Josh Dunkley: What I wish I knew before my first Grand Final

I OFTEN GET asked about our incredible run to a drought-breaking premiership in 2016. What's it like to play in a Grand Final? How do you control the nerves? Being just 19, did you understand the magnitude of the game? Was it the greatest day of your life?

Believe it or not, I feel like I actually didn't have time to enjoy the 2016 Grand Final! Everything happened so quickly, and looking back it still feels like a bit of a blur.

From the moment we won our preliminary final against GWS in Sydney, you could feel the spotlight was on us. We arrived back in Melbourne later that night and the city was already gearing up for the Grand Final. Having literally thousands of fans attending our training sessions that week was completely foreign, as was the amount of media duties we had leading into the game. It's true that everything during Grand Final week is magnified and it all flies by before you get a moment to take any of it in.

Not only was I so overwhelmed by the fact we were playing in a Grand Final, but thinking back, I probably took it for granted and treated it as any other game. But 10 minutes after the final siren, there I was, in game 17, with a premiership medal around my neck. A few days earlier I wasn't even 100 percent sure I would be playing!

We know so many great players spend a decade and a half, or longer, in the league and never get to experience a Grand Final. It's a moment that should be cherished. But you still don't quite fully grasp it as a teenager because you haven't been in the system long enough to understand what players would give to play in the final game of the season.

I still remember Rohan Smith coming up to me after we had won and he joked that I was so lucky to have played for one year and win a flag. It was all tongue-in-cheek but it was at that moment where I started to realise the importance of it.

Since 2016, I have watched every Grand Final, and each time, without fail, it reminds me of how I wish I'd soaked up each little moment, every second of the build-up, and the game itself. I often thought during some of our leaner years, in 2017 and 2018, that if I ever got back there, I would make a conscious effort to try and enjoy the occasion.

So that's exactly what I'm doing this week as we prepare to take on Melbourne in the decider! You really never know if you'll get another opportunity to play in a Grand Final, but that message of enjoying it and not being overwhelmed is what I, and some of the other guys who played in 2016, are passing onto the youngsters and first-timers. It certainly helps having the pre-Grand Final bye, which gives both the fans and us more time to enjoy the build-up.

I know how valuable it is to have someone to chat to before playing in a Grand Final. Back in 2016, I spoke quite a bit with our family friend Jarryd Roughead, who had obviously played in plenty of them! He explained a lot of what to expect, but one thing he said which really stood out was that I shouldn't get too stressed about not being able to reply to everyone who had reached out. There are people who you haven't spoken to in years that get in touch and wish you the best of luck. You just can't get back to them all and you can't feel guilty about it.

The other important lesson I wish I had known five years ago was to not be so reliant on any given routine. Flexibility is what we've all had to become accustomed to during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it's no different in football, particularly ahead of a Grand Final.

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Dunkley: A flag this year would be 'extra special'

Josh Dunkley says that a triumph in this year's Grand Final would be "extra special" and would perhaps eclipse the Western Bulldogs' breakthrough effort of 2016.

In my early years I was very routine-driven. I had a set way of preparing for each game and never wanted to stray too far from that. But you've just got to be prepared for anything. The days of the Matthew Boyd-style player, who was diligent in preparation, and strictly followed routine, are probably now a thing of the past.

I remember discovering this early in the 2016 Grand Final. It had rained a little bit before the game and Bevo has always been big on us selecting the correct boots. As someone who has always worn moulds, I had no plans to wear anything different in the last game of the season. But when I slipped over in the first few minutes and turned the ball over, I had one of our footy managers telling me to change to the screw-ins! I obliged, and felt more confident immediately.

It just goes to show that you can prepare as much as you like, but nothing is guaranteed in this game. Did anyone expect last year's Grand Final to be in Brisbane? This year's one to be in Perth? Two years ago did we think we'd be experiencing lockdown after lockdown and struggle to buy toilet paper at the supermarket? It's actually crazy!

Anyway, on Saturday night when we run out onto Optus Stadium you can be sure I will be pinching myself, but only for a moment. Once the ball is bounced, the boys and I will be doing everything we can to try and land a second premiership in six years.