It’s here! Six months after we watched Richmond give its supporters cause for hope after defeating Carlton on the opening night of the season, only to turn into a smoldering ruin for most of the next 22 rounds, the AFL Grand Final is upon us.
Let us give thanks for the best day on the sporting calendar, and try to pick a winner as the Western Bulldogs take on Sydney.
ALL BETS ARE ON
Normally it’s a day that divides the nation into two roughly equal camps, as people adopt one of the two teams as their own for those three hours on Saturday afternoon. But this year will be different, with a straw poll at the pub last weekend revealing 23 million Australians will swear their allegiance to the Doggies, while Sydney will be cheered on by a handful of family and friends.
The Swans will start as favourites, of course, and are currently paying $1.60, while the Dogs are considered a fighting chance at $2.40. Given the boys from the west have been at similar odds the last three weeks and have saluted each time, that’s handy value.
THE ROAD TO THE BIG ONE
The Swans got the rocket they seemingly needed in their 36-point qualifying final loss against GWS, before rolling through Adelaide by six goals and then travelling to Geelong last week and thumping the Cats with a first-quarter blitzkrieg – cruising through by 37 points.
The Dogs have been all but written off three weeks in a row, having faced two interstate assignments as well as triple premiership winners Hawthorn. But each time they’ve delivered, first trumping West Coast at Domain Stadium by 47 points, then kicking 10 second-half goals to get past Hawthorn and finally travelling to Sydney and upsetting GWS with a Jack Macrae goal in the final minutes.
HISTORY TELLS US
Few teams can claim to have had Sydney’s measure in recent years, but the Western Bulldogs are one of them. Who could forget Jason Johannisen returning from an 11-week hamstring injury in Round 15 to kick the winning goal against the Swans in the dying seconds? Luke Parker was absolutely enormous for the Swans in a losing side that night, racking up 34 disposals and kicking three goals, while Buddy Franklin booted five, but it still wasn’t enough as the Dogs won by four points.
Four points was also the margin at their previous meeting (also at the SCG) in Round 5 last year. If you told us any other week that Dan Hannebery had 37 disposals, Tom Mitchell had 30 and Josh Kennedy had 25, we’d tell you Sydney probably won by six goals, but the Dogs’ ability to soak up pressure again won the day and saw them hang on despite kicking just one goal in the last quarter.
WHERE IT’LL BE WON
Last week we predicted Sydney’s midfield depth would overwhelm Geelong’s Dangerfield and Selwood-centric structure, and while we’d still give the Swans the edge in that area this week, the Dogs will offer a much sterner test around the ball.
Both teams are contested ball beasts, so expect each to win their share of the pill in the middle. The Dogs’ chances will likely hinge on what they can extract out of their forward line against the competition’s stingiest defence. They averaged less points per game than every other team in the top eight during the home and away season (and by some margin) as well as four of the teams outside the eight, however if the last three weeks have shown us anything, it’s that history counts for very little once the Bulldogs get rolling in finals.
With headline acts Jake Stringer and Tom Boyd continuing to be more hit or miss than a comedy club open mic night, the Dogs will need Tory Dickson and Clay Smith (four goals each in the preliminary final) to deliver again. But rather than facing Geelong’s aged and weary defence, they’ll be up against breakout performer Dane Rampe, veteran Heath Grundy and the versatile Nick Smith. It promises to be a ding-dong battle.
Then again, maybe Buddy kicks seven and the game’s over before half-time.
WHO WINS NORMY?
Picking the winner of the Norm Smith Medal can be like trying to predict what Brendan Fevola will do if you put him on camera at a Brownlow count.
Good luck with that one.
Marcus Bontempelli will start as a $7.00 favourite, and given his previous two outings against Sydney yielded 29 disposals, and 23 disposals along with two goals, it’s reasonable to assume he’ll be set for a day out.
Swans midfielder Luke Parker, who was quiet last week with 17 disposals but chimed in with two goals, seems like stupidly good value at $9.00, while Josh Kennedy and Dan Hannebery sit alongside him at $9.00 and could easily get off the chain
Best bet: Josh Kennedy
PICKING A WINNER
On paper, Sydney should win this one at a canter, with their embarrassment of goalkicking midfield riches, miserly defence and potent combination of Franklin and his accompanying small forwards an almost overwhelming proposition. If the Swans produce their customary first-quarter stampede, they might have this one cooked by half-time.
But the Dogs are the team that just keep on giving, and continue to prove us all wrong with their unwavering spirit and gutsy young stars. That said, they’ve been to the well three times in three weeks, and those bruising encounters have to take their toll at some stage. They’ll be brave, but Sydney should be too good here.
Best bet: Swans 1-39 ($2.10)