Norm Smith Medal winners Dustin Martin (C) with Gary Ayres, Jimmy Bartel, Luke Hodge and Tony Shaw. Picture: Lucas Scott, AFL Media

Who better to ask about Dustin Martin's legendary status on the biggest stage of all? Riley Beveridge speaks to five Norm Smith medallists about the Tiger's greatness

THE DAY is just different.

"It's an experience that is hard to relate to other people," Gary Ayres tells AFL.com.au.

The pressure. The build-up. The excitement. The nerves. The expectation. The possibilities. The hope. The fear. Every player dreams of playing in a Grand Final. But few have the temerity to overcome the gamut of emotions that go into the day, shoulder such significant burdens, and drag their team to the game's ultimate prize.

Thousands have played football at the highest level. Very few have become premiership players, though. Even fewer have won Norm Smiths. To be the best player in football's biggest contest is an honour reserved for only the game's very elite. Simply winning one is an achievement that any ex-footballer can dine out on for a lifetime.

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"I live off mine a fair bit," Tony Shaw laughs.

For a long time, to win two put you into rarefied air. After all, only three have ever done it.

"It's what people will talk about for a long time after your career," Luke Hodge says.

To win three, though. Well, that should be impossible. But just ask any Richmond fan; Dustin Martin has spent the best part of the last decade turning what had once seemed the unbelievable into reality.

On the eve of Martin's landmark 300th game, AFL.com.au spoke to a handful of the game's most respected Norm Smith medallists to gauge the enormity of the Richmond superstar's three Grand Final performances and to pose the question: Is this the greatest big-game performer Australian Football has ever seen?

01:36

The weight of history

IN THE afterglow of the all-conquering 'Dimma Dynasty', it's easy to forget the predicament Richmond had found itself in before Dustin Martin inspired the impending years of Tiger triumphs.

Richmond had gone 37 years without a premiership. It had gone 15 years and four finals without tasting September success at all. The previous season, its campaign had concluded in the ignominy of a 113-point defeat to Sydney. As brutal as it sounds, the club had become a laughing stock.

So, when Martin inspired Richmond back into the finals courtesy of a record-breaking 2017 campaign that resulted in a Brownlow Medal from 36 votes – the most in the award's history – the opportunity to not only win a flag, but change the perception of an entire football club, was suddenly at his doorstep.

 
Dustin Martin poses with the Brownlow Medal on September 25, 2017. Picture: AFL Photos

"The expectation that you carry depends on what sort of history your club has going into Grand Finals," triple-premiership player and 2011 Norm Smith Medal winner Jimmy Bartel tells AFL.com.au.

"If you're part of those potentially drought-breaking ones, the fans are nervous, the people you talk to are nervous. But as soon as you identify that you don't carry all of that history, you've just got to try and win this game, that's all that matters.

"For me, that's what excited me. I was comfortable with the high-risk, high-reward nature of a Grand Final. You could be remembered forever for winning, or it could sting forever for losing. I actually enjoyed those sorts of stakes."

Evidently, so did Martin. After a performance that yielded 28 disposals and six clearances in the 2017 qualifying final win over the Cats, then 20 disposals and three goals in the preliminary final victory against the Giants, the level of pressure and expectation lifted one more notch ahead of the Grand Final. Fortunately, such moments were made for Martin.

25:39

"The clubs do their best to keep it as normal as possible, but it is so abnormal. It's the fanfare around it and the commitments outside of the club and the conversations you're having," four-time flag winner and 2022 Norm Smith medallist Isaac Smith says.

"The hardest part of the whole thing is the ticket situation. It's just a completely different build-up, really. Some people are built for it, other people struggle with it. Dusty is certainly one that's built for it."

But what makes Martin so ready for the big occasions? The pace, the power, the force, the fend-off? Clearly, the Tigers superstar has every quality imaginable for on-field success. But it can often be the intangibles that become so important when pressure moments crank up in the days and hours leading up to a Grand Final.

The football public might not hear much from Martin, but could that be a cause for his brilliance? While his ability alone is truly special, Richmond had to foster an environment for its media-shy magician to flourish. Doing so might have added to Martin's mystique, but it could also be a telling reason for his awe-inspiring performances.

"The one thing that happened with Dusty and Richmond, is Richmond had to understand – and they did it well – that he didn't want any of the hoo-ha," Collingwood's 1990 premiership captain and Norm Smith Medal winner Tony Shaw says.

 
Dustin Martin greets fans after the R9 match between Richmond and Geelong at the MCG on May 12, 2023. Picture: Getty Images/AFL Photos

"He didn't want that. When you become an AFL player, you're asked to be open to everything. As a matter of fact, you'd think a lot of clubs would've said, 'No you have to do this, this is what happens and everybody is interested in you'. But Richmond just said no, he was too good.

"I've worked with Dusty a couple of times and he's not arrogant or anything like that, he's just shy. He just doesn't like doing that sort of stuff. They organised it so well, around him not having the pressure of that and just letting him play the game."

Martin and Richmond might have progressed to that 2017 Grand Final, but they remained the underdogs against a mighty Adelaide team. The Crows were then a feared, powerful, attacking force. For the Tigers, and for Dusty, it was time to deliver.

Dusty being Dusty

THE ENTIRE 2017 season had felt like the complete Dustin Martin package.

There were 14 games worth 30-plus disposals, but there were also 13 games where he kicked multiple goals. There were clearances, tackles, don't argues, the lot. And against Adelaide, it would be the Grand Final where Martin combined it all into a single afternoon's work.

He had 29 touches, 22 contested possessions, kicked two goals, had two goal assists, racked up six clearances, finished with nine score involvements and took three bounces. Quite simply, it was vintage Dusty.

00:00

But he did it all when it mattered most. More than anything, Martin's legacy from his three special Grand Final performances were carved from the moments that demanded him to be great. Against the Crows, he gave his first glimpse of being the most clutch performer in the competition.

There was the steal, the fend-off and the assist to Bachar Houli to give Richmond its first lead of the day, the contested mark and the set shot to extend that advantage just before half-time, the remarkable set-up to Jason Castagna to put the match beyond the reach of Adelaide midway through the third, then the hook around the corner as the icing on the cake late in the match.

"I really do think it's about the moments," Ayres, Hawthorn's five-time premiership champion and the first ever dual Norm Smith Medal winner in 1986 and 1988, tells AFL.com.au.

 
Dustin Martin with the premiership cup after the Grand Final between Richmond and Adelaide at the MCG on September 30, 2017. Picture: AFL Photos

"There's going to be pressure like you've never experienced before. You've got to be able to handle that pressure, knowing what could possibly be the result and clearly what you could feel like if you don't win. You have to inspire and do something that might inspire your teammates to then assist everyone in what you're trying to do.

"Clearly, he's got an amazingly high footy IQ. He's talented, that's what everyone sees. But the moments that demanded him to do something pretty special, but also to impact in that game in that moment, what he does is he drags other players along.

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"When you think about all of the qualities that Dusty has got, I know people talk about him being a general, but I think he's more like a commander out there when he's playing those games at the top of his absolute best. What he then does, it drags other people with him. That makes him even more special."

Martin perhaps had more of those moments than people think in 2019, as Richmond made it two premierships in three years when it comfortably accounted for Greater Western Sydney by 89 points.

The scale of the final margin and the manner in which the Tigers gradually put breathing space on the Giants means that, in hindsight, it is easy to forget that things weren't always going the way of Damien Hardwick's side on that sunny September afternoon at the MCG.

 
Dustin Martin is tackled by Heath Shaw during the Grand Final between Richmond and GWS at the MCG on September 28, 2019. Picture: Getty Images/AFL Photos

Richmond had actually gone goalless through the game's first 24 minutes and trailed with 70 seconds remaining in the first quarter, before Martin broke free of Heath Shaw's attentions and finally put the Tigers on the board.

Five minutes into the second term, he put his opponent on the deck and dribbled through another to light the fuse for a run of 11 straight Richmond goals. But even still, the margin wasn't insurmountable until he snapped through again from tight inside the boundary line halfway through the third to ensure it was finally party time.

His fourth, having again disposed of Shaw before rifling through from beyond 50m, came with seconds left on the clock and sparked celebrations reminiscent of those that accompanied his late goal in the 2017 decider a couple of years ago.

But although this Grand Final performance wasn't as prolific as back then – Martin's four goals complemented 22 disposals, 12 contested possessions, three clearances, two goal assists and eight score involvements – his impact was just as significant.

"I think where people get caught up in Grand Finals, it's when you overthink it," Hodge, Hawthorn's four-time premiership champion and a two-time Norm Smith Medal winner in 2008 and 2014, tells AFL.com.au.

 
Dustin Martin celebrates a goal during the Grand Final between Richmond and GWS at the MCG on September 28, 2019. Picture: AFL Photos

"For any big game, if you go in there with clarity on your role and clarity on what you've got to do and what your team has to do, any nerves should be out of your system the day before the game. Yes, you're going to have the parade and all of that kind of stuff. But a lot of the issues people have with those big games, they overthink and over-build it. By the time you're into the game, they've worked themselves up or they've played the game in their head 25 times.

"I don't know Dusty very well, but it looks like he doesn't get overawed by stuff and he's not going to overthink the situation. He just loves football. He wants to go and play football – hence why we probably don't get to chat to him much in the media – because he doesn't love the limelight. He just loves playing football with his mates. That's what's held him in good stead in big games."

But, again, Martin's 2019 Grand Final performance hadn't stood alone. Like in 2017, the Richmond superstar had dragged the Tigers to the decider through a series of memorable finals performances.

Along with his Norm Smith Medal-winning display in the showpiece event, Martin had kicked six goals in the qualifying final against Brisbane and backed it up with 22 disposals and two goals against Geelong in the preliminary final. His four-goal display against the Giants put the finishing touches on another September to remember.

02:13

"It's his demeanour. He's obviously extremely confident in his own ability," Smith says.

"But what separates a lot of players, and if you go back and look at so many of the Norm Smith Medal winners, it's how clean they are. Dustin is certainly that. He is just so clean.

"Certainly, playing against him on many occasions, his power and his strength could mean he could back himself to spend time over the football. He was then so clean and he was able to execute his skill post-contest. Some of the skills that he possesses, his foot, his fend-off, his vision and his knowledge of the game, it's as good as any."

Two Grand Finals, two premiership victories, two Norm Smith Medals. Martin was building quite the collection. But he was also saving his best – and one of the game's most special individual performances yet – for last.

03:16

His crowning moment

BARTEL had seen this story unfold before.

As a boy, he had watched Geelong teams get torn apart by moments of individual brilliance in Grand Finals. Be it Peter Matera kicking five for the Eagles in 1992 or Greg Williams adding five of his own for the Blues in 1995, every Cats fan knew this nightmare well. Now, Martin was adding another chapter.

After a season like no other in 2020, in a Grand Final like no other under the lights at the Gabba in Brisbane, Martin produced a performance like few others could to drag Richmond to a third premiership in four seasons.

 
Dustin Martin and Damien Hardwick embrace after the 2020 Grand Final between Richmond and Geelong at the Gabba. Picture: AFL Photos

Geelong was in complete control nearing half-time. Chris Scott's side was 21 points ahead – an advantage worth more than normal given the shortened length of quarters in this COVID-19 affected season – and had the ascendancy in almost every statistical category. But the dominance didn't deter Dusty.

Needing a spark just before the main break, Martin swooped on a crumbing ball, squared up Jake Kolodjashnij with a brutal fend-off, and without having even gained full control of the ball snapped across his body and through the goal to shift the game's momentum.

"That goal right on half-time. It felt like Geelong had control of the game and he just hit the contest and it bounced up and he bodied his way through," Bartel says, almost ruefully.

"I just watched that Grand Final and it was like I was a kid watching Grand Finals, when Peter Matera ripped the Cats apart in 1992 or Greg Williams in 1995. You're just watching someone and knowing that everyone else on the field is at his mercy. That's what it felt like, particularly watching the last one.

"The Crows and the Giants, he was awesome early and put them to the sword but it became a bit of a cakewalk. Really, that Cats one, it was a bit of a struggle for a while. The thing that kept separating the game was him. Every single one of his goals were amazing individually, but he put them all together."

04:18

His first, which put an end to a run of five consecutive Geelong goals, gave Richmond an air of belief at half-time. The Tigers then capitalised on their superstar's brilliance, kicking two more in quick succession to start the third quarter. But they still trailed by a slender three-point deficit late in the term when Martin bobbed up again.

This time, he roved another congested pack and eased away from the contest like only he could. With just a momentary glimpse of goal, Martin bent through a dribbling checkside snap to finally give Richmond the lead.

"Geelong had every right to be so far in front at half-time," Hodge says.

"If it wasn't for Dusty, half-time would have been a blowout. That sounds harsh on the other guys, but I don't mean to be harsh. That goal that he kicked just before half-time, it gave them that sniff.

"Let's be honest. If it wasn't for Dusty's goal just before half-time, Geelong would've walked away with it. He ended up kicking four and his second half was amazing, but him keeping them alive is the reason why they won."

 
Dylan Grimes, Trent Cotchin and Dustin Martin celebrate Richmond's 2020 Toyota AFL Grand Final victory. Picture: AFL Photos

Sparked by Martin's two moments of magic, Richmond gradually pulled clear amid a second-half armwrestle. But, with the result still in the balance, another sublime piece of skill ensured the separation Tiger fans had only dreamed of before half-time.

Receiving a Kane Lambert handball, Martin stepped around Mark O'Connor's attempts to tackle and barrelled through a skidding bomb from beyond 50m out. Suddenly, Richmond's lead was insurmountable. But the best was still to come.

With just over 60 seconds remaining, and with Queensland-based Tiger fans already belting out their famous song, Martin stood up amid Patrick Dangerfield's tackle attempts, swivelled on a dime and snapped through from against the boundary line.

"He had to do some special things," Ayres says of Martin's 2020 performance.

 
Dustin Martin celebrates a goal during the Grand Final between Richmond and Geelong at the Gabba on October 24, 2020. Picture: Getty Images/AFL Photos

"Some of the goals he got ... there was that one in the last where he was on the boundary, he did the fend-off, then he curled the ball around. To come from behind in a Grand Final, and to drag the teammates of his across the line, it was greatness at its peak."

That it was. The fact Martin's display had followed a do-or-die semi-final performance against St Kilda worth 25 disposals and a goal, then another in a preliminary final victory over Port Adelaide that featured 21 disposals and two goals the week before, was just another sign of his enduring brilliance.

The GOAT

FOOTBALL has never seen a CV like it.

There are the three Norm Smith Medals, an achievement no one had ever accomplished before Martin. In total, 14 of the 15 judges to have voted on Martin's Grand Final performances gave him best-on-ground honours (Terry Wallace gave Houli three votes in 2017). It adds to his three premiership medals.

But there is also the 2017 Brownlow Medal, the Leigh Matthews Trophy as the AFL Players' Association's Most Valuable Player, the AFL Coaches' Association's Player of the Year award, the four All-Australian blazers and the two Jack Dyer Medals as Richmond's best and fairest.

 
Dustin Martin after being presented with his All-Australian jacket in 2018. Picture: AFL Photos

But along with his trio of Norm Smith Medals, there is more history of Martin standing tall on the game's biggest stages. There are also three Gary Ayres Awards, given to the best player across an entire finals series, two more Yiooken Awards for the best player in a Dreamtime at the 'G match, and even a best-on-ground award following his game for Victoria in the 2020 State of Origin match.

Such an honour's list clearly stamps Martin in the 'Greatest of All Time' debate. But it also puts him emphatically in clear air when it comes to discussing the best big-game performers that football has ever seen.

"You'd have to say so," Ayres says of whether Martin is the game's best ever Grand Final performer.

"Three Norm Smith Medals, it's insane. Really, it is. We all know as players, there are 18 sides sent out every year. Only two qualify for that Grand Final, and only one is going to win. For him to do it three times and win three Norm Smith Medals, and with where Richmond was in 2016 ... you could always see his greatness, but he took it to another level."

If the opinions of Ayres, the first player ever to win dual Norm Smith Medals, wasn't enough, then those of Hodge, the last player before Martin to achieve such a feat, follow a similar thought process.

"It's hard to say no," Hodge says.

"He's played three Grand Finals and he's won three Norm Smiths. You look at someone who is consistent in that way, you sort of sit back and say ... well, it's hard to argue. He's got a 100 per cent strike rate. No one has got his record. To be so powerful and be so dominant in all of them, it's bloody impressive."

 
Dustin Martin (centre) with fellow 300-game Tigers Kevin Bartlett, Shane Edwards, Trent Cotchin, Jack Riewoldt and Francis Bourke, under the statue of Jack Dyer. Picture: Michael Willson, AFL Photos

Martin has achieved it all, but he also has the longevity to match. Saturday's accomplishment, becoming just the seventh player in Richmond's near 140-year history to reach 300 games, is evidence of that. Quite simply, football might never see a champion performer of Dusty's ilk ever again.

"I jokingly say to people who have won Brownlows, 'Don't worry about that'," Shaw laughs.

"The Norm Smith, it's probably the biggest accolade. Not to sound big-headed, but the day came and you did what you had to do. You got it done and you performed under enormous pressure to the best of your ability and people saw that and thought what you did was the best of any other player on that ground.

"When you win three Norm Smith Medals, not many have won two. To win three, at the top level, he will go down – and he should go down – as probably the best big-game player the game has ever seen. There's no doubt. No doubt."