It might have only been the 184th AFL match in their existence but it could easily be described as Greater Western Sydney’s best.
They weren’t meant to win three weeks ago. They weren’t meant to win two weeks ago. They weren’t meant to win on Saturday. How much longer can the Western Bulldogs continue defying the script?
History says it would take something mighty for them to topple the Sydney Swans on AFL Grand Final day this weekend.
Let’s leave aside the significance of them coming from seventh. Let’s look purely at percentage, which when the ladder fails can sometimes better explain a team’s true strength over the course of a season.
Now, consider this: No team has won the grand final with a home and away percentage as low as what the Dogs entered September with since 1976.
The Swans topped the ladder this year with a percentage of 151.2. The Dogs finished with 115.4.
History says that’s too big a gap to overcome on the game’s biggest stage. History, backed up by their respective bodies of work built up over the slog of 22 rounds, says one team is simply better than the other.
In the AFL era, three teams have indeed won the cup after having a percentage of less than 120 in the home and away rounds. But two of those sides were actually playing teams with a lower percentage in the grand final. The other (Sydney in 2005) were up against a West Coast side that had a percentage of 124, hardly a telling gap.
So you can add “They weren’t meant to win the grand final” to the Dogs’ 2016 story.
Perhaps they’ve got what it takes to prove that wrong, too.
Partly because of the above and partly because of the way they’re looking right now, we have to put Sydney ahead as the team best placed to lift the cup in five days’ time. They’ve had a magnificent year and the loss to the GWS Giants has been shown as an aberration rather than the norm.
On Friday night, the first 30 seconds told us what was to come. The Swans blitzed the Cats and with some sharp passing, they quickly got on the scoreboard.
A remarkable stat from the game was that the Swans ultimately had just 40 inside 50s. Those entries were quality. Their ball use in general was more damaging.
Isaac Heeney’s star continues to grow, Dane Rampe was just superb. Ben McGlynn has found strong form as he makes possibly one final tilt at a flag.
Aliir Aliir’s knee injury was the concern to come out of the weekend, and that will be a closely-followed story this week, but it does seem like Callum Mills and Jarrad McVeigh are both a good chance to be available for selection.
The Swans did lose to the Western Bulldogs earlier in the season, but in that game they had six more scoring shots. It was a crazily efficient game in front of goal for the Dogs (13.5) and less so for the Swans (11.13).
Given how well the Swans are using their inside 50s at the moment, it’s difficult to see a repeat of those circumstances. Right now, you’ve got to have them ahead.
Firstly, what a story. An internal theme for the Dogs’ season has been “Why not us?” and they are certainly playing like a group that sees no reason to doubt itself.
They’re also a team unafraid to celebrate their wins, which is perhaps helping feed that belief.
Against the Giants, the celebrations were sparked from the sort of game where players really make a name for themselves. It was the Dogs who had the match winners.
Clay Smith set it up in the first half, and the likes of Marcus Bontempelli, Caleb Daniel and Jason Johannisen had a big say in coming out of that tense final quarter ahead.
And what about Luke Dahlhaus? To lead the match in both disposals (32) and pressure acts (30) in a final like that is one heck of an effort.
There’s some good news on the potential inclusions front for the Dogs, too. Lin Jong was in good enough shape to win best-on at Sunday’s VFL grand final. Jordan Roughead, who suffered an eye injury during the win over the Giants, is likely to be available.
Can they pull it off and record a fairytale premiership? Absolutely. This is not a team to be written off.
But the task ahead of them, as in recent weeks, can’t be considered light. A win would take something truly special.
1. Will there be Giants rubbed out for round 1?
There’s no doubt GWS brought physicality to both its finals fixtures, but at what cost? Steve Johnson missed the preliminary final for his high bump in week one. What impact his absence had we’ll never know.
Then there were a few instances against the Western Bulldogs sure to warrant match review panel attention, like Rhys Palmer’s late bump. Had the Giants won, there would be some very, very nervous men right now.
Undoubtedly, the Giants this month answered questions about their lack of finals experience with flying colours. To make it to a preliminary final was a massive tick. Their intensity was a massive tick.
But if there is an adjustment that needs to be made between now and their next finals appearance, it may well be a firmer grasp on the consequences of silly mistakes.
2. What changes do the Cats make?
Geelong have one of the more interesting list management situations heading into the AFL off-season, with a number of factors at play.
Their back six this year has relied heavily on Corey Enright (35), Tom Lonergan (32), Andrew Mackie (32) and Harry Taylor (30). Enright seemed like a man who had played his last game after the siren Friday night, but whether that’s the case or not, transition is around the corner.
Next, the question turns to who could be playing elsewhere. Steven Motlop didn’t have the best impact when it counted and he may now find himself on the trade table.
To add another layer to it all, as it stands, the Cats don’t have a first-round pick. They’ll at least be looking at whether a trade can change that.
3. Does anyone go past Patrick Dangerfield for the Brownlow?
The answer to this is almost certainly no. Later tonight we could have a surprise on our hands but gee, it’s tough to see it happening.
Danger’s a clear standout, who will rack up three-vote games, who won’t have the same competition for three-vote games from team mates as elsewhere, he’s in a top four team, playing in the midfield … he’s won Brownlow bingo. All boxes are ticked.
Whether there’s another player out there where everything falls into place, eh – it doesn’t seem likely, but who knows?