We are now down to the final game of the season and what a grand final it promises to be. Hawthorn and the West Coast Eagles will do battle in the biggest match of the year at the MCG on Saturday afternoon.
The Hawks will aim to become the first team since the Brisbane Lions in 2001-3 to capture a hat-trick of flags, while the West Coast Eagles will attempt to win their fourth ever flag after previously winning in 1992, 1994 and 2006.
The impressive form shown by the Hawks and Eagles all year should make for an intriguing grand final, which for the first time since 2011 will pit the season’s two best attacking sides against each other.
Sam Mitchell shapes as the man the Eagles must stop if they are to have a chance of claiming its first premiership since 2006, while the Hawks will have their work cut out trying to shut down the trio of Josh Kennedy, Nic Naitanui and Matt Priddis, all of whom have played their hand for the westerners in 2015.
Here is your full guide to the 2015 AFL grand final.
Hawthorn versus West Coast Eagles
Saturday, October 3
Melbourne Cricket Ground
Results this season: Hawthorn 13.10 (88) defeated West Coast 11.8 (74) at Domain Stadium in Round 19; West Coast 14.12 (96) defeated Hawthorn 9.10 (64) at Domain Stadium in the second qualifying final.
After 205 matches and 820 quarters of football, only one match and four quarters remain in the season and it will be during those that this year’s premiers will be decided.
After a slow start to the season, whereby they divided their first eight games with four wins and four losses, many questioned whether the Hawks still had the desire to win a third consecutive premiership.
However, starting from Round 9, the Hawks would lose just twice more for the remainder of the regular season to finish in the top three for the fifth consecutive year and thus set up a qualifying final showdown against the Eagles in the west.
Again, their premiership credentials would come into question after they suffered a disastrous 32-point loss to the Eagles, during which they lost their leading goalkicker, Jack Gunston, with an ankle injury.
But just like they did earlier in the season, the Hawks would rebound to defeat the Adelaide Crows and Fremantle in their semi and preliminary finals by 74 and 27 points respectively.
Their recent premiership success and experience, and the likelihood that Gunston could return for the decider, will see them start favourites against a West Coast side that this season well and truly exceeded what was expected of them this year.
After finishing ninth and failing to beat a top-eight side last year, many did not give Adam Simpson’s men a chance of making the finals, let alone reach the grand final, this season.
They lost their reigning best and fairest Eric Mackenzie to a knee injury in the pre-season, and then lost Mitch Brown to the same injury in their Round 1 loss to the Western Bulldogs.
That, and a 30-point loss to Fremantle in the Western Derby on either side of a ten-goal performance by Josh Kennedy against Carlton at home, all but saw their chances written off.
Thrashings of the two expansion clubs (GWS and Gold Coast by 87 and 92 points respectively), on either side of a ten-point win over Port Adelaide at the Oval, did little to suggest that the Eagles would be serious contenders for the flag.
But as the season wore on, the Eagles would only get better and better. Led by their three most important players in Coleman Medallist Kennedy, ruckman Nic Naitanui and last year’s Brownlow Medallist Matt Priddis, the club would trip up just twice more en route to their first top-two finish since 2006.
Their 32-point defeat of the Hawks in the qualifying final saw them assume premiership favouritism, but after Alastair Clarkson’s men advanced to the grand final the hard way (having to defeat minor premiers Fremantle in Perth to do so), the two-time reigning premiers have once again reassumed that mantle.
Of the Eagles’ current squad, only Sharrod Wellingham, Sam Butler and ex-Hawk Xavier Ellis have played in a premiership side, let alone played in a grand final. Of that trio, only Butler remains from the club’s class of 2006 that defeated the Sydney Swans by a solitary point.
By contrast, from the Hawthorn side that defeated Fremantle in last Friday night’s preliminary final, only James Frawley and Billy Hartung are yet to play in a grand final. Ryan Schoenmakers is yet to feature in a premiership win, having previously been a part of the side that lost to the Swans in the 2012 decider.
It is this gulf in premiership experience that will see the Hawks start favourites in Saturday’s AFL grand final. While Alastair Clarkson’s men will be expected to mount the premiership dais for the third year in a row, all the Eagles can do is to put up the serious challenge the Swans didn’t last year.
Stats that matter
* This will be Hawthorn’s 19th grand final (12-6), while for the Eagles this will be their sixth (3-2).
* Hawthorn will be aiming for their 13th premiership, which would see them move to outright fourth overall on the premiership tally, behind only Carlton, Essendon (16 flags each) and Collingwood (15).
* West Coast, appearing in its first grand final in the post Chris Judd-Ben Cousins era, will be aiming for its fourth premiership. Its most recent flag came in 2006 when they defeated the Sydney Swans by just one point in the grand final.
* This will be only their second grand final meeting, and first since 1991.
* This is the first time since 2006 in which a grand final is a repeat of a qualifying final from the same finals series (Sydney and West Coast).
* This is the first 2 versus 3 grand final since 2005 (Sydney defeated West Coast).
* Up to six players could become four-time Hawthorn premiership players if they win on Saturday: Luke Hodge, Jarryd Roughead, Jordan Lewis, Sam Mitchell, Grant Birchall and Cyril Rioli.
* Hawthorn will be aiming to become the first team since the Brisbane Lions in 2001-2-3 to win a hat-trick of flags.
* West Coast will seek to join the likes of the Adelaide Crows (1996-7) and Geelong Cats (2006-7) in winning a flag after missing the finals the previous year.
* Sam Butler remains the only survivor from West Coast’s 2006 premiership winning side. He can join Drew Banfield (1994 and 2006) as the only dual West Coast premiership winning players if the Eagles win on Saturday.
* Hawthorn has only ever lost once (to the Sydney Swans, in 2012) to an interstate club in a grand final. That also remains the most recent instance in which an interstate team beat a Victorian team in the grand final.
* This is the fourth consecutive year in which an interstate team has appeared against a Victorian team in the grand final.
Given Hawthorn and West Coast were the two best scoring sides during the regular season, don’t be surprised if a shootout eventuates, especially between the two leading goalkickers for their respective sides, Jack Gunston and Josh Kennedy.
Gunston and Sam Mitchell will be among the two players the Hawks will need to rely on if they are to join the Brisbane Lions (2001-3), Melbourne (1955-7) and Collingwood (1927-30) in winning at least three flags in succession.
Conversely, the Eagles’ hopes will hinge on who I have regularly identified as their three most important players: Kennedy, Naitanui and Priddis.
Kennedy’s 75 regular season goals saw him become just the second Eagle after Scott Cummings in 1999 to win the Coleman Medal, while ruckman Nic Naitanui and last year’s Brownlow Medallist Matt Priddis have been the reasons for the Eagles’ surge this year.
The Eagles were able to beat the Hawks without Priddis in the qualifying final but it will be a whole new ball game this Saturday afternoon, and the Hawks will have their hands full in trying to shut down the aforementioned Eagles trio.
While I think Adam Simpson’s men will put up a good challenge, given the season they had when they were written off by many at the start of the year, I still expect the Hawks to create history and win a third consecutive flag on Saturday afternoon.
Match: Hawthorn by 15 points
Norm Smith Medal: Sam Mitchell (if Hawthorn wins), Matt Priddis (if West Coast wins).
Most goals: Josh Kennedy
Most disposals: Sam Mitchell