One of the most exciting AFL Grand Finals ever is set to be contested by two red hot teams, Adelaide and Richmond.
Every year, there are a number of factors on Grand Final day that impact the result. You can be the best team all year, but it will ultimately count for nothing on that last Saturday in September. A lot of it is mental, and whoever harnesses the moment and performs when it matters most walks away with football’s ultimate prize, the premiership cup.
Adelaide will go in favourites, but there is not much separating them from Richmond, with both sides coming off two compelling victories this finals series.
Adelaide have been on top of the ladder for the majority of the season and looked unstoppable at times during the home and away season. Important names have come in and out of the side, but their system has shone through and consistently got them over the line.
The Tigers are riding a fierce wave of momentum, supported by their ever-passionate fans who have found their voice this September in a major way. They are playing their best football at the business end of the season, when it matters most.
We assess the five keys to the Grand Final that will dictate the result this Saturday.
1. ATTACK V DEFENCE
This season’s most damaging offensive team challenges the bravest defensive team.
The Crows scored 2415 points during the home and away season, averaging over 105 points. They averaged the most goals of any side in 2017, which was over two more than the next best side. Richmond ranked eighth in this category.
The Crows also ranked first for goal assists per game, and second for inside 50s per game. Of course, these stats will mean nothing on Saturday, but they highlight how efficient and destructive Adelaide’s scoring is. Their average score of 110 these finals also show they haven’t yet been startled by the big stage.
Led by their skipper Taylor Walker, Adelaide’s forward line is armed with weapons everywhere, including Eddie Betts, Tom Lynch and Josh Jenkins, who all kicked over 30 goals this season. They shape the best forward line in the league and all play with a team-first, unselfish mentality, which is why they are so successful.
Their entry’s inside 50 are irresistible, consistently hitting targets despite being outnumbered. They slingshot from defense to attack quicker than any team and score at a rapid rate. If this system gets going, they are invincible.
Opposing, there is a famous saying in basketball that says ‘defense wins championships’, which also holds true to the AFL.
Richmond has been a top three defence all year, conceding just 1684 points during the home and away season, and averaging a score of just 53.5 points against them during the finals, making them the best defensive team this September.
The Tigers defence is led by this year’s All Australian captain Alex Rance, who has cemented himself as the AFL’s number one defender. They have also found great stoppers in David Astbury and Dylan Grimes, while Nick Vlastuin is emerging as a real talent. Brandon Ellis and Bachar Houli have also added a harder defensive element to their game, but has also accumulated high disposal numbers and rebound the Tigers the other way effectively.
Richmond’s team defence is the backbone to their resurgence, working as one big unit, starting with their forwards. This is the modern AFL defense, a strategy the Tigers have perfected.
Richmond ranks fourth in opponent tackles difference per game, ensuring that their tackle numbers are always significantly better than their opponent. They are the best pressure side in the league and will put Adelaide under duress they haven’t yet faced this finals series.
They concede the fewest points from turnovers, fewest from stoppages and defend turnover ball movement 169% above the AFL average. All of this means that their defensive system is rock solid and will be hard to get through on Saturday, even for the AFL’s best offensive machine, Adelaide.
Generally, Grand Finals are defensive and congested, although good offense beats good defence. Which trait will prove to be the greater asset?
2. THE COACH’S BOX
Most coaches claim that they feel helpless on Grand Final day, and the reality is that they are for the most part. However, the 22 selected, matchups set and ability to prepare their side is critical to a team’s success. There are a multitude of decisions they must correct.
Formations for one play a key part. Do they elect to play someone as a loose back, utilize an extra midfielder, or roll with one-one-ones all over the ground? Whichever side can get the game on their terms for longer, wins the game.
Dom Pyke must decide who to play on Dustin Martin, both in the midfield and defence, or employ a team-defence approach. Given Richmond possess an undersized forward line, he must also have specific roles for the 195cm Jake Lever and Kyle Hartigan, presuming Daniel Talia gets the job on Jack Riewoldt.
He might also need to put some extra work into Daniel Rioli, given his incredible form, while it may be risky to leave Alex Rance unattended. If the Tigers start hot, does he tell his team to go into their shell and play possession footy, or maintain their attacking brand? Do the Crows even have a plan B when things are not going their way?
Damien Hardwick also has his work cut out for him and finding an accurate matchup for Eddie Betts may be the most important decision. Deciding whether to play Dusty in the midfield, up forward or splitting between both will also be important. He has looked most damaging up forward this finals series, but if the Tigers are getting beaten in the midfield, when Hardwick injects Dusty in there may be critical.
He has a decision to make about Rory Sloane and whether or not it is worth tagging him. Charlie Cameron was destructive against Geelong in the prelim, Hardwick must design some sort of plan to curtail him. His ability to prepare the entire side to maintain their defensive structure to stop Adelaide’s relentless run will be essential, or the game may be over at quarter time.
All of these coaching decisions will have a major influence on the game. Deciding what in-game changes to make will also be important for both coaches, and sometimes the non-change is the most effective decision of them all. Dusty might have 15 disposals at quarter time, but if the Crows are on top, is it really worth changing your structure to shut him down? Decisions in the coach’s box will be paramount to Saturday’s result.
3. MCG FACTOR
This refers to both the venue and theatre of such an occasion, which is more psychological than anything else. The Grand Final stage can do funny things to a player. Many classify this as a Richmond home game, considering they are coming off two games in front of 95,000 plus crowds at the MCG.
Think back to the 2007 Grand Final, when Geelong smashed Port Adelaide by 119 points. The Power were shell shocked and a shadow of the side that defeated North Melbourne by 87 points a week earlier to qualify for the big dance.
Just recently in the 2015 Grand Final, Hawthorn came out all guns blazing and led West Coast by 19 points at the first change. It was only a three-goal margin, but it felt like ten, considering Hawthorn seemed so much more comfortable on the big occasion.
The Crows had two wins and a draw at the MCG this season, while the Tigers had 12 wins and two losses. How both teams react to the added pressure of playing in a Grand Final will be one to watch, especially considering that all 44 players are playing in their first Grand Final.
It feels like there has never previously been so much riding on the performance of one player. It may not ultimately decide who wins, but make no mistake, a big performance from the 2017 Brownlow Medalist could deliver Richmond their first piece of silverware in 35 years.
The 26-year old enjoyed one of the best individual seasons we have ever seen, averaging 29.8 disposals and kicking 35 goals. He won just about every major media award possible and had the most three vote performances ever on Brownlow night, earning a record 36 votes.
He has put on two scintillating performances in the finals so far and doesn’t necessarily have to rack up massive numbers to have an impact. His sheer presence with the ball, ‘don’t argue’ fend offs and ability to create big, game-changing moments for Richmond can dramatically turn a contest.
He is exactly the type of player who could write himself into football folklore and create a famous Grand Final moment. Dusty’s performance could indeed make or break the Tigers on Saturday.
5. THE WEATHER
The Grand Final is played at a time of the year when Melbourne is at its typical, unpredictable best. Over the years they have been played in pouring rain, sunshine, grey skies and any other climate condition you can think of.
The weather is projected to be around 15 degrees and cloudy, which looks set to be a relatively generic playing field. Some rain is expected in Melbourne on Friday and should it carry through till Saturday, may well assist the Tigers and their overwhelming pressure game. It could make it that scrappy contest Hardwick and his troops are surely wanting.
Or does it go the other way? They say that wet weather footy favours classy players, and Adelaide are the side with better foot skills and sheer talent on paper. Of course, Adelaide did belt Fremantle by 100 points in the pouring rain in round 10. The weather is an unknown factor and one that could impact players from both teams, both positively and negatively.