JOHNNO: Five players who could swing the AFL Grand Final

Brad Johnson Columnist

By , Brad Johnson is a Roar Expert

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    The focus might be on Hawthorn’s superstar key forwards and Fremantle’s midfield brigade – but tomorrow’s Grand Final could well come down to the more unheralded players on either side’s list.

    Hawthorn

    Grant Birchall
    Across the half-back line Birchall’s job first and foremost will be to beat his direct opponent, but he could really hurt Fremantle with his run out of defence.

    If the Dockers’ pressure is anywhere near the manic level that we witnessed against the Swans last Saturday night – and throughout the season, to be frank – the Hawks will need composure to use the ball well.

    We know Birchall, the 2012 All-Australian half-back flank, is an elite kick and doesn’t panic with the ball in his hands.

    At the other end of the ground that raking, lethal left foot of his could also do scoreboard damage from beyond 50 and he also has the ability to hit the likes of Lance Franklin, Jarryd Roughead and Jack Gunston with his trademark spearing passes.

    When the Hawks handed Freo a 42-point hiding back in Round 4, Birchall racked up 37 touches and popped up with a goal in a performance which saw him awarded three Brownlow votes.

    If he can get near those numbers tomorrow it will go a long way towards a Hawthorn win.

    Isaac Smith
    Since playing in the Ballarat Football League with Redan at the beginning of 2010 and entering the AFL system at 22 years old, Smith has steadily become a top-line player in a quality midfield and 2013 has been his breakout season.

    He is the gut-runner that can go both ways for Hawthorn, and if they are able to use the footy well the Hawks should be able to free up space for Smith on the wing.

    If he gets his hands on the footy early he will grow in confidence and his running ability makes him a difficult matchup for Fremantle.

    He will, however, also have a defensive role for the afternoon. With Stephen Hill, Danyle Pearce, Michael Barlow and David Mundy all rotating through the middle and spending time on the wing he’s going to have some serious opponents going through him.

    I’d give him a run-with role on Stephen Hill and when Hawthorn turn the ball over tell him to use his speed to get off his opponent.

    If, as expected, it is congested in the middle then controlling the wings will be key and Smith is one that can exert that control.

    David Hale
    It has been a disjointed season, to say the least, for Aaron Sandilands but since coming in at Round 15 you can see the effect he’s had on Fremantle’s centre clearances and he was dominant in the finals wins over Geelong and Sydney.

    As number one ruckman much of the responsibility will fall upon Max Bailey but Hale’s mobility has the potential to expose Sandilands around the ground.

    Hale has the ability to read the game and get into the right positions when Hawthorn do go inside 50 and with the Dockers’ defensive focus on Franklin and Roughead, Hale could chip in with two or three goals.

    If he and Bailey can try and break even at the stoppages against Sandilands and Zac Clarke, Hale can hurt the giant ruckman going the other way and in a tight game those couple of goals could prove the difference.

    Fremantle

    Luke McPharlin
    If the Grand Final plays out in the frenetic fashion that deciders usually do, McPharlin’s cool head will be invaluable to the Dockers.

    Now in his 14th season of AFL footy, McPharlin never seems to get too anxious or overawed regardless of the situation and in the past three or four seasons he’s taken his game to the elite level.

    McPharlin is a still a great runner for Fremantle and if he can push forward and provide run out of the defence it will help his side’s structure higher up the ground as they try and shut the ball down inside their forward 50.

    I’d expect for McPharlin to go to Franklin early but if Buddy does begin to go searching for the footy up beyond centre-half forward it should be Michael Johnson who is charged with the job.

    McPharlin will be more likely to play closer to goal, meaning he’ll spend more time on Coleman Medallist Jarryd Roughead.

    Regardless of which of the two he spends more time on the fact is: if either Franklin or Roughead or both are able to kick a decent haul tomorrow – in last year’s Grand Final they managed just three goals between them – Hawthorn are going to be hard to stop.

    If McPharlin can help limit their impact Fremantle really come into this contest.

    Michael Johnson
    Like McPharlin, Johnson has been one of Fremantle’s uncertainties this week and hasn’t been able to complete a full week of training.

    As previously mentioned, the 28-year-old Johnson might be the man that needs to go with Franklin if he goes further up the ground.

    Despite the calf strain that has begun to hamper him later in the season, Johnson has had a super year and reads the game so well playing in between the lines of defence.

    The injury shouldn’t end up being a factor – if Johnson has a niggle adrenaline should get him through four quarters of footy.

    Along with McPharlin and Zac Dawson, Johnson’s role tomorrow will be key for Fremantle and I’d expect him to spend the bulk of the afternoon on Franklin.

    Should the Fremantle defence get on top of Franklin and co. the dominance should spread higher up the ground.

    Brad Johnson
    Brad Johnson

    Six-time All-Australian Brad Johnson is a former Western Bulldogs captain, Team of the Century member, and played a record 364 games for the club. He now commentates for Fox Footy and writes for The Roar.

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