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The prince of Punt Road: AFL fans rise as one for Dustin Martin’s 300th | Jonathan Horn

After the long silence, the photoshoot, the comparison with every half decent footballer of the 21st century, the dozen boys christened Dustin, the pop-up barbers and the Japanese drum ensemble, Dustin Martin jogged to the Punt Road end and got down to business. His opening goal was as inevitable as it was familiar – the steps short, the spine straight, the nostrils flared, the kick straighter than Lyle Shelton.

Martin has always been one of those athletes who has tempted footy writers and pundits towards zoomorphism. He’s been compared to a lion, a shark, a crocodile, a rhino and a bull. During the week, Sam Mitchell told his young players not to be swallowed up by the occasion, by the crowd, by the man. It was Martin’s event, he told them, but it was Hawthorn’s time.

The gradual improvement of Hawthorn has mostly unfolded in lousy timeslots in front of sparse crowds. This was a big stage – at 92,311 people, the largest home and away crowd ever between the two clubs – and the Hawks were equal to it. They’re well coached, on the rise and come with a certain swagger. Their depth and crisp handball chains off half back plus the way they switch and use the full width of the MCG to attack and create make them one of the most dangerous and watchable teams in the AFL right now.

So many silly things have been said and written about them, including half arsed allegations of tanking. But their list has been well constructed, and their rise carefully and patiently plotted. A third were taken from other clubs. Luke Breust and Jack Gunston are the only players over 30. Will Day is 23, Jai Newcombe is 22 and Connor Macdonald is 21. Day, in particular, was desperately missed in the opening part of the year. He fills holes, solves problems, and brings some class to what is a blue-collar midfield. But he has grunt too, and excels at breaking tackles. At one stage, Day brushed off and waltzed away from Martin. Half an hour later, he executed a lunging, goal saving tackle on Hugo Ralphsmith.

Coach Sam Mitchell has transformed Hawthorn into one of the AFL’s most dangerous teams. Photograph: Michael Willson/AFL Photos/Getty Images

Nick Watson is a bit more of a work in progress, a bit more of a curiosity. He finished with the same stats as Martin – one goal and 13 touches, but didn’t garner the same affection from the crowd. Mulleted, jet propelled, exceptionally talented and shorter than several of the Little Leaguers, he nonetheless bows to nobody. It’s hard to know what to make of him, but he hits the ball at incredible speed and brings a Tom Papley blend of antagonism and opportunism.

After a 14.13 (97) to 6.13 (49) defeat, Martin could have been forgiven for a quick wave, a cursory hoist and a low-key exit. But he did something unexpected. He walked to all four corners of the centre square and acknowledged his crowd. Over 92 thousand of them had turned up, on a cold day, to watch 12th v 17th. They were half a dozen deep in the standing section and their team had been trounced but not one of them had left.

Dustin Martin acknowledges the 92,311-strong crowd gathered at the MCG for his 300th match. Photograph: Michael Willson/AFL Photos/Getty Images

When he told them how much he loved them, it’s reasonable to assume it was requited. It’s hard to think of a footballer who’s meant more to a supporter base, and who could have drawn a crowd like that. When everything was going wrong – the comical mid-year losses in 2017, the slow start to 2019, the second quarter of the 2020 Grand Final – there was always the sense “all will be well – we have Dusty.” The Age’s Andrew Stafford, in a wonderful piece of deadline reporting at the 2020 Grand Final, put all four of Martin’s goals in perfect context: rescuer, leveller, finisher, stone cold killer. In many ways, those four descriptions neatly summarise his entire time at Richmond.

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When Cotchin and Riewoldt were farewelled last year, it was billed as ‘The Final Lap’. They played Brian McKnight’s title track from the documentary ‘When We Were Kings’. One of Cotchin’s daughters had a jumper with the words ‘The End’. It was one of several moments that’ve felt like the end of this Richmond era – the night Mitch Robinson cannoned into Martin’s kidney, several turgid losses to the Gold Coast and the departure of 14-season coach Damien Hardwick.

But Saturday night really did feel final. Martin assured the crowd he’d be back in a fortnight. But it felt like a farewell. It felt like a full stop. And Michael Willson’s photo of Martin exiting the MCG perfectly captured the man, the moment and the mood – one of adulation, of gratitude and of celebration.

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