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 li‚le 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.

A‚en­dances at train­ing ses­sions go from ten to 10,000, media a‚en­tion 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 be‚er 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 li‚le 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 a‚acked every con­test as though it was our last. We le• ev­ery­thing on the field. In the end, we were just beaten by three be‚er 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 ...

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