SYDNEY CRICKET GROUND -- One of the very first to vacate their SCG seat and head towards the boundary line was a burly, middle-aged man sporting a Hells Angels-esque leather jacket and a pair of loose-fitting denim jeans which appeared to have been through about 500 wash cycles too many. His grey wispy beard nestled perfectly into the tattered Swans scarf wrapped twice around his neck. As he rose, the inevitable 'clank' of his retractable seat springing back to its upright position echoed around the lower bowl of the M.A. Noble Stand.
The man leaned down and scooped up his backpack before presenting his right palm to his son who had been sitting patiently beside him. "Let's go. We need to get down to the front," he instructs. Their hands link and the two shuffle their way through a sea of legs, before being spat out at the aisle.
One by one, then eventually dozen by dozen, fans decked head-to-toe in Swans red and white began to follow. Even a couple of Hawthorn supporters couldn't pass up basking in the occasion. Within minutes, a ring of fans had formed around the advertising hoarding of the SCG as anticipation continued to grow. Sydney superstar Lance Franklin had just kicked goal No. 999 of his illustrious career and those in attendance were readying themselves for perhaps the greatest Aussie Rules tradition.
Streaming onto the turf the moment a player kicks his 100th goal of the season, or in this case, the even rarer feat of reaching the 1,000 career goals mark, is as AFL as lukewarm Four'n Twenty meat pies at the MCG or bouncing the ball in the center circle after each goal.
Back in the 1970s, running onto the field of play was rather commonplace. But instead of doing so to mark a particular occasion, it was usually just fans rushing the ground to nab a spot for kick to kick, and quite often, jumping the fence before the siren had sounded. Once the league began ramping up security in the 1990s, the act of fans flocking into the middle of a football oval was reserved for the ultra-rare milestones, and since 2000, we've seen it happen just four times.
Essendon sharpshooter Matthew Lloyd achieved the 100-goal season in both 2000 and 2001, while St Kilda's Fraser Gehrig hit the mark in 2004. The most recent instance, in 2008, also involved Franklin. The then-Hawk kicked his 100th goal of the year in the final home-and-away round, sparking wild scenes at Telstra Dome as fans rushed the field. Nobody has come remotely close to repeating the accomplishment since.
"It's a real footy bucket list item, isn't it?" one eager Swans fan told ESPN ahead of his side's Round 2 encounter against Geelong. "In 20, 30, or even 50 years time, people will look back and watch this moment. We will all remember it, whether you're at the ground or watching on TV. So to be associated with it is pretty damn cool. And who can really say they've never wanted to run onto a footy ground during a game!"
The three-quarter-time siren boomed shortly after Franklin had curled a drop punt the right side of the left goalpost to draw within one goal of the great feat. As Swans players huddled in the middle of the SCG at the final change, droves of fans began filling the lower aisles. In some places, eager supporters were 20 deep.
Franklin didn't touch the ball for the first 18 minutes of the final term but you'd never have known it. There was no quietening the 'Buddy, Buddy' chant which rang around the stadium, as fans waited with bated breath for the 'Greatest Showman' to deliver. So when Swans youngster Chad Warner burst through half-forward, lowered his eyes and chipped the ball onto the chest of Sydney's well-oiled No. 23, the crowd had well and truly hit fever pitch.
Hundreds began dangling their legs over the fence, preparing to take the plunge down to the lush SCG grass. Others fixed their mobile phone cameras on Franklin as he approached goal. Even security wasn't in a mood to spoil the fun, turning a blind eye to the antics and what would soon unfold.
The ball hadn't yet sailed through the posts as thousands flooded the ground. They were throwing cups of beer in the air, taking selfies and celebrating as if their side had just landed a premiership.
"I've never seen anything like this. This is honestly the best sporting moment I've ever seen," another fan told ESPN on the ground.
It's funny. An excursion onto the SCG during an AFL match is usually met with a fine of AU$5,500 as well as a banning notice for up to two years. Do so at the MCG and you'll be slapped with a bill of almost AU$10,000. But a player reaching one of those golden milestones leads to a real quirk in the system, with fans almost encouraged to swarm the ground when it happens.
"Officially, you shouldn't run onto the ground, but it would be a good look, wouldn't it?" AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan said on the eve of the 2022 season, referencing Franklin's impending milestone. "I can't endorse it but it wouldn't be the worst. It's a big deal [to kick] 1,000 goals. Who knows if it happens again."
It's a fair point. Franklin's arrow from the pocket to put him in the exclusive 1,000 career goal club along with Tony Lockett, Gordon Coventry, Jason Dunstall, Doug Wade and Gary Ablett Sr. Of active players, Jack Riewoldt is the next closest to the milestone, currently on 716 goals - 284 shy of the feat. To put into perspective just how many goals that is, teammate Dustin Martin sits on 292 for his career. Assuming Riewoldt was able to maintain his average of a tick over 35 goals per season, he would need to play another eight years of high-level, injury-free football to hit the mark. That just isn't happening.
The modern defense-first game really doesn't play to the dominant key forward's strengths. Lockett alone had 22 career 10-goal games, while there are just nine such games among every active player. Not only that but the past five Coleman Medal winners have failed to crack 70 goals for the season, so to say it won't happen again is far from hyperbole.
For that reason it was unsurprising to see literally thousands of fans cover the SCG playing surface, so much so that the game was unable to restart for nearly 40 minutes. They soaked in every moment of what's one of the rarest and most remarkable achievements in Australian sport.
Some Aussie Rules traditions haven't exactly aged well and in 2022 can come across a little lame and tacky. Looking at you, banners... But fans flooding the ground to celebrate the rare occurrence of a 100-goal season or a 1,000-goal career is one which should remain forever. It's just a shame we're almost certain to never see it again.