All told, Melbourne would pile on 12 goals without a retort from the opposition and then 16 of the last 17 goals. By late in the third quarter, Luke Beveridge’s boys were either fatigued, or had lost belief, or both.
Bayley Fritsch booted six goals – two in that critical period in the third quarter – capitalising on the revived Melbourne midfield, and some audacious ball movement, yet this was insufficient to win the Norm Smith Medal – a measure of the impact of the medal winner Christian Petracca, and the reality that the battle had been lost and won around the ball.
When North Melbourne discard Ben Brown and Fritsch added the opening majors of the final quarter, it was clear that Bulldogs were finished – and so was the AFL’s longest drought.
Melbourne’s midfield tandem of Petracca and Clayton Oliver were outstanding with 70-plus disposals, the former claiming the Norm Smith Medal in a season in which he signed a seven-year contract extension that tied him to the club – an echo of Richmond’s Dustin Martin in 2017.
Petracca struck all the right notes in his acceptance speech for the medal, thanking West Australia “for putting on an amazing show”, the AFL for keeping the competition going, his magnificent teammates and, finally, the red and blue people huddled around televisions back home. “To the Melbourne fans back home, we did it baby.”
The midfield match-up between the competition’s best, thus, went decisively to the Melbourne collective, who had the advantage of champion skipper Max Gawn in the ruck and a more settled defence behind them than the less balanced Bulldogs, whose fortunes rose and fell on their midfield, headed by Marcus Bontempelli – whose three goals were a catalyst for his team’s mid-match ascendancy – Adam Treloar (two goals) and Tom Liberatore.
Christian Salem was another superb Melbourne player, his composure behind the ball throughout important, while Angus Brayshaw, too, excelled.
The grand final contained novelty on a number of levels: First in Western Australia, first played in twilight, first between these clubs since 1954 (in the VFL) and the only one played both outside of Melbourne and in a football state after Queensland provided a safe haven for the AFL during 2020.
Melbourne’s spread of talent – and the fact that they have exceptional defenders and forwards, as well as Petracca, Oliver, Jack Viney and Brayshaw, plus the gifted Luke Jackson as support ruck – raises the prospect of them winning, surely at least challenging, for more premierships in the next two or three seasons.
Having owned the first quarter, the Demons found themselves in arrears at half-time -their dominance undone and reversed by Bontempelli’s nonpareil brilliance as a goal-kicking midfielder, and the midfield work of Adam Treloar.
Melbourne took command in the opening quarter, when they were both more organised and composed with the ball, their midfield having an edge. Their vigorous approach was underscored by hefty bumps on Jack Macrae by Salem and Mitch Hannan from Steven May.
The Dogs responded with a magnificent six-goal second quarter, piloted by the brilliant Bontempelli, Treloar, Liberatore, and their prolific and shrewd little general Caleb Daniel, who had 26 disposals to half-time, albeit many were discretionary hand-offs from team mates.
The final quarter was an annihilation, as the Demons ran up the score – key forward Tom McDonald sinking his second goal after the siren, as the red and blue players embraced in celebration.
On a broader level, this Melbourne premiership had really started nine years ago, when the AFL sent in chief executive Peter Jackson and a new board, headed by the since-deposed president Glenn Bartlett, to revive a club that was in terrible shape, despite the valiance of the late Jim Stynes in wiping out a massive debt.
For Melbourne folk, the premiership contained further emotional resonance, given that so many Melbourne figures – Stynes, fellow Irishman Sean Wight, ex-coach Dean Bailey, recent player Colin Sylvia – had passed away too soon in their lives, while the man who took them to their previous grand final in 2000, Neale Daniher, has become the national leader of the battle against his affliction, Motor Neurone Disease.
Keep up to date with the best AFL coverage in the country. Sign up for the Real Footy newsletter.