And suddenly it all comes down to this... Two teams. Two hours. One premiership cup.
It's taken 206 games to get to this point. Along the way we have seen boys become men, men become legends, soaring highs, despairing lows, feel-good comebacks, tragic endings and pretty much every other cliche in the book. And as the dust settles on another memorable 26 weeks, we are left with the Sydney Swans and the Western Bulldogs.
Going into Preliminary Final Week both teams were touted as underdogs (by the bookies at least), whilst their opponents had enjoyed the week off. Coincidence? Maybe. Fate? Not a chance. Both played a sterling brand of football to earn themselves the right to fight another day.
On Friday night, the Swans ambushed an unsuspecting Geelong and effectively ended the contest with one relentless quarter. It was almost as if the Cats didn't get the memo that kick-off was at 7.50pm sharp. The Swans, on the other hand, only had to be judged by the way they came through the away tunnel. With a steely look on each individual's face, they showed they were ready to fight, and scrap, and tackle, and deny any opportunity bestowed upon their opponents that night. After 30 minutes of dominant play, Sydney led 44 to 5, and had one foot in the Grand Final. They were never seriously threatened from there, the final margin 37 points. Souring the win was the injury to young sensation Aliir Aliir who appeared to land awkwardly. He will be living the week from hell as he battles the clock to be fit for Saturday, October 1.
Saturday, September 24 will go down as one of those "where were you when..." days. Not only because of the historic achievement of the Western Bulldogs Football Club, but the quality and drama of the contest itself. Unlike the match played the night before, from the very first bounce both teams were on. Much like watching a heavyweight bought, both sides traded blows in a see-sawing battle to the death. Within the space of 15 minutes both teams were a man down, Roughead copping a ball to the eye and Ward kneed in the head. It was true to the game that it was, as emotionally exhausting for the fans as it would have been physically exhausting for the players. In the end it all came down to a solitary kick, a result of countless moments of heroism from both teams. The Bulldogs ended with the ball in their hands as the siren sounded, securely into their first Grand Final in 55 years. Red, white and blue tears of joy flowed, and a city rejoiced.
Now, for the big one...
Talk to any Melbournian and they will tell you there's no week like Grand Final Week. From the traditional functions such as the North Melbourne Grand Final Breakfast and the Grand Final Comedy Debate to the Grand Final Parade, the city is abuzz with the excitement and anticipation of biggest day in Australian sport. The papers are filled with pages of predictions, speculations and over-analysis of what is, in reality, a contest between two teams who will give every inch for the grand prize.
Let's start with the Swans. We all know they've been there and done that, and know how to win on the big stage. You only have to look at the spread of votes, stolen from one another, in the Brownlow Medal count to see that Sydney have multiple match-winners. Names like Parker, Hannebury, Kennedy and even young gun Tom Mitchell will provide the ultimate test for the Bulldogs, who pride themselves on contested ball. Lance Franklin is arguably the most unique and irreplaceable player in the league, and will surely prove another headache for the Dogs who boast a modest defence in the height department. Add to that mix the game-breaking ability of Rohan, the courage of Keiren Jack and the experience of wily defenders Grundy, Smith and McVeigh and it becomes hard not to mount a strong case for the bloods.
The Bulldogs on the other hand haven't been there... for a long time. But on Saturday night the current crop of young pups jumped the hurdle that their predecessors could not. Throughout the year, and into September, the boys from the west have shown no fear. They've overcome devastating injuries, including the loss of their captain and spiritual leader Bob Murphy, as well as embarked on the hardest possible route to make the big dance. When you look at the fact that they've traveled to the West, faced the three-time champions, and backed up to battle the competition's next powerhouse, all to get to this point, and you realise this is a unique group. Led by fearless captain Easton Wood, and driven by young stars in Bontempelli, Liberatore, Macrae, Hunter and co, the Dogs are an irresistible force. With the population of Victoria also on their side, expect a sea of red, white and blue on Saturday afternoon, as the football community prays for a fairytale ending to the hard-road story.
Despite it all... in reality it comes down to 44 players and 2 hours. One day in sporting history.
Prediction: Western Bulldogs by 3 points
Norm Smith Medal: Easton Wood (Western Bulldogs)