ONE of the most hard-fought battles between Hawthorn and Sydney in recent times was not played out for a premiership, or even four points - but for the services of Ryan O'Keefe.
The Hawks may have just stunned the football world - not least of all grand final opponent Geelong - by claiming the 2008 premiership, but they were determined remain a step ahead of the competition by adding some proven class to what was still very much a young outfit.
They especially saw a need to lessen the reliability on then 21-year-old forwards Lance Franklin and Jarryd Roughead, who had kicked almost 200 goals between them that year, particularly given Stuart 'Tree Trunk Legs' Dew and Mark 'Shotgun' Williams were fading forces, despite their grand final heroics.
Seeing the Swans' star blond-headed 'high half-forward' as the perfect foil for their twin towers in attack, Hawthorn wanted O'Keefe - and, as it turned out, an out-of-contract O'Keefe wanted Hawthorn.
After nine seasons in the Harbour City, and a member of Swans' 2005 premiership, the then 27-year-old was aiming at a return to his home state of Victoria with his young family. And he was so determined to join the reigning premier he was prepared to take a pay cut to do so.
In turn, Hawthorn was prepared to give up its first pick in the national draft - No.16. But it was not about to give up a player as well, as requested by the Swans. So after days of neither club willing to budge, the deal collapsed.
The Hawks hung on to their top draft pick - which they would use on a young South Australia key position player called Ryan Schoenmakers.
O'Keefe, not about to risk heading into the pre-season draft and being selected by wooden spooner Melbourne, decided to stay put.
But, while he didn't change clubs, his role at Sydney did. Since his decision to sign a new contract with the Swans, O'Keefe has been transformed from that lead-up marking forward who would slot his 30-plus goals a year to one of the team's biggest ball-winners in the midfield.
Though Josh Kennedy has been rightfully getting many of the plaudits for his bullocking work around the ground, the now almost 32-year-old O'Keefe has arguably been in the best form of his exceptional 13-season 256-game career.
Averaging a career-high 25 disposals this season, behind only Kennedy (28), and ahead of Jarrad McVeigh (24.8), Kieren Jack (24.5), Dan Hannebery (23.6) and Jude Bolton (20.1), he has helped Sydney now possess one of the best and deepest on-ball brigades in the competition.
He is also third for both average contested possessions (11.6) and clearances (4.7) at the club, behind Kennedy (17 and 7.7) and Jack (11.9 and 5), but, in the best tackling team in the competition, he is No.1 (6.1).
The Swans' depth of talent through middle was highlighted on Monday night at the Brownlow Medal count when Kennedy (19 votes), Jack (15) Hannebery (12), O'Keefe (11) and Bolton (10) all polled double-figure tallies.
More than a quarter of Kennedy's total came in his two games against his old team, Hawthorn. He picked up maximum votes in the Swans' runaway round-5 win in Tassie, when he picked up 26 touches laid 11 tackles and kicked three goals, and another two in their epic round-22 loss in Sydney when he gathered 35 disposals and 9 clearances.
The battle in the midfield tomorrow will not be one for the faint-hearted - particularly if Melbourne gets the heavy downpour expected - with the Hawk mainstays Sam Mitchell and Brad Sewell, and versatile pair Jordan Lewis and Shaun Burgoyne, as hard-at-it as they come.
While playing mainly off half-back at the Hawks, former Port Adelaide star Burgoyne will be needed in the thick of the action again against the Swans just as he was when he picked up best-on-ground honours from the umpires in that round 22 game after a 26-possession, three-goal performance.
He will be especially crucial at the stoppages, given Sam Mitchell's two quietest games this season have come against the Swans (20 and 17 disposals in round 5 and 22 respectively) when shadowed by Jack in an offensive tagging role.
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