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Saturday, May 21, 2022

Part riot, part coronation: Lance Franklin milestone ignites SCG and caps joyful career | AFL

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Lance Franklin play football. Hawthorn was playing at the MCG and I was there under extreme sufferance. The Hawks were unspeakably bad that year. My eyes were glazing over when this beanpole of a second gamer suddenly swooped on a loose ball, shoved Brent Hartigan aside, gathered it one handed, and threaded a left foot goal from the forward pocket. It all happened in a tick over two seconds. He waltzed in and out of the stoppage like he owned the sport, like the MCG was his personal pond.

It was 17 years ago, almost to the day. It feels like yesterday. He was so raw. He was like one of those boom two-year-old colts you see in the mounting yard at the Golden Slipper. His eyes darted everywhere. He hadn’t grown into his body yet. He needed to be taught some racetrack manners. My inkling, I’m embarrassed to say, was that he’d never make it. I’d seen too many iridescent talents flash in and out of the sport. He’ll get bored, I thought. He’ll get battered. He’ll be reined in. He’ll be worked out.

Instead, he got better by the year. He was young, good looking, a joy to watch, and virtually impossible to counter. On Friday night, he kicked his 1,000th goal. It was a complete circus. Footy has never seen anything like it. We’ll almost certainly never see it again. The way the game is played these days, it’s hard to imagine anyone kicking 100 goals in a season again, let alone a thousand over a career. His ascent to the milestone has coincided with the predominance of team defence, which tends to render key forwards obsolete. You can’t compare him to the other men who topped the thousand. They were playing in different eras, in different positions. They may as well have been playing a different sport.

'It's pandemonium': fans swarm SCG after Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin kicks 1,000th goal – video
‘It’s pandemonium’: fans swarm SCG after Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin kicks 1,000th goal – video

Footy today is almost unrecognisable from how it was played in 2005. But the way he struts about, the way he draws every eye in the stadium and the way the game revolves around him really hasn’t changed that much over the years. Even at 35, he still attracts the best defender, and still requires the utmost planning and concentration. He’s still an astonishing physical specimen. He can still sink your season in half a quarter. When he has that look in his eye, acres of space and plenty at stake, he’s still a terrifying proposition.

Apparently, he likes to watch his own highlight videos. Half his luck. When I watch Gary Ablett Snr’s highlights, my default response is always laughter. When I watch Wayne Carey or Tony Lockett’s, it’s awe. The best of Franklin makes my brain yelp. There he is, swaggering onto the big stage in the 2007 elimination final. There’s his flawless performance against the Western Bulldogs in the qualifying final the following year. There’s the preposterous, almost contemptuous running duel with Cale Hooker. There’s his dribbling goal, with the best defender in Australia right on his hammer, in the dying seconds of the 2011 preliminary final. There’s the Launceston 13. There’s his hurdle, like a show dog at Crufts, in the middle of the MCG. And that’s just the Hawthorn goals. He’s been a superb player at Sydney. In a team renowned for dour football, he brought pyrotechnics. In a notoriously fickle market, he put bums on seats. Last night felt like culmination of a career. It was part riot, part coronation.

Franklin celebrates as he tries to find a way off the pitch.
Franklin celebrates as he tries to find a way off the pitch. Photograph: Michael Willson/AFL Photos/Getty Images

When he was interviewed prior to the draft, one of the recruiters asked if he had any weaknesses. He paused, grinned, and shook his head: “Na mate.” But he hasn’t been the perfect footballer by any stretch. He could be a wayward set shot. He’s never been a great overhead mark. He only has one best and fairest. A handful of defenders – Phil Davis in particular – have been able to work his locks.

And we never really got to know him. In interviews, the impression is always of a man trying to extricate himself from each question as quickly and politely as possible. We probably won’t remember much of what he said. We may not, as silly as it sounds right now, remember him for his numbers and his accolades. Instead we’ll remember him gathering the ball about 100 metres from goal, turning his defender inside out, swinging onto his left, thwacking it home, flexing his guns, flooring the commentators. It’s an image that’s already implanted in our footy loving brains, that will be the starting point when we try and explain him to our grandkids – the sense that the wind was always at his back, that he was always running downhill, that no-one, in the history of footy, could do the things he could. What a night. What a footballer. What joy he’s brought to the game.

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