ALL season, coaches have maintained that the substitute is not the 22nd man picked, rather a tactical choice of a player with a specific and important role. If today's premiership decider is as tight as billed, that role will be more critical than ever, and that role player might just be the piece that completes the puzzle.
When the final team sheets are released at 1pm, it won't just be the presence or otherwise of Steve Johnson's name on the Geelong list that eyes are drawn to. The two players with an (S) next to their names could have as much say in the quest for football immortality as their teammates who will take the ground before them.
Once he had dried his eyes, Mick Malthouse made a point last Friday night of quickly introducing Alan Didak into the conversation. Didak's form struggles may well have dictated the ''role'' he played in starting the preliminary final against Hawthorn in the green vest, but his coach was quick to hail the impact of his four last-quarter possessions.
Restricting the parameters to the men in black and white who will play today, you have to go back to round four (Alan Toovey) to find the last game in which Collingwood's sub wasn't Jarryd Blair, Alex Fasolo or Didak. So it will surely be today.
Dayne Beams bowing to a groin strain has given Fasolo his chance, and he looms as the most likely starting sub, even if his 2011 return eclipses Didak's - 16 goals from 12 games in his rookie season against Didak's uncharacteristically low nine from 19. Assuming Blair is in the starting line-up, the deciding factor may be as simple as the Pies backing an out-of-touch star with 11 years and 201 games behind him to cope with the unique pressure of a grand final's early skirmishes better than a 19-year-old 13th-gamer.
Geelong's choice will hinge on Johnson's selection; coach Chris Scott said yesterday the potential replacement had been chosen and told. Darren Milburn and Shannon Byrnes are the men most likely, and both have form starting the game in green.
Byrnes's season has been ruined by injury; having started 2011 on 99 games, he took until round 14 to bring up the ton (starting as the sub) and has played only four games since, two more with the green handbrake on at the first bounce.
He has the experience that is lacking in the Cats' six-times super-sub Allen Christensen (who started four of his first five games in the vest), but Christensen is in fine fettle and has handled the step up in pressure and intensity with aplomb while averaging 21 touches in his two finals.
Mitch Duncan added the requisite zing when he replaced Johnson against the Eagles last Saturday, and the Cats may stick with him as sub if Johnson comes up. If not, the role seems made for Milburn.
While yet to formalise his finish line, this is surely the 34-year-old's last hurrah. That he has played only once in the last eight weeks, combined with the toll 15 seasons have taken on his body, would make him a risky proposition if charged with playing a full game. But he has much to offer as substitute.
The prospect of a fresh ''Dasher'' being injected into the game when it is crying out to be won is tantalising. He is as cool as grand final day weather, a sure ball-handler, undiminished in the wet, and versatile. We'd never dare add that the AFL's written reminder yesterday to the competing clubs that reportable offences are subject to double penalties in the grand final means nothing to players who are retiring anyway.
The Boy's Own scenario for the substitute is to come on when the team desperately needs a fire starter, provide the spark, then finish the job with the match-winning goal. Which is exactly what Milburn did way back in round one.