by Lisa Albergo reporting for AFANA from Chicago
While Hawthorn was making the Finals in the early 1990's, Sydney was languishing at the bottom of the ladder and collected consecutive wooden spoons 1992-94. In 1993, the legendary Ron Barassi was coaxed out of retirement to take over the coaching role for the Swans. Barassi, a Premiership player and coach, was (and still is) one of the most respected and well-known football personalities in football. He had been critical of the lack of support given to South Melbourne during the move to Sydney. He was talked into "putting his money where his mouth was". It was believed he could lift the Swans players on the field and their profile off it in the tough Sydney market. While some improvement came in 1995 with the Swans finishing 12th, Barassi was not interested in another three year contract and announced his resignation at the end of 1995. Enter Rodney Eade, a Premiership player at Hawthorn, debuting in John Kennedy's final season as coach and then coached by Allan Jeans.
Meanwhile, over at Hawthorn, coach Alan Joyce was replaced at the end of 1993 by Peter Knights. Although perennial finalists, the Hawks had not seen Grand Final action since their 1991 triumph. Knights fared little better and when the club finished a dismal 15th (their worst finish in years), he was replaced by another former Premiership Hawk in Ken Judge.
Both teams had less than successful seasons in 1995, but former Hawk teammates Judge and Eade got their respective charges up and about in 1996. Both had powerful full forwards in Jason Dunstall and Tony Lockett. Lockett began his career at St Kilda but was traded to Sydney in 1994. He was more than happy to escape the spotlight and media attention of the Melbourne press. 1996 saw a remarkable change with both teams surging up in the standings. Hawthorn squeaked into the Final Eight while Sydney's turnaround from the previous year was nothing less than extraordinary. They went from 12th in 1995 to first in 1996, the first time they had hit top spot since 1945. This meant a meeting between Hawthorn and Sydney in the first week of Finals (at this it was 1 playing 8, 2 vs 7, and so on - the AFL revised this format after the 1999 season to the current system). One could easily assume that first vs eighth in a Final would be no contest. However the first two games in 1994 and 1995 were close encounters. In 1994, West Coast got a lucky break when Collingwood's Mick McGuane dropped a mark (catch of the ball) and won a thriller by two points. In 1995, Carlton dominated the League, losing only two games mid-season, one of those to the lowly Swans. The Brisbane Bears snuck into the Eight through the proverbial "back door" by virtue of a Collingwood loss to Sydney in the final round. They then gave the Blues an almighty fight in their first Finals match in history, losing by just 13 points.
1996 was no different with the Hawks wanting to atone for previously less than successful seasons and Sydney yearning for their first Premiership since 1933. While the Hawks had Dunstall at full forward for the Elimination Final, Lockett missed with a groin injury. The club was coy and kept the media at bay regarding the injury. The game did not start well for Sydney, but they worked their way back into the action for a five point lead at the first break. Hawthorn dominated the second term, despite the best efforts of Sydney's defenders. Hawk ruckman Paul Salmon was feeding the ball out to his runners with excellent precision. This, combined with a dubious umpire decision which infuriated the SCG home crowd, had the Hawks in front by nine points at half time. Despite Eade's exhortations to keep persisting, not give in and better all Hawk efforts, things looked grim for the Swans in the third term when Hawthorn kicked another goal to grab a 15 point lead.
Then disaster hit the Hawks. Dunstall led out of the goal square for an incoming ball with defender Andrew Dunkley running nearby. A collision occurred and Dunstall tumbled over Dunkley in a tangle of legs. Dunkley rose to his feet but Dunstall was left writhing on the ground clutching a badly injured knee (requiring a knee reconstruction which put him out of action for a large chunk of 1997). The loss of their captain and best goalkicker seemed to deflate the Hawks and Sydney sensed its chance. Defender Jason Mooney was moved forward and kicked two goals to put the Swans within three points at the final break. Another goal at the start of the final term put the Swans in front. The Hawks replied and it became a goal for goal affair. With just minutes remaining, Hawk Tony Woods kicked a goal to give Hawthorn a slim one goal lead. The Swans refused to give up and midfielder Stuart Maxfield - in his first season with the Swans after a stint with Richmond - won the ball and kicked a miraculous goal from an impossible angle to level the scores. It was all the more meritorious as Maxfield was playing with a cracked rib and bruised kidney. With time running out, any score from either side would win the game. Salmon won the run hit out and the Hawks got the ball forward only for the Swan defense, led by future coach Paul Roos, to thwart their efforts. Roos ran the ball out of the danger area but was still 65 meters (71 yards) from goal. Roos roosted the ball with a mighty kick. Hawk defender Nick Holland and Sydney forward Justin Crawford (brother to former Hawk champion and 2008 Premiership Captain Shane) set themselves to wait for the incoming ball. As the ball sailed in, Holland stretched in the hope of touching it through for a point or deflecting it away from goal. Much like Leo Barry in the 2005 Grand Final, Cresswell came in, leaped over Holland to mark the ball. Cresswell, just a few yards out, made no mistake to give the Swans a one goal lead with one minute left on the clock. They won the next ruck duel and chipped the ball around to eat up the clock. After what seemed an eternity for long-suffering South/Sydney fans, the siren sounded to give the Swans their first chance at Premiership glory. It was not to be however. It was revealed after the Grand Final that Tony Lockett wasn't suffering just a groin injury but a torn groin muscle and the Swans went down to North Melbourne in the Grand Final.
Sydney continued to be a strong contender, with numerous Finals appearances while Hawthorn was up and down. The next Finals clash between the two teams would be a long way off. Sydney continued their winning ways while Hawthorn was out of the Eight more than it was in. 2000 saw a change to the Finals system, due to the debacle over the winning West Coast who were forced to play at the MCG to meet the losing Carlton in a Semi Final. Part of the change was a renegotiation between the AFL and MCG regarding Finals' scheduling when interstate teams were involved as well as changing from the Top Four playing the bottom four in the first week. It became the Top Four playing each other in Qualifying Finals and the bottom four playing each other in Elimination Finals. Between this and the respective club fortunes, Sydney and Hawthorn did not meet again until an Elimination Final in 2001. Hawthorn exacted some revenge in defeating Sydney in that game, but lost their Preliminary Final to Essendon (who went down to Brisbane in the Grand Final). Both made it to the 2007, 2008 and 2010 Finals but their paths did not cross. The 2012 Grand Final is their first Finals clash since 2001.
Who will prevail? Both sides have bona fide stars, sturdy defenses, excellent midfields and a spread of players who can kick goals. Premiership triumphs for both teams are recent (Sydney 2005, Hawthorn 2008). Fans can expect a cracker of a game.
An amusing sidenote from 1996 after the Swans won that Final to earn a week's break ahead of the Preliminary Final was a comment to the media from a Sydney player. In an interview with Inside Football, he said he and his teammates would be sitting back relaxing and watching the semi-finalists "belt the daylights" out of each other.
Source: Plugger And The Mighty Swans, Every Game Ever Played 1897-1997, AFL Record Season Guide
Article last changed on Friday, September 28, 2012 - 8:52 PM EDT