In the AFL’s opening round Essendon proved that, for at least a Saturday night at the MCG, you can actually go home again. As the centre of football’s gravity for four years, and for all the wrong reasons, Essendon has been football’s demonstration of how a people can revert to a numinous childhood belief and stumble into the darkness of herd instinct.
To understand how most of the nearly 78,500 fans present were still passionately wearing red and black requires an invention of myth that only football can weave in Melbourne. It is part organised religion, part night at the theatre.
Saturday night was Beauty and the Beast. Hawthorn and Essendon, a tale as old as time, a song as old as rhyme, Orazio Fantasia and all that – only that the two main protagonists will forever hate the other, and it’s far from a “fairytale”. It was as much a flight of nostalgia for those who followed football in the 1980s as the Brisbane Lions’ away-strip-slash-second-half homage to the “Bad News Bears” the same night.
Far removed from 80s football was the pace of the game – particularly the speed of ball movement, which is already fast becoming the season’s sine qua non. And it was a lack of speed that seemed to hurt Hawthorn the most. With no Bradley Hill and a contained Cyril Rioli, it was Essendon providing the game’s spark through the agency of Dyson Heppell, Zach Merrett, and a ball energy in Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti. Their speed, daring and enthusiasm to attack gave the Bombers an air of danger that will not have gone unnoticed by the rest of the competition.
It was the rare instance in which a game sits alone as an “event” outside the context of the season. Putting aside the tonal whiplash of the 18,000 commemorative “Comeback Story” shirts, it was also a joyous and emotional night for Essendon’s fans, many of whom marched from Federation Square to the MCG and ritually waved their scarves above their heads as the returning Bombers – Heppell, Jobe Watson, Michael Hurley, Travis Colyer, Cale Hooker and Brent Stanton – ran onto the ground.
“To have 60,000 members signed before the season started is enormous for what the club’s been through, and that’s probably the thing that’s holding the club strong at the moment,” said Essendon coach John Worsfold. “It was phenomenal, spine-tingling stuff by our members and supporters.”
It was also the exclamation point to an opening round that started not with a bang, but with whimpering, callow crepe.
The butt of the joke on Carlton’s banner on Thursday night – a clunky, artless rhyme that aimed low and even then missed its mark – was Dustin Martin (who, for the record has an entirely sensible haircut). Martin was insulted far worse when he found himself manned by Carlton battler Simon White. By night’s end the Tigers star had the last laugh and was the exclusive talking point of the game, compared to Leigh Matthews and metaphorically cast in stone.
However, as great as Martin was, he is the conqueror of games of little consequence. To be a durable monument he must carry the team on his shoulders – like he did on Thursday night, yes – when it truly matters, in September. That is where many Tiger minds have already turned. Members of the yellow and black army having only a loose grasp on the club’s recent history are fast becoming the defining characteristic of this traditional opening game. Most supporters climb aboard a bandwagon, Richmond fans throw themselves in front of it.
Melbourne fans, tempered by years of mediocrity and one of what is now the game’s two genuine dark ages, are for the most part strangers to bandwagons. Yet after overcoming a sluggish start to defeat St Kilda at Etihad for the first time in 11 (11!) years, the Paul Roos Renaissance, made material by Simon Goodwin, may have found its masters in Clayton Oliver, Jesse Hogan and Max Gawn.
In terms of blurring the lines between football and art, nobody does it better than Adelaide’s Eddie Betts. In the absence of captain Taylor Walker – who was a late withdrawal – Betts kicked four goals against the GWS Giants and creatively set up a number of others. The Crows, led by Rory Laird, broke the game open with an eight-goal third quarter. Their unrelenting drive down the corridor resulted in a further seven final-quarter goals and made the Malthouse game style – de rigueur only six years ago – look vaudevillian.
In what was an historic weekend for South Australian football, with the Crows winning the inaugural AFLW Premiership, Adelaide’s win was a statement that their men have a real chance of repeating the feat in October. Not to be forgotten, their cross-town rivals upset the Swans in Sydney for the first time in 11 (11!) years, and unveiled a new cult figure in Sam Pepper-Powell.
The only downside for the Power’s president and Sinophile, David Koch, was China’s second most powerful man, premier Li Keqiang, asking for a red and white scarf to accompany his Power paraphernalia. “I insisted I get another scarf rooting for the Sydney Swans,” said the diplomatic Mr Li via an interpreter. “On this occasion, wearing two scarves is making me really hot.”
Still, he wore them better than GWS and the Swans are sporting their premiership favourite labels. A note of caution: the plot set in the opening act is rarely a neat fit with the one at the play’s end.