Hawthorn will play Sydney in the AFL grand final next Saturday after surviving a magnificent Adelaide challenge at the MCG to progress to their first grand final since their 2008 premiership.
The warmest of preliminary final favourites were nearly the sorriest of preliminary final losers. The Crows led at quarter and half time, snatched a last quarter lead briefly and drew within a kick again with 16 seconds left on the clock before the Hawks prevailed 13.19 (97) to 14.8 (92).
But as good as the Crows were, and they were superb, it still left you wondering whether this was the preliminary final Adelaide had almost managed to win, or the one the hawks had almost managed to lose.
Alastair Clarkson’s team were wasteful to the point of ruin.
Their five-point win was grafted from an inside 50 edge of 64-38. Lance Franklin kicked 3.5 and sent one out on the full.
It took the innate brilliance of Cyril Rioli to get them home and then the stoic and sustained excellence of Shaun Burgoyne, Brad Sewell and Sam Mitchell in the midfield to hold off the superb Crows.
A brilliant tackle by Ben Stratton on the rampaging Patrick Dangerfield in the final term was also telling.
Hawthorn went into the game as one of the shortest priced preliminary final fancies in history.
And they started like a hot favourite to, peppering the goals with shots in the opening minutes of the game.
But it was Adelaide who found the big opening first, and the Crows who settled first, getting the game, it must be said, on their terms to kick the opening two goals of the match.
They had only stolen a mini margin but they had also grabbed the initiative and were dictating the way the game was played.
Hawthorn got locked into what Dockers coach Ross Lyon would call circle work. The ball whizzed up and down the MCG. The problem for the Hawks in all of that was that it was the Crows who had a clear match-up advantage deep in attack where Kurt Tippett was monstering Ryan Schoenmakers.
Tippett, a man who had battled concussion issues and the confidence lapse that accompanies that in recent weeks, went to quarter time with two goals next to his name and Hawks coach Alastair Clarkson was the one with the headache at the first chance.
Clarkson had to ask himself how his team had gone inside fifty 20 times in the first quarter to Adelaide’s nine and yet still trailed.
They were still behind at half time, even though they had gained some control over the game in the second term.
With Sam Mitchell and Brad Sewell playing massive roles midfield, the Hawks had pegged the Crows back and sneaked clear to take a seven point lead but Taylor Walker, the man who had kicked his team back into the game last weekend against Fremantle, kicked his team’s fifth, sixth and seventh goals to give the Crows a two-point lead at the long break.
The third of those goals, kicked after the siren, saw Clarkson throw a mini hissy fit in the coaches box.
One wonders what he said to his players. Perhaps he pondered aloud on why his players were treating a preliminary final like a home and away game.
The Crows had been great – midfielders Rory Sloane, Scott Thompson and Bernie Vince and forwards Walker, Tippett and Jason Porplyzia in particular. But the Hawks were playing fast and loose with the ball, and with their grand final prospects in the process.
Whatever Clarkson did say had the desired effect in the third term. The Hawks went on an early rampage and kicked the first four goals of the quarter. Franklin, well held by Rutten up until this point, had a hand in three, kicking one, dishing one to Luke Breust and executing a clever chip into the corridor to find Jack Gunston for another.
The Crows, fighting to stay in front all through the first half, were now fighting to stay in touch. The style of play was still fast and open but the Hawks were more desperate than they had previously been while Adelaide showed early signs of tiring.
They got steadying goals from Nathan van Berlo, Tippett and Brodie Smith late in the quarter to make a boilover possible but it still looked highly unlikely.
The Hawks went to the last break with a 16-point lead and a whopping 50-28 lead in the inside 50m count.
Surely, at some point, that edge had to amount to something on the scoreboard. Or were we seeing another 1999, when underdog Carlton saw off the highly fancied Essendon to scrape into a grand final.
History came so close to repeating.
When Tippett and Porplyzia kicked the opening two goals of the term, the Crows were close enough if good enough. And they were oh so nearly good enough.
Substitute Graham Johncock kicked the goal that gave the Crows a one-point lead with five minutes remaining.
The brilliant Rioli shot the goal that put the Hawks back in front just two minutes later and when he fed the handball to Franklin for a goal and a 10-point lead another two minutes on, the Hawks looked home.
But they still had to survive an excruciating 16 seconds and another critical centre clearance when Walker’s fourth goal brought the Crows within a kick again.Hawthorn went into the match without captain Luke Hodge, who was a late withdrawal with a virus. Hawks officials were confident he would be available for the grand final.