1. Luke Hodge – Round 11, 2008; deep into a pulsating game that would become typical between these two teams in the years to come. It was a nail-biter, only a few points in it. The General, as he had done all day, was patrolling the half back line, repulsing Cat attack after Cat attack. He was exhausted, but he kept going, willing himself on. Towards the end, though, he started missing targets up ahead, Geelong snatched the lead and went on to win by eleven points. Mate Neville H was very quick to point out, rightly so, that Hodge had cost Hawthorn the game. Fast forward a few more weeks and it was the last game of the season. Defying the pundits, a youthful Hawthorn team was up against the hoary, battle-hardened Cats outfit again and, therefore, at ultra long odds to cause any more than a footnote to Corio Bay's finest holding up the premiership cup. Geelong, every sage scribe had informed us, supposedly had it won before the toss of the coin. The 'poo and the piss' would be outgunned, and that appeared a given when a stoic centre half back of an already maligned defence went down with a broken foot. Into the breech came Hodge, and the rest is history. On that day he again played himself to exhaustion, but this time no kicks were shanked. He hit target after target as the Hawks surged, and he walked away with the Norm Smith.
In my later years of teaching, an image of Hodge graced my classroom. Towards the end it was getting tougher and tougher for this old 'chalkie' to keep going, but I'd look up to the photo of The General, and knew, if he could do it in that '08 grand final, I could see it through too – and I did, just.
These days his battle worn old body is starting to let him down, and those skinny legs are beginning to lose their pace. Coach Clarkson knows he'll need to be managed carefully, but come September, if, unlike '12, Hodge is finals fit and they are there again, we're in with a chance. The General is the heart and the soul of the team, always presenting, always giving his all.
2. Robert Murphy – I would suspect if a poll was taken of second favourite teams, the Doggies would win hands down. Even Julia's toxic popularity as their No.1 supporter would not impact. Over the years, since Charlie Sutton led them out on that one day back in September, 1954, they have had their opportunities, but always fell short in the semis, sometimes being desperately unlucky. Murphy has played through those years of their latest 'window of opportunity’, but retirement and the 'green grass' elsewhere has cruelled the team, and it is difficult to see them troubling the finals again for a while. Not so long ago Murphy would have had the cachet to move on as the writing appeared on the clubroom wall, but he chose loyalty, presumably knowing all chance of the boys from the West bettering their premiership tally the near future is virtually nil. It's fair to say that his value is now diminished at his veteran stage, and the coach has hinted he'll spend much time residing down forward in '13.
Ragsy GooldTo me Murphy is the 'Ragsy' Goold of the modern era. How many would remember Ragsy now – that debonair representative of the rag trade who graced the Blues during my formative years of footy fascination? To me he was the epitome of class back then, as Murphy is to me now. The regular Age columnist is a Thursday must. I hope he reappears this year what with that august purveyor of the news going downmarket tabloid – and I like players who have a literary bent as well. He regularly spins a good yarn, often as not spun laterally to footy, only connecting in at the end. And, of course, he has given us the 'People's Beard' – see No.10!
On the field itself Murphy is what I term a 'glider' – he does the game so smoothly – there is all the time in the world when the Sherrin is in his hands. He is a ball magnet whose low flat punts are unerring in hitting targets – or were. These days there's not so many meaty chests charging out from up forward to hit – gone is Grant, Bazza and the 'Smiling Assassin'. Cousins was another glider, to be admired on the field even if he was/is a sad figure off it, as is Judd. Yes Murphy plays and writes like a dream. In the latter he is insightful, witty, whimsical and, above all, intelligent – and that is reflected in the way he goes about his game.
3. Jobe Watson – I am attracted to the generational thing – of champions begetting champions. The history of the V/AFL is littered with their number, and of course those of sons who sadly did/do not quite measure up. The latter is decidedly not the case with my No.3. Watson junior has every bit the impact on the 'paddock' as his illustrious father. Only perhaps Judd matches him for gut busting these days – (these two are mortal, Ablett is simply a freak). As far as courage goes, he and Hodge are on a par as the exemplars for the game. Whereas, perhaps, the other Hawk's midfielders carried the General through '12, Watson, towards the end of Essendon's 'annus horribilis', carried the whole twenty-two. Despite the ‘dream team’ of Hird and Thompson being at the top, 2013 is not shaping marvellously for the Bombers at this stage either. The borderline actions of members of their support staff may yet neuter them as a force this season, but all reasonable supporters of other teams have everything crossed that this will not come to pass - even Hawthorn ones. In 2012 no one deserved the Brownlow more conspicuously than this proud member of the team from Windy Hill – and, if the unthinkable happens, and he is rubbed out for the season, or part thereof, the game will be so much the poorer as a result.
4. Cyril Rioli – Now not many of us may remember 'Ragsy', but we all remember 'Dazzling' Darrel, particularly in this part of the world. Check out his highlights reels on YouTube, and the reasons for his legendary status will be obvious for the uninitiated. He could play big or small, and held down centre half forward despite his stature. He is mostly remembered for being the Saints only premiership captain – pity about that Magpie guernsey – but I remember him for how he could tiptoe like quicksilver through a pack of opponents, all intent on his destruction. Somehow he always came out of any melee with the Sherrin. He could predict the random trajectory of an oval ball like no other. No wonder he carried the moniker 'Mr Magic'!
Darrel BaldockNobody has matched him in this regard since, nobody ever will; but, now and again, with Rioli, something of that Baldock uncanniness re-emerges in black skin. It was there in a remarkable patch for Hawthorn in the ultimate game of '08, and has been in evidence on occasion since. Oppostion players are doubly nervous when he comes into the frame, and team-mates are left scratching their heads after some of his unbelievable plays. He'll bring the most pedestrian of games alive for five of ten minutes, and then disappear off the radar. Such game changers are priceless in the modern era. His individual flair is never lost in translation.
5. Eddie Betts – In my book, he's the best of the pests, and certainly the most watchable – having taken over the mantle from Collingwood's 'Neon' Leon. Stephen Milne may have more goals, Hayden Ballantyne more cheek, but Eddie has the face. Watching Carlton these last few years has been a joy, particularly when No.6 and 8 are in the team list as well – a sadly rare occurrence. As with the 'Dons, injury flattened the Blues last year, costing Ratten his job – to the Hawk's benefit. But with Mick at the helm adding backbone and 'smarts', given a better run with players' soft tissues, the Blues should be in the mix come September. You may praise Clarkson and Sheedy, but to me Malthouse is the Keating of coaches, hopefully refreshed after a year behind the mike. As hard a task master as the great coach is for 'team first', I hope he doesn't blunt Eddie's penchant for dashing down the field, taking the ball off the pack and snapping truly. His unalloyed joy ensures that modern footy is no mere beige shadow of the past.
6. Mitch Robinson – In the tradition of that other seminal Blues’ Hall of Famer David Rhys-Jones, this Tasmanian hard nut has something of the 'white line fever' about him. He is a footballing pin-ball – throwing himself into packs, oblivious to the damage he does to others, or to himself. Off field, as well, there is aggression which needs curbing. Hopefully the gravel-oval mongrel in him will always be part of his game.
7. David Hale - I am partial to 'gliders', 'black magic', 'the generational thing' in the world's best footy code. And I have high regard for certain 'journeymen'. They are often in their footballing dotage, have never been champions, but move to another club and finally find a niche under a coach who has seen something in them and is prepared to take a punt. The classic in recent times is Leigh Brown who played his heart out for Mick to earn a premiership medal. As he has retired, for me David Hale has taken the mantle. He was never consistent, and always on the fringes at the 'Roos, but under Clarkson his ability to play back, front, or in the ruck, has won him a permanent spot in the Hawks best 22, and he is paying back in spades.
8. Jarrad Waite – Big barrel chest, Hodge-like scrawny legs, Robbo-like leap, and, when fit, a potential match winner. He's Tasmanian, his father a local legend, and perhaps this is his year. Mick will need him consistently on the paddock if Carlton is to be a contender.
9. David Hille – For football ability alone he wouldn't have a guensey, but has it when his humanity is factored in. An opposition player suddenly crumples to the turf. Hille realises something is badly amiss, ceases ball-focus and turns his attention to calling for assistance and ensuring umpire awareness. Such action from a player these days is not a given, with the winning at all costs mantra. A club stalwart doing it tough – Hille buys him a dog for company, and ensures he makes a home visit every week to give the old fella something to keep going for. Class.
10. Ben Hudson - Finally Neville H a Collingwood player of sorts. Will the Maggies have cause to use him during '13? That is debatable as he is insurance for Darren Jolly. Another journeyman, he is on my list simply for being 'The People's Beard'!
Lovers of this great game will all have their favourites, and the beauty of Aussie Rules is that all, from the Sandilands man-mountains to the Liberatore midgets, can play it. May your team fare well in '13 and GO THE HAWKS!
Darrel Baldock Tribute = http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3hEMn6xQvI