Melbourne Demons on track to break 57-year premiership drought after 83-point smashing of Geelong at Optus Stadium
It wasn’t the MCG, but this unforgettable night at Optus Stadium was surely telecast direct from heaven for long-suffering Melbourne fans as the Demons earned the chance to end the AFL’s longest premiership drought in a fortnight.
And while the fairytale is alive, it could be accompanied by a classic grand final script of injury heartbreak after All-Australian defender Steven May was subbed out of the match with a hamstring issue.
May carried his right hamstring injury for more than a quarter after treatment, but it looms as the major fitness story across the two-week build-up to Perth’s historic decider.
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Veteran Nathan Jones appears set to be left out in another poignant narrative, after youngster James Jordon was preferred as the substitute and the Demons’ midfielders appeared to get through unscathed.
Melbourne will aim to win their first flag since 1964 against the winner of Saturday night’s second preliminary final between Port Adelaide and the Western Bulldogs after dispatching Geelong in the first preliminary final on Friday night.
Willed on by the bulk of the 58,599-strong crowd, Melbourne strolled home by 83 points after captain and cult figure Max Gawn played the game of his life.
Gawn starred with a career-high five goals, including four in a scintillating 10-minute burst in the third quarter, as the Demons kicked 10 goals to one in the second half to win 19.11 (125) to 6.6 (42).
Three years after their last preliminary final appearance when they were held goalless until half-time at the same venue by West Coast, the Demons took a 29-point lead to the major break to lay the platform for the fireworks.
Geelong had edged the clearance battle 24-22 but Melbourne repeatedly broke away fast from the front of the stoppage and their control was better illustrated by big advantages in contested ball (87-66) and inside-50 entries (30-18).
The Dees’ pressure was suffocating and it helped create the kind of chaotic ground-ball game they wanted as the Cats were denied the time and space to create
Christian Petracca (32 disposals and eight clearances) and Jack Viney (34 touches and nine clearances) led the way, while Geelong badly missed key interceptor Tom Stewart as defenders Jack Henry and Jake Kolodjashnij had just three disposals for the half.
It was just as bad at the other end for the Cats, with star recruit Jeremy Cameron having two touches for the first half and Gary Rohan none.
If majors just before half-time to Tom Hawkins and Isaac Smith gave Geelong a glimmer of hope, it was quickly snuffed out by Gawn as he led the awesome onslaught that finished things.
It was ridiculous stuff from the bearded champion, who became the king of Optus Stadium at Nic Naitaui’s house.
Everything he touched turned to gold, including a snap from deep in the pocket after taking the ball out of the ruck. He followed it up by converting following a strong contested mark as the relentless Demons piled on eight goals to none in the third quarter.
Melbourne fans were angry when Hawkins’ mark was allowed to stand after giving May a shove in the back mid-way through the opening term.
Hawkins sent his shot out on the full, but the devastating full impact of that moment didn’t hit home until May came from the ground with a right hamstring twinge he appeared to suffer as he was pushed.
The star defender head down to the rooms before reappearing for some physio work on the boundary line with heavy strapping on his upper leg.
“He was really emotional,” Channel 7 boundary rider Abbey Holmes said.
“He looked to have tears in his eyes.”
May returned for the start of the second term and played on until the Demons stretched their lead to beyond 10 goals mid-way through the third quarter before he was subbed out.
WHERE TO FOR THE CATS
Isaac Newton said what goes up must come down, but Geelong have done a remarkable job of defying gravity and a system designed to equalise for a long time now and they are unlikely to deviate from their bullish list management methods on the back of one dark night.
The Cats became the first team in VFL/AFL history to field 11 players in their 30s when substitute Shaun Higgins entered the game.
Geelong, who played in their seventh preliminary final under Chris Scott, are unlikely to lose many players to retirement, with veterans Hawkins, Joel Selwood and Patrick Dangerfield set to go again in 2022.
A comically bungled opportunity in the last quarter involving Hawkins, Cameron and Brad Close summed up a disastrous night for the Cats, whose finals series has again failed to match the promise their home and away campaign hinted at.
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