardwick reads all about it ...