Football writer ALEX FAIR put a "hard- tag" on Hawthorn defender Grant Birchall when the Hawks took on Gold Coast in Launceston last week.
The day before
THIS is all just part of Grant Birchall's regular routine now.
Last weekend's visit by the Gold Coast Suns was the 30th time the 26-year-old from Devonport has played an AFL match in the home state, and as he is on the field, the running defender is not one to be ruffled by anything in the lead-up.
Including one of the fears anyone who has ever had to get on a plane - a dreaded flight delay.
An hour delay at Tullamarine due to the airport dramas in Sydney made things tighter for the Hawks time-wise. After arriving in the state and checking into their hotel, the playing group made its traditional walk along Tamar Street to Aurora Stadium for its final training session: about a 30-40 minute light run around the ground they would grace the next day, with Birchall taking part in a group skills session and some one-on-one work.
It was slightly different for "Birch", as he had media commitments, including a "meet and greet" photo opportunity with fellow Tasmanian, Gold Coast's Kade Kolodjashnij. This comes after telling the assembled Tasmanian media about his thoughts for the upcoming clash.
The night before the game is a combination of work and relaxation for Birchall.
Back at their hotel the team takes part in line meetings (forward, defenders and midfielders), before a whole team meeting.
The key message from these discussions revolves around winning the contested ball, understanding that wet conditions would turn it into a scrappy game and ensure they surge the ball forward.
Then it's dinner time.
Birchall usually eats spaghetti bolognaise and he always ensures he has plenty of fluids.
He keeps it pretty low-key the night before a game, just watching the Friday night match (in this case the Geelong and Essendon thriller), before ensuring he gets at least 8-10 hours' sleep.
Birchall has no pre-match superstitions or routines, admitting he just "goes with the flow" before the game.
After a light breakfast, usually Weet-Bix or toast and some fruit, he generally spends the morning around the hotel just "chilling out" with Launceston's awful weather ensuring there would be no outside time even if he wanted it.
After arriving at the ground at 11.42am, it is straight into the rooms.
He spends his time having a quick read of the AFL Record, taking in the music that is being played in the rooms [which had been selected this week by Angus Litherland] having a massage, getting strapped up, and get some "touch for the ball" with a little kick around the rooms with teammates for about 15 minutes.
Following an address from interim-coach Brendon Bolton, the players head out to warm up on the ground about 1.15pm.
The moment Birchall and his teammate step onto the ground, the heavens open up dramatically, a real precursor for Mother Nature's miserable attitude for the day.
After a 10-15 minute warm-up, team members head back into the rooms and into their playing gear. As soon as that happens, things start to get real for Birchall.
"But I don't get really nervous as it is all part of the routine and you do get used to it all," he says.
He said going into this match he had the same goals as any other game as part of his 183-game career, which has seen him win two premierships and All Australian honours in 2011.
"For me it is about just playing my role and helping the team get the win.
"Every time I get the footy I like to try to use the ball well and make sure I hit a target, but first and foremost I'm a defender so I've got to help out my other defenders and when we've got the ball, that's when I can run off and create and do my thing.
"(The amount of) possessions aren't that vital for me, that's just how it flows.
"Going in, we just need to match it with them in the middle of the ground as that is their strength, so if we can beat them in that area of the ground, that will give us the best chance of winning."
Birchall starts the first bounce as he started most of them, a step outside the centre square on the defensive side for the Hawks.
As soon as the ball hits the turf, he takes a step in, becoming an extra midfielder around the contest.
In a sign of things to come for the first-half, Sun Danny Stanley comes to him at the opening bounce, although the way Stanley approaches the match- up changes as time goes by.
Birchall's impact on the game is instantaneous, winning a free kick after being collected in the head by Stanley 30 seconds in.
But all of about three minutes later, Birchall is on the bench, spending about 90 seconds on the pine, before re-entering the fray.
There's a lot of opponent swapping, with Birchall either pointing out free Suns to teammates or taking on the responsibility himself.
He and fellow defensive- runner Matt Suckling trade opponents at times, with Birchall sticking close to the taller Tom Lynch, Harley Bennell, Alex Sexton, David Swallow and Luke Russell (whose origins are also from the North-West Coast), at different times.
Positioning wise, Birchall follows the ball wherever it is from deep in defence to his own team's half-forward line.
He again finds himself on the bench at the 20-minute mark, and will not return to the field for the remainder of the quarter.
There is nothing suspicious here, as he would later say, "I just couldn't get back on the ground, as the ball was stuck on the other side of the ground".
The one thing you do notice when Birchall is on the bench, he is not one to sit down.
Plenty of players, especially in the wet conditions, will sit straight down and only get up when instructed to, but Birchall remains upright and eager to get back into the action.
"I hate sitting down. I prefer just to stand up and keep moving."
He collects five possessions for the term, despite the fact he spent about 10 minutes on the bench, but the Hawks go into the quarter a point down, 3.0 (18) to 2.5 (17).
Gold Coast's structural philosophy changes in the second quarter, and this has an impact on Birchall.
Playing a six-man forward line at times forces more attention onto Birchall and the lack of freedom seems to inhibit him.
Stanley has him on a much tighter leash, keeping touch and pushing him deeper in defence.
This is more about Stanley taking Birchall away from the action, rather than the Sun trying to get himself on the scoreboard.
It works: Birchall has just the one possession for the term, but the Hawks skip out to a five-goal lead at the long break.
Despite not having the ball in hand, Birchall does a lot of work, which doesn't go unnoticed.
As one of the leaders of the backline, the 183-game player does plenty of on-field coaching, directing teammates to man-up opponents or get into the right position.
He is also one of the men leading the conversation with the Hawks' defensive group after an opposition goal.
Stanley is nowhere in sight this term with Suns coach Guy McKenna moving the former Magpie into defence.
Russell is assigned to Birchall at the start of the term, paying closer attention than he did in the first half.
Bennell then stands next to Birchall, and the message is clear, `stick close to the Tasmanian'.
Russell then has another go, with the rotation of markers, including yet another Tasmanian in Jesse Lonergan, continuing for the quarter.
Birchall has some great moments in these 30 minutes.
The first comes after about seven minutes.
A desperate act across half- forward allows him to keep the ball alive close to the boundary line; the resultant passage of play ending in a goal to skipper Luke Hodge.
He gets on the scoreboard himself 16 minutes in: ruckman David Hale intercepting an attempted Gold Coast exit from defence around the 50-metre line and handballing to the running Birchall who slots it home.
At the 28-minute mark, his quick hands-off, half-back help start the passage of play that sees Luke Breust kick his 26th straight goal since round five.
This fruitful period, which includes five minutes on the bench, sees Birchall double his possession count, and it looks like he is in for a big finish personally, with "junk time" beckoning as the Hawks lead by 59 points.
It is short and sweet for Birchall in a final term that only lasts five minutes for him.
In that five minutes, he manages to compete a rare double on the goal-kickers' list.
He gathers the ball from outside 50 and goes for a long- range shot, a goal that would have looked far more at home on a dry day than in the Launceston wet.
He comes straight from the ground, not to be seen again, slipping into the red substitute vest for the first time in his career.
"This wasn't a prematch plan, just the way it went," Birchall would later say.
"It is just a bit of management for me, and we were a fair way in front with another defender (Taylor Duryea) as the sub.
"I just have to roll with it (being subbed) and just take it as an opportunity to rest up."
While his output was his lowest for the year - the conditions not allowing for uncontested marking or long runs from the defensive 50, which are two staples of his game - he still had an impact.
In his 14 possessions, in which six were contested and eight uncontested, Birchall had five score involvements, one clearance and two inside 50s.
After shaking the opposition's hands and thanking the crowd, it was straight into the change rooms to belt out that song with the opening lines, "We're a Happy Team at Hawthorn" to celebrate the 53 point win, 17.14 (116) to 10.3 (63).
"It was pretty scrappy and ugly conditions out there, and it was pretty hard to switch the footy and have the run and carry we're accustomed to," Birchall says minutes after those words were sung.
"I thought I worked through the defensive forward tag quite well and was able to kick a couple of goals myself to play a part in the game.
"I thought my positioning on the ground was quite good, and as a team we defended quite well."
Birchall admits Stanley tightening his grip and taking him out of his comfort zone was "challenging", making the decision to move him away from the role an interesting one.
But what brought a biggest smile to his face was his two goals, which take him up to five for the year and 27 in his career.
"It's always nice to sneak forward and kick a goal and play my part and help us kick a couple of goals.
"As a team we wanted to really match them in the midfield and we did that and was able to lock it in our forward half and let our backs set up the play."
Post-game in the Hawthorn rooms involves media work, plenty of protein drinks, massages, about three or four minutes in an ice-bath before they get out of their "work uniform".
Bolton addresses the group, before the players take part in a post-match function.
Birchall would usually fly back to Melbourne with his teammates that night, but stays with family before returning to Melbourne after doing his own recovery.
It then all starts again, with the Hawks having only a quick turnaround to their round 16 match, a Friday night date with North Melbourne.