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The grandest poker game of all

Stefan Martin and Max Gawn used to sit across from each other playing poker when teammates at Melbourne.

Stefan Martin and Max Gawn used to sit across from each other playing poker when teammates at Melbourne, trying to win some money off each other via cards.

On Saturday night, they will start across from each other before launching at the centre bounce at Perth's historic Grand Final, both crucial players for their teams.

The symmetry of the contest isn't lost on Martin, who spent the first five years of his career at Melbourne before joining Brisbane for eight years and then last year leaving for the Western Bulldogs.

That his ruck sparring partner will be the in-form Gawn, who has remained a close friend after they shared three seasons together at the Demons, adds extra interest to a duel likely to be a factor in the premiership decider.

"We both share a love of poker so we played a lot of poker together and we would hang out a lot so he was one of my really good friends at the Dees," Martin told AFL.com.au.

"Since I moved we keep in contact via text sometimes, but I'm pretty bad on my phone, but every time we see each other or especially when we play, he'll give me a cheeky grin and some sort of a shitty gag and I know he hasn't changed at all.

"Personally I just feel admiration and pride in what he's been able to create of himself because he had a really rough start at the Dees with his injuries and it's pretty cool that someone with a quirky personality can be so revered at a footy club to the point he's made captain as well. It's been a great friendship."

If it had slipped your mind Martin played for Melbourne, you weren't the only one. Even some of his teammates at the Bulldogs weren't aware of his 57-game career there until recently.

"I'm obviously a lot older than most of my teammates and they remind me of that daily. Dom Bedendo and Jamarra (Ugle-Hagan) told me I'm three years younger than their parents. Lots of those boys had no idea I played for the Dees at all until things have popped up here and there," Martin said.

"In some ways it's in the rear vision mirror a long way back and it feels like it was 20 years ago for me. I'm a very different person to when I was there. I was very much a smokey sort of prospect there. I was really lucky they gave me a shot and developed me. But I don’t necessarily associate with being an ex-Demons player at the moment.

"I played the vast majority of my career at the Lions so in terms of recent history that's where my heart did lie. My career at the Dees had come to its conclusion and moving north obviously worked out really well for me."

As might his move south, which has seen him end up going west to be a key cog in the Dogs' hopes of landing a stunning flag from fifth position.

Martin's shot at a flag looked over weeks ago, when coach Luke Beveridge all but ruled out bringing him back into the finals as his persistent groin injury lingered. The 34-year-old played six of the first seven games of the season, and another in round 12, after his campaign as derailed by the troubles.

He continued to build up his training before the finals hit but understood Beveridge's reservations about picking the veteran ruckman, particularly without a second-tier competition to prove himself.

"Just not being able to provide what I'd planned to and what they planned to get from me was really frustrating. Nothing I was doing in that middle part of the season was turning the corner with it so it sucked," Martin said.

He started to feel the wheel turn ahead of the finals, but still felt a "long shot". However after watching the Bulldogs beat Brisbane by a point in the semi-final from Launceston with the other non-selected players, Martin had one last crack at being considered by Beveridge.

It worked, with the Dogs opting to bring him in against Port Adelaide in last week's preliminary final. It was a roll of the dice that worked wonders, with the athletic and physical big man offering important support to Tim English in his first game in nearly 100 days.

"I know that magic can happen and in life funny turns of events can happen. I've had it happen with injuries even before so luckily I'd learnt enough to know that even in the 11th hour sometimes things come good," he said.

"There were a few unknowns so I was a bit more nervous for the game against Port than I had been for a very long time so it was nice to get through unscathed."

Martin, who will play his 199th game in the Grand Final, admitted the nature of his finals series – from engaged spectator to key player – had made it easier to focus on the here and now than get caught up in looking too hard at what a premiership medallion would mean.

"You just couldn't have scripted it. It's been crazy," he said.

"I'm used to standing next to Dayne Zorko, Harris Andrews, Daniel Rich and Ryan Lester on the Gabba and the way that game came down to the wire made for a strange night for me to be honest. And now we're up against the old side and a good mate in Max Gawn.

"It's all very bizarre but I feel completely privileged and blessed to be out there. Partly because all of the footy I've missed and the job the boys have done without me but also partly because of all that stuff that's happened in a very strange way."

 

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