Sport AFL Peter Schwab: What it is like to play in – and win – a grand final

Peter Schwab: What it is like to play in – and win – a grand final

Schwab won three grand finals with his beloved Hawthorn. Photo: Getty
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For a player who manages to win an AFL premiership there are four distinct moments in that journey.

The first one is the dream. This manifests in childhood. If you are lucky, you will barrack for a team who wins a grand final. You then conceptualise what it would be like to play for the team you barrack for.

For me, the dream was ignited in 1971 whilst watching Hawthorn from the top deck of the MCG’s old Northern Stand with my brother.

In that match, Hawthorn, led by ruckman Don Scott and half-forward Bob Keddie, came from 20 points down at three-quarter-time to beat St Kilda.

Keddie, unsighted for the first three quarters, kicked four goals in the last term as the Hawks snatched an unlikely win and their second premiership.

Leigh Matthews, widely regarded as the greatest player the game has ever seen, played that day as a teenager. I played with him 12 years later in the 1983 grand final – but that is jumping ahead.

For most, they never get past moment one. I certainly never believed I would. So a few years ago when I was working for Brisbane, I asked Leigh if he ever thought he’d play VFL/AFL.

He looked at me with slight bewilderment before responding: “Of course.”

To him it was normal but for me it was like landing on the moon.

The second moment is the preliminary final. As we saw last week they are, in some ways, the hardest matches to win.

Richmond looked certainties all year to win back-to-back premierships but stumbled at the penultimate hurdle, left face-first on the ground watching an opponent who, 12 months previously, was not even in the same race, go hurtling toward the finish line.

Collingwood Richmond
Collingwood shocked Richmond last week. Photo: Getty

In 1983, I played my first preliminary final, a relatively one-sided match against North Melbourne.

All I knew from that game was if I played well and remained uninjured I would be going to play in a grand final. Mission accomplished.

I took in the magnitude of the achievement on the Friday before the game but can’t even recall if there was a grand final parade, such is the blurry memory bank of 35 years passed. But I do remember being at home thinking that no matter what happens from this point on, this can never be taken away from me.

You can’t help but think forward about the what-ifs of playing in a grand final, but when it is the first time you do not know the sheer pleasure of winning and the deep despair of losing such a game, so you have no reference point.

Others alongside you who had played in these games knew what to expect, but I sensed on my first occasion that they were also unsure of how it would play out.

Playing in the 1983 grand final was mostly surreal and I expect for those who play in their first this weekend, they will feel similar. It seemed so strange to play alongside boyhood idols as I did in Matthews, Peter Knights and Michael Tuck.

It is the big dream and it doesn’t seem normal for young boys from the suburbs to make it real. It is surreal because it takes place at the MCG – the sporting mecca you came to as a boy with your parents, the greatest stadium in the country, the venue of so many great grand finals.

What was normal that day was my father making breakfast. And though I can’t recall his exact words as he placed the meal before me, in essence he said: “Enjoy the experience and do your best.”

I knew I could do that.

As for what else anyone said to me that day from a football perspective, I can’t remember. No pre-match advice stays with me. I remember noise and colour as I ran onto the ground.

And I see the umpire raise the ball and blow his whistle to bounce the ball to start the game and the crescendo of a roar from the crowd, but maybe that’s the image everyone has, for it is an unforgettable moment in every grand final, like the gates clanging open and the horses jumping in the Melbourne Cup. Both iconic. Both treasured moments.

MCG crowd
Big crowds visit the MCG on grand final day. Photo: Getty

I ran wildly in the first five minutes thinking I could not last if the game kept going at such a pace. I saw Tim Watson crumpled on the ground with Colin Robertson standing nearby and watched as Brian Wood, my opponent, started off towards him.

I followed, yelling for ‘Robbo’ to watch out … I see my handball loop towards Russell Greene who gathers and kicks a goal. I feel his embrace. At half time, I ask Peter Knights if we will win.

The fourth moment is victory and the feeling is one of overwhelming relief.

There is a short moment of self-satisfaction, then a look around to see which teammate is closest to celebrate with.

The next 30 minutes are chaotic, but they are and will be the best 30 minutes the game will deliver you.

What remains after all this time is a fifth moment. The memory. And it has lasted the longest.

It happens every year and it transports me back because I know the joy of every player who wins.

For that moment, I am with whoever they are or play with. I indulge and I share their joy. I know the despair for the loser for I have experienced that, but on grand final day, I am with the winners.

On Saturday I believe I will be with Collingwood.

I will not know how Nathan Buckley will feel because he is the coach.

But I will feel joy for him as well.

Peter Schwab played 171 VFL/AFL matches for Hawthorn from 1980 to 1991, winning three premierships. He later served as Hawthorn coach, AFL National Umpiring director, AFL Match Review Panel chairman and Brisbane Lions list manager

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