‘Strength of a bricklayer, skills of a surgeon’: Dusty joins great debate

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Triple Richmond club champion Geoff Raines thinks Dustin Martin might have superseded Kevin Bartlett as the greatest Tigers player in living memory.

Veteran media man Mike Sheahan still has Bartlett at No 1 – just. Neil Balme, who played with one and stewarded the other, doesn’t see any point in comparing, but is grateful that both were on his side – the side of rampant Richmond success.

Richmond’s Dustin Martin turned in another match-winning performance in Saturday night’s grand final win over Geelong.Credit:Getty Images

AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan thinks Martin, uniquely with three Norm Smith medals, has established himself as the greatest grand final player of all, maybe the best finals player. Sheahan doesn’t necessarily disagree, but slips the names of the other multiple Norm Smith winners, Gary Ayres, Luke Hodge and Andrew McLeod into the mix.

Balme notes that you have to be fortunate to play finals in the first instance to prove that you can dominate them. Martin is and does.

Leigh Matthews, the official 'player of the 20th century', shies away from intergenerational compare-and-contrast, observing that we’re now well into the 21st century. At the same time, he sees that it is like-for-like, robust goal-kicking midfielders. “Dusty’s the only player I don’t get insulted being compared to,” he said with his customary twinkle.

Tigers defender Francis Bourke attempts to spoil a mark by Magpie Ricky Barham in the 1980 VFL grand final.Credit:Fairfax Archives

If footy people love one thing more than a great player, it’s a debate about great players. One, Gary Ablett, left the stage with subdued dignity in Saturday’s grand final, leaving it for Martin to make what he will of it. The taciturn Martin delivered his own bouquet to Ablett, calling him the greatest of all time. The title is not yet vacant.

So where does Martin sit, and where might he one day rest? Let’s do this in ascending order.

Best Richmond player? “I’ve still got Bartlett No 1, but he’s gone past Royce Hart and Francis Bourke,” said Sheahan, doyen of footy media and inveterate list-maker. “He’s a more polished player than Bartlett, and a better team player.”

But Bartlett endured for 19 years, played 403 games, won five best-and-fairests and five premierships. The Norm Smith did not exist for most of his career, but he won one anyway in 1980. Also, he has a statue.

Martin has three flags, three Norms, a Brownlow medal, but oddly enough only two b&fs. This reflects the sudden and meteoric rise of him and Richmond four years ago, a sublimely virtuous circle. At 29, he also has time.

Richmond’s Kevin Bartlett in 1981.Credit:

All agree Martin’s distinction is that the bigger the occasion, the better he plays, making the grand final his natural theatre. “To be so good on the biggest day on the calendar is an accolade in itself,” said Matthews. “The fact that you can play so well when the pressure is at its greatest.”

Geelong looked to have Richmond in a stranglehold on Saturday night, until Martin’s muscled through a goal just before half-time to prise it loose. “He just knows what to do, when it needs to be done,” said Balme.”It’s timing. You were thinking, we need something to happen now, and he does it. And you’d think, how does he do that?”

Best player ever? Not yet. “It’s about longevity and how good you can be on your best days,” said Matthews. “It’s a combination of the two. He hasn’t got longevity yet. Dusty’s been really good for the last five years. Gary Ablett’s been fantastic for 10 to 15 years.”

But Martin does have runs on the board (well, this is cricket season). He’s been around for 10 years. He’s played 243 games. He rarely misses, a tribute to his thorough preparation. He’s only 29. He’s at a club and in a time that is going to keep him vitally interested for some years yet.

Richmond’s Royce Hart marks during the 1967 grand final against Geelong.

Crucially, he plays in a position and in a way that sticks in the memory. “He’s got the strength and power of a bricklayer,” said Matthews, “and the touch and skills of a deft surgeon.”

When not in the midfield, where he is the best of a common type, he’s lurking up forward, ready to kick goals, which even specialist forwards find hard. In this, he is much like Matthews. He kicked 915.

“All four of his [grand final] goals could have been goals of the day,” Matthews said. “Teams have realised that if you can be a goalkicker, play the forward half. Dusty doesn’t go back and neither should he. That’s where the crap stats happen.”

Geelong captain Joel Selwood might have imagined he would have the last word on Saturday. In a way, he did, ruefully.

“We had a plan for Dusty. We had a couple of plans for him,” he said. “He’s a good player. He’s a hell of a player.”

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