Pseudo Medallists

As published in Inside Sport, February 2011

Like a Penfolds Grange, indelible moments of the dramatic 2010 AFL grand final draw will one day mature to legend status. Such as early in the final term, when the Magpies were, dare we say it, wobbling, and clinging to an eight-point lead. As exhausted players congealed around the Sherrin, magic happened. The enigmatic Leon Davis cut through like a hot knife, slicing past three lunging Saints defenders. Typically, Davis instinctively snapped truly across his body, the sublime goal gifting Collingwood precious breathing space.  For the injury-hampered “Neon Leon”, it might’ve been the seminal moment where he exorcised his finals demons in a season where critics lined up to bludgeon his reputation.

Alas, it wasn’t to be, and when the siren sounded, 44 bodies slumped tied and tired, grappling with their state of purgatory and the enormous physical and mental challenge ahead. But for Davis, there would be no kind rewind or replay; an otherwise ordinary performance put a stop to his great ambition, not even named an emergency for the absolute decider.

Ask any footballer what is their ultimate career goal and a flag is the automatic response. Indeed, any Brownlow or Dally M medal-winner worth his salt would unflinchingly trade it for the life-long bond and satisfaction of team success.

In the chaotic aftermath of the draw, one of the matters addressed by the AFL was the issue of whether players omitted for the rematch would receive a premiership medallion. A rule change was enacted and the sentiments conveyed by AFL chief Andrew Demetriou were generally accepted. “It is the AFL’s view that any player who has taken the field in either the grand final or the grand final replay has had a role in his club winning the premiership.”

Psychologically, St Kilda tricked themselves by calling the replay “round 27”, whereas Collingwood concluded it was simply an eight quarter grand final. So when the Magpies did what they were expected to in the first place in storming to the dais, where was Davis among his jubilant teammates? Lost amid the ticker tape snowstorm?

Ironically, when the Magpies almost stole the 2002 premiership, won by Brisbane, Davis would’ve indisputably become an exalted “flagpie” despite infamously recording “donuts” (zero kicks, marks and handballs).

Arguably, Cameron Mooney’s 1999 medallion beholds an equally dull lustre, when all he accumulated from the bench for the entirety of North Melbourne’s triumph was a cold backside. In the foetal stages of his accomplished career, the young Mooney could afford to laugh.

But as the end nears, in a sport where being a premiership player is the be all and end all, the question of Davis’ status is not funny – though he isn’t alone. Davis’ veteran team-mates, Lockyer and Prestigiacomo (named as emergencies) and recently retired champions Buckley and Rocca (assistant coaches) received nothing, nor would they expect anything more.  Like Davis, their varied post replay expressions make for an interesting study of the conflicting emotional relationship between team and individual success.  And the different levels of ecstasy for those in and on the outskirts of the most inner sanctum.

Similarly frugal, the NRL issues 17 premiership rings for the winning players, plus rings for the senior coaching staff.  In ‘07 Melbourne Storm selected Garret Crossman as cover for the injured Ben Cross, who recovered and took his place. Storm coach Craig Bellamy gave Crossman his medal. Fortunately the club was allowed to purchase a $3000 replacement for Bellamy.  Of course, Crossman is now just one of a raft of Storm players unsure as to how sweet the beers will taste at the team’s 2007 and 2009 reunions, or whether there will be any such gathering at all. By stripping Melbourne of those premierships, yet allowing the players to keep their rings, the NRL would have them drinking shandies.

Some might construe hand-wringing over sporting bling as curious, but for committed professional athletes its symbolic nature often defines their career and their life. Pseudo-religious artefacts if you like. Think Raelene Boyle and the golds denied by unlucky breaks and drug cheats, or our women’s female 4x200m freestyle relay team at the 2001 World Swimming Champs, whose premature celebration cost them so dearly.

The nature of competition and winning can be bittersweet, or a source of mirth. Steve Bradbury has become a byword for luck, yet he positively reconciles his lifechanging Olympics as a reward for years of hard work and courage to fight back from serious injury.  To the pool room or eBay? Really, the value of the spoils of victory is in the eye of the beholder.

In the English Premier League, where there’s no final (and no salary cap) to complicate matters, a winner’s medal requires ten appearances (including matches as a substitute). However, a further 21 commemorative medals are granted for the manager and any other players or officials deemed worthy.

The National Basketball Association is a little more generous, providing rings to anyone donning a singlet during the season. There is a case for such largesse – after all, any of them may have influenced the team’s progression to the “big dance”. Having been cut from the San Antonio Spurs’ play-off roster, Andrew Gaze was a beneficiary in 1999.  Boasting a litany of personal and team achievements, it’s perhaps no surprise the affable Gaze relates to his serendipitous Spurs episode in his biography as a “wonderful memory” he’s happy to share.

Incomprehensibly, the NFL draws no line, providing 150 diamond-encrusted rings for the Super Bowl champion at roughly $5000 apiece. Who gets a ring is at the club’s discretion. Even retired players and part-time staff have been bejewelled.  Devaluing the ultimate prize to that of free memorabilia hardly seems bedazzling stuff for those actually putting their bodies on the line.

So, in answer to the question: is Leon Davis a premiership player?

Technically, yes. Morally? Perhaps. Privately? Doubtful at this stage. Davis was not officially presented his medal and was scarcely part of the active team’s exclusive revelry. Is such ambiguity fair? Absolutely not.

One thing is for certain, his team-mates should make room for a 23rd bar stool at their reunions.  Without Davis’ brief cameo, they might not be there.

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