Born for the big stage: how Dustin Martin turned the tide in the AFL grand final | Scott Heinrich

By on October 25, 2020

We always suspected it, but now we know there has never been anyone like him. One Norm Smith medal guarantees a player’s place in the history of the game. Win two of them, and you’re set for life as one of the greats. Win three, and your name is Dustin Martin. If it is true that grand finals do not build character but instead reveal it, then Dusty is the quintessential man for the moment.

The Richmond star was born for the big stage. The Tigers have now won three premierships in four seasons, and in each decider Martin was the best player on the park. It is a mind-boggling individual achievement, harder in its essence than winning three Brownlow medals or three Colemans. There is a reason it had never happened before: the perfect storm of aptitude, opportunity and sense of occasion seldom descends on the game. Only three others had previously won two Norm Smith medals – Gary Ayres, Luke Hodge and Andrew McLeod – but now one man stands alone.

Parents rarely admit to having a favourite child, but if Martin were to nominate the pick of his three Norm Smiths the smart money would be on the 2020 edition. Against Adelaide in 2017 and Greater Western Sydney last year he was the chief punisher in two spankings; against Geelong on Saturday night he was the difference. Twenty-one possessions (10 contested), four clearances, three tackles and four goals were the sum of his numerical return, but it was his ability to influence the course of the game in key moments that set him apart. Per se, it has been setting him apart for some time now.

The highlights reel of the grand final will forever favour Martin’s fourth goal, an astonishing snap late in the fourth term when the game had already been iced. Mere mortals wouldn’t even attempt it; for Martin it is all in a day’s work. “One of the most individually brilliant goals that I’ve ever seen,” teammate Shane Edwards told AFL Media afterwards. “You become a spectator. For about 10 seconds there you’re just thinking, ‘He couldn’t, could he?’, and he does. The occasion, he’s just got a feel for it.”

The goal was a wondrous illustration of Martin’s supernatural talents but it was his industry precisely two quarters prior that marked the game’s most pivotal moment. Twenty-one points down deep in the first half, and with Geelong dominating play, Richmond needed something from somewhere. Step forward Martin, who shrugged off Jake Kolodjashnij as if he were an Auskicker before snapping truly for a desperately needed goal. Not only did it cut the margin to 15 points at the long break, but it planted a seed of doubt from which the Cats would never recover.

Dustin Martin (left) and Noah Balta celebrate Richmond’s grand final win. Photograph: Dave Hunt/AAP

“It was an important goal,” coach Damien Hardwick said. “That’s what great players do. They take their opportunities and they get the job done. That’s why he sits here with his third Norm Smith. The significance of his goals were really important. We looked at the quality of work he’d put in throughout the course of the game, we probably knew his third Norm Smith wasn’t too far away.” And with that third Norm Smith comes the unofficial accolade as the greatest finals footballer in AFL/VFL history.

Of course, not all great players get the chance to do what Martin has done. Being exceedingly good is one thing, being in an exceedingly good team is sometimes another. Many a fine footballer has never played in a grand final, let alone three and been the star turn each of them. And that is the lot of the professional. There are no guarantees. If Martin has anything resembling a peer in the modern game, it is Patrick Dangerfield. A Brownlow medalist like Martin, Dangerfield endured 13 seasons and 269 senior games before he got to play in a grand final. The Gabba decider could well be his last.

But the reality is nobody really comes close to Martin. Not now. Not as a three-time premiership winner and triple Norm Smith medalist to go with his countless other baubles. Turning 30 in 2021, it is hard to know what else he will achieve. It is debateable he will win another Brownlow but one could argue he is a better player now than in his younger days when his output was measured by disposals. Importantly, his body and mind look to be operating in peak condition.

Age, however, does weary them eventually. It was fitting that Martin should be in opposition when the curtains were drawn on Gary Ablett’s career. The comparisons – and the parallels – between the two are stark. Ablett departs the game as one of its finest products, alongside Martin the best of a generation. But one can only wonder – and wonder if Ablett wonders – what might have been had he stayed at Geelong instead of followed the money trail to Gold Coast in his prime.

As a one-club man at the fulcrum of his team’s ascent from middling to magnificent, Martin will never have cause to wonder what might have been, whether his God-given talents could have better contributed to individual and team success. To the man himself, the latter is the one that counts. “There’s no way I would have been able to do it without my teammates,” Martin said of his third Norm Smith. “We’re an unbelievable team. It’s not a one-man team, we all do our part. We’re humble and we’re hungry. Success is awesome.”

No, Dusty, you are awesome. The pleasure is all ours.

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