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The x-factor players set to decide this year's AFL premiership

Expert
17th September, 2015
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A champion team will always beat a team of champions. How many times have we heard that old chestnut being bandied about by tired sports journalists searching for a quick cliché?

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>> EXPERT TIPS
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Of course, the theory behind the old adage is solid and it stands true most of the time, but what happens if the teams playing one another are both well-rounded, well-drilled, team-orientated and evenly matched?

Well, that’s when the x-factor comes into play!

By x-factor I mean players who can do the extraordinary, but not always in an orthodox way. Players like Gary Ablett Sr or Stevie Johnson had the x-factor. Their unpredictable brilliance could make even the most diligent opposition look slow and stupid. Often their reputations alone would have opponents beaten, or at least worried, before the game even began.

So could the x-factor play a role in deciding who claims ultimate glory in season 2015?

Too right it can.

With the remaining teams appearing to be so evenly matched it is going to take something special, and perhaps a little unorthodox, for one of them to emerge as the final victor. More than likely it will be the x-factor that gets them there.

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For mine, there are three players left in this year’s finals that have true x-factor capabilities – Hawthorn’s Cyril Rioli, Adelaide’s Eddie Betts and West Coast’s Nic Naitanui.

And you know what? One of them will be wearing a premiership medallion on the evening of October 3!

That may seem like a big statement but in a closely fought contest, these are the players that are most difficult to match up and contain for a whole game. Even just a 10-minute burst of brilliance can break a deadlock.

How often have we heard Bruce McAvaney tell us that Rioli has just played the best 14-possession game ever? Or the best 13-possession game? Or the best 12-possession game? Every second week it seems. The point is, Rioli doesn’t need much of the ball to hurt an opposition side. That is a fact.

He only managed 10 possessions in Hawthorn’s memorable 2008 grand final victory over Geelong but is remembered – along with Stuart Dew – as one of the players who turned the game in the Hawks’ favour.

Even if he is well held, he only needs a couple of kicks to exert his influence. Let your concentration lapse for even a second and he could be devastating.

While we are often left spellbound by Rioli’s magic, fellow small forward Eddie Betts over in Crowland just keeps on keeping on. How consistent has this bloke become? He has kicked a career best 63 goals this season, including five bags of five goals or more.

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He is a dead eye too, kicking just 25 behinds for the year, a remarkable rate of accuracy considering some of the difficult snap shots that come his way.

Last weekend against the Bulldogs he looked dangerous every time Adelaide’s tall forwards brought the ball to ground. He reads the ball off the pack so well and his balance, strength and goal sense allow him to create scoring opportunities that others would be incapable of finding.

He is also a strong mark, able to fly for his own grabs when the power forwards are out of position. This makes him an extremely hard match-up.

He was the difference between Adelaide winning and losing last week, and may prove to be so again in the coming weeks.

That leaves us with Nic Naitanui. The big Eagle is about as unorthodox as they come. He doesn’t mark the ball as much as a traditional ruckman would, but it hardly detracts from his game.

That doesn’t mean he can’t mark, mind you. He has taken some of the biggest grabs the game has seen, but his play is not defined by his ability to pull down a screamer.

Instead it is his tap work at stoppages that has come to the fore. His almost sublime ability to give his following division first use of the ball is one of the reasons the Eagles have become a driving force this year.

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But more than that, the sometimes awkward-looking big man has a rare ability to do the remarkable. Whether it be roving his own hitout, kicking an unlikely goal, or pulling down a rare screamer, he keeps the opposition (and perhaps even himself) guessing as to what his next move will be.

If he doesn’t know what he is capable of, then what hope has an opposition coach or player of trying to negate him?

If, as many suggest, we do get an all-West Australian grand final, one of the highlights will be the contrasting style of the ruckmen on the day. On one side will be Naitanui, with his athleticism and his unpredictable brilliance. On the other side will be Dockers’ goliath Aaron Sandilands.

To paraphrase McAvaney again, it will be a delicious match-up, but one gets the feeling that if things are tight, Naitanui might have a couple more tricks up his sleeve than big Sandi.

But that is a couple of weeks away yet.

The first weekend of finals football brought all that we could have wished for, and the second week promises to be just as engaging. So little separates the teams that it is difficult to tip a winner. The games are simply mouthwatering.

And while the old adage about champion teams certainly has merit, don’t be surprised to see the x-factor playing its part this year.

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I’ll make an early call. The Eagles will do it, perched on top of Nic Nat’s ample shoulders!

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