AFL Grand Final 2020: Dustin Martin

It was the 17th minute of the last quarter, with Geelong’s Sam Simpson sprawled out on the turf and awaiting a stretcher, when the chant started from the Richmond cheer squad on the eastern side of the ground. It was reminiscent of the crowds that roared Dennis Lillee in to bowl to terrified Englishmen in the 1970s. But this chant was for a footballer.

“DUS-TY, DUS-TY” they roared.

Their champion had just kicked his third goal, hacked from half-forward into open space, arcing low through the air, then along the ground, on the basis of seemingly nothing but total belief and a refusal to countenance the possibility of defeat. In this grand final, Dustin Martin – and Richmond – had faced it, looked it dead in the eye, and stared it down.

With that play, Martin had just become the first player to collect three Norm Smith medals on the way to the Tigers’ third premiership in four years, a dynasty that he has defined. It’s no longer enough to bracket him simply among the modern greats. Exceptional is the grand final with two all but certain future certified AFL Legends playing. This was one.

The other, of course, was Gary Ablett Jr, the greatest player of his generation, diminished only by age and the agony of a shoulder badly damaged in the opening minutes. Martin hasn’t been as dominant for as long as Ablett, not yet, but on Saturday night he surely joined him in stature for his wrecking-ball impact on the game’s biggest stage.

And in the final moments, as if there was anything more to be done to underline his brilliance, there was a denouement. Intercepting a handball from Rhys Stanley on the boundary line, Martin turned, shrugged off a lunging Patrick Dangerfield, spun and hooked through his fourth. The crowd erupted. Geelong heads sagged.

What more – as Sandy Roberts once put it – can you say? In the Richmond box, Damien Hardwick stood and applauded Martin’s virtuoso performance, before making his way down to the ground.

It had actually taken Martin time to work into the game, as the Cats took control of the first half. It wasn’t until the 22nd minute of the first quarter that he took his first kick, a dinky chip at half-forward that found Liam Baker. But it was the right option: Baker was in space, where there was little to be found, and he found a running Kamdyn McIntosh for the Tigers’ second.

Playing in a forward pocket, Martin now started to worry the life out of Jake Kolodjashnij, wheeling for an impossible snap that didn’t quite have the journey. He ended the quarter in the centre square, stationed briefly on Cameron Guthrie, who had five clearances to that point.

Deep into the second quarter, Richmond were on the ropes, trailing by 22 points. With a bit over a minute left in the half, Martin dragged the Tigers back into the match, sharking a hit-out, throwing the ball onto his boot, then immediately gathering his forwards into a huddle, looking for a moment like the captain he will never be, but the giant of the game he had become.

Midway through the third quarter, it was Martin who put the Tigers in front for the first time, dribbling through a checkside from 40 metres. Every one of his four goals, then, was utterly decisive to the outcome: rescuer; equaliser; finisher; stone-cold killer. It would be impossible to imagine a more complete performance.

Martin wrote himself into football immortality a long time ago. But in this game, he ascended to something else again, a player to rank with the very greatest Australian rules football has ever seen: Ablett – indeed both of them – but also Matthews. The game will eventually return to the MCG. One day, Martin’s statue may well be outside it, fending off all comers forever.

First published in The Age, 24 October 2020. This piece has been edited and updated

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