Legacies are often complex. Even Mother Teresa was labelled “a fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud” by the late Christopher Hitchens. And while talk of Buddy Franklin’s legacy has cooled a little since he announced his intention to play “one more”, it’s one that’s more straightforward to appraise, regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s grand final.
Franklin’s statistics alone secure his reputation as one of the game’s undeniable greats. He has played for 18 seasons, nine each with Hawthorn and Sydney, for a combined 340 games. He is an eight-time All Australian and four-time Coleman medalist. He is the fifth greatest goalkicker in the history of the game. And he is simply great to watch. So much so that in a city where rugby league dominates the media, Franklin’s profile has helped put the Swans on the back page.
He also continues the club’s wonderful legacy of Indigenous leadership. Speaking to the Daily Telegraph on the eve of his 300th game in 2019, Franklin said that spending time with Adam Goodes and Michael O’Loughlin when he first moved to the city strengthened his passion and helped him understand the opportunity he had to be a role model.
“It’s a real privilege to be able to play the game I love and I want to inspire other Indigenous kids to achieve their best – the opportunity is definitely there for them if they’re prepared to work hard and put in that effort.”
Sadly, it would appear that a lot of them still have to be prepared to put up with appalling treatment on the way through.
This year’s grand final is being played under the shadow of disturbing allegations on the treatment of young First Nations players at Hawthorn. To write a piece simply on the footballing joy that Franklin brings to this year’s decider feels like asking Randy Newman to score Taxi Driver.
But on Saturday Franklin will likely again remind us of the wildly outsized contribution First Nations players have made to the game. Even at 35, he has the preternatural skill to turn a game on its head with a moment of brilliance.
Franklin’s capacity to be a damaging forward barely needs a reminder, nor does his exquisite field kicking when he pushes further up the ground. But just as important on Saturday is his capacity to compete again and again and use his physical presence when things are not going his way.
That capacity was on full display in this year’s qualifying final against Melbourne, when Franklin had a torrid time against Steven May, but still sparked a decisive change of momentum by forcing consecutive 50m penalties from the All-Australian defender in the second quarter.
The lead Franklin will set for young Sydney forwards in their first grand final, such as Will Hayward and Errol Gulden, is every bit as important as his own role.
With close to 350 games experience, Franklin is all too aware that while you cannot always play the game on your terms – and Geelong’s miserly defence will ensure Franklin’s afternoon is a tough one – you can own the moment.
He is not a one-dimensional footballer. He is not someone whose attributes can be reduced to possessions or metres gained. His is a game impossible to imitate let alone replicate. He cannot be replaced like-for-like.
Franklin is one of those rare players whose impact goes beyond the physical. He has presence – a presence that teammates feed off and one that can fill defenders and opposition supporters with a sense of dread.
If it is a close contest in the shadows of the last quarter on Saturday, it is Franklin to whom most eyes will turn, more so even than Jeremy Cameron, whose season has been better than Franklin’s based purely on statistics.
But great grand finals will at some time depart from logic and call on someone to do the improbable. Think Tom Boyd wheeling onto his right foot from 60m out in 2016. Think Dom Sheed’s nerves of steel, deep in the forward pocket, in 2018.
It’s hard to imagine that Franklin will fail to meet the moment’s potential, because the rejection of the “big moment” seems so fundamentally hostile to the reputation he has built over 18 years.
He is a man made for the moment. And in a week where we have been reminded of just how much more work we need to do to ensure it is one of inclusiveness and opportunity for all indigenous footballers, it also feels like a moment built for Franklin.
We are privileged to again see Franklin on the game’s biggest stage, 17 years after his debut. Since his last appearance in a grand final in 2016, his standing in the game has only been enhanced. The reaction to his 1,000th career goal in March when Sydney last met Geelong all but confirmed his status as an enduring legend of the sport.
Irrespective of the result on Saturday, Franklin’s place in the game, his legacy, is secure.