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Buddy Makes Me Laugh

DERMOTT APPARENTLY organised an intervention. The Hawk No. 23 guernsey, which has in its lineage a league leading goalkicker, a dual premiership captain and a centre half-forward who played 189 games, about 3 per cent of which were winning Grand Finals, was just not attracting the right yearlings.

“No offence to Simon Crawshay,” Dermott said at a Grand Final eve event, but then didn’t say any more, which might have led Crawshay to take some offence. “No offence to Michael Collica or Justin Crawford either.”

Eventually, the only AFL player to ever kick eleven goals wearing a life-saving vest said his piece to the coaching staff.

“Any chance of giving the 23 a bit of quality? Have you got one for me?”

As it happened they did. An indigenous kid from Dowerin in Western Australia’s Central Wheatbelt. The son of Big Lance and Urshula, he was a Lance too, and two Lances in the house meant there was the need for some differentiation. So Buddy became Buddy. A prodigy whose size and talent might have shot him to No.1 in the 2004 National Draft, but there were question marks over his maturity and his temperament for big-time footy. It’s now a matter of draft legend that Richard Tambling went at four and Franklin at five. Even Hawthorn must have had its doubts to take Roughead at two. Thankfully, we had fostered a list so soft and so insipid in 2002 and 2003 that we could plunge the biscuit back in the dip. Three cheers for bottoming out.

It doesn’t surprise me that Hawthorn chose Roughead first. Five years into his career, his country bulk has expanded into Jonathan Brownian proportions. Statistically, the first part of his career compares well to the Brisbane skipper’s. He can jump, kick long and straight and do weird basketbally things with one hand that Kurt Tippett also seems able to do. He is a traditional Hawthorn type, strong in mind and body, and was a key player in the 2008 flag. Roughy may well retire a great of the game.

And yet no offence to Jarryd Roughead. I’m sure there’s none taken, for The Buddy Show must look absolutely out of this world from down there on the field. Buddy is 196 centimetres tall, has arms 87 centimetres long, and can jump 71 centimetres off either leg. That means with a run-up he can pluck a footy eleven and a half feet (320-odd centimetres) in the air. He runs like an Olympian, and it sometimes feels as though it is only flailing attachments by desperate tacklers that prevent him tilting his fuselage and taking flight. He’s Usain Bolt with a left foot. Jonah Lomu with a tight turning circle. He is, quite simply, the best athletic specimen the game of Australian football has ever known.

Nor is he just an athlete. Athletes don’t have thirteen shots at goal in an AFL game at age twenty. Athletes don’t kick nine against Dustin Fletcher two years in a row. Athletes don’t win Coleman Medals. Franklin does things with and to the ball that are so unfathomable that it changes the timbre of a footy roar. Beneath the canopy of throaty barracking there’s laughter, perhaps even bipartisan laughter, of the sort that provided the backing track of much of Ablett Senior’s career.

I think what defines a laugh-player is the ability to do the unexpected. But as with the set-up to a good joke, the crowd wants to know that a punch-line is coming, so the best laugh-players have to do the unexpected so often that we come to expect it. Daicos was one. Jezza another. Michael Long had a vaudeville run in 1993, Kouta in 2000. It’s early days, but Nick Naitanui had me laughing even as the Hawks’ season was disappearing down the gurgler on that awful windy night at Subiaco. And Liam Jurrah will be an act worth following, especially if he can keep up his current record of kicking 10 per cent of his total goals lying flat on his back.

But Buddy is the king of them all. At times he resembles an over-age kid playing keepings-off against the under-fourteens. There’s even some comic timing about his goalkicking. He straightened up a bit in 2009 after his 201 scoring shots in 2008, but he’s still at least as comfortable with dribbled bananas from the boundary line as he is with set shots from 25. And then there’s the kicking action itself. The wide hooking arc. The high left leg, captured so perfectly in Nick Howson’s painting on the front of this book. And, finally, the counter-intuitive fade that’s still surprising audiences, even in its fifth season. It’s not a great goalkicking style, but like everything with Buddy, it is a compelling one, and if it’s rolled out two hundred times a season, history says it wins premierships.

Buddy certainly won us the 2008 flag. Fans of coaching (or alliteration) might want to credit Clarko’s Cluster, but it wouldn’t have worked without serious firepower up front. In 2009, Buddy missed Crawford’s run (Shane, not Justin) and the ability of Dew and Young to deliver some “long bombs to Snake”. Indeed, watching an injury-ravaged and ultimately second-rate midfield attempt to play Geelong’s brand of pinball keepings-off was an agony Hawks fans will remember for years. Why not occasionally give Buddy and Roughy a chance? As it happened, Buddy’s hands were also a fraction off, perhaps as a result of pre-season surgery, perhaps as a result of pre-season pastries. He did eventually hit form, though, and by the time of his ridiculous suspension, The Buddy Show was back and rolling. Sixty-seven goals and third in the best and fairest. We’ll take that from his bad years.

Buddy played his hundredth game this year, which means the name L. Franklin will be painted onto some hallowed brown tin out at Waverley. The roll-call is now Peck, Scott, Brereton, Franklin, a crescendo that no other locker in the place is able to match. “He’s just a beauty,” says Dermott, smiling the smile that Buddy inspires in all of us. “It’s a joy to watch him go around in the old number.” At the conclusion of the Grand Final eve panel at the Trades Hall in Carlton, I mention to Dermott that he also wore the No. 47 guernsey in 1982.

“Yep, three games in the number 47,” he agrees. “Never forget the first number.”

“And I’m guessing you’ve taken a bit of interest in who it was passed down to?” I say.

“The forty seven? No. None at all. Of course not. Why would I?”

Tony Wilson

MELBOURNE • OCTOBER 2009

Tony Wilson is a writer and former listed footballer at the Hawthorn Football Club. He played half a season in the reserves in 1992, wearing the famous No.47.