Rarely has there been a richer narrative entering an AFL grand final than what we have in front of us this week.
This shapes as a true David vs Goliath battle. The Footscray underdogs, the battlers, the working class up against the pretentious, fair-weather Sydney elite. A club the league once tried to force into merger, taking on one of the AFL’s precious New South Wales children.
In the AFL’s eyes, Sydney have always been their Cinderella story, with the Dogs filling the role of ugly step-sister.
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The growth of the game in the northern states is more important to the AFL executive than the evenness of the playing competition. Wherever you stand on the issue of expansion, this statement is beyond dispute.
If the AFL had their way, either Sydney or GWS would be playing off for the grand final every year. In an ideal world, every second year it would be against a Queensland club, albeit everyone has dropped the (foot)ball in the sunshine state.
The Western Bulldogs are the undoubted fairytale of this AFL finals series so far, with three wins on the trot, never once starting favourite. They’ve won in three different states, against three vastly different styles of opponent.
It’s a finals story that hasn’t been seen before in the AFL. Around the world other sports have had a team rise from nowhere to go all the way, with recent examples being Leicester in the EPL and the Kansas City Royals in Major League Baseball. The rise from the ashes story pops up every couple of years internationally, but the AFL has always been immune.
Of course, for the Dogs this hasn’t been a one season turnaround. Their nadir was the off-season heading into 2015, a year the club was favourite for the wooden spoon. For the phoenix to have risen so quickly from those ashes, even though this is not a single season turnaround, it is no less remarkable for it.
In the AFL under this current finals system, implemented in 2000, no side has won three games in a row to make the grand final. No side finishing as low as seventh has ever made it to the big dance.
The Sydney Swans won the grand final in 2012, only seven years after their previous premiership in 2005, which famously broke a longer flag drought than even the Dogs are trying to overcome.
For the Swans to have gone through a rebuild in such a short time while remaining finalists for the large part was a fine achievement, albeit helped along by the infamous cost-of-living-allowance (COLA).
Sydney’s ability to draw talent away from other clubs and then exceed their previous output speaks highly for their culture of improvement set by the coaching and development staff, and senior players.
The Swans were canny with their use of COLA, even though in the end their hubris ultimately cost them the benefit of it. It may still deliver another premiership.
Sydney brought in Kurt Tippett, an All-Australian calibre ruck-forward after winning the flag in 2012, which was a little slap in the face to the competition. After finishing top four in 2013 and playing in a preliminary final, they brought in Buddy Franklin much to the disgust of the AFL themselves, as well as supporters of 17 other clubs.
The Swans manipulated the AFL’s largesse within the rules, as was their eternal right. The boldness, audacity and cunning of the plans can only be applauded. But let’s not sit back and pretend that there was anything fair about the rules the AFL had in place, to benefit the team that delivers them highly sought exposure in the one place they crave it most.
Sydney made the 2014 grand final off the back of Franklin (and Tippett), before going down to Hawthorn.
Normally, a punishment for continuously finishing up the top of the ladder is to be denied high draft picks and access to the undisputed best talent in the land. But not for the Swans.
First came Isaac Heeney at pick 18 in the 2014 draft, followed by Callum Mills at pick 3 in 2015.
Isaac Heeney was seen by many as the best player in his draft year, and nothing he has done on the field since has done anything to refute those claims.
Heeney has been Sydney’s player of the finals in just his second year, and in the opinion of this writer, he will be the Swans’ best player before the end of 2018. And this in a line-up that includes Buddy Franklin, Dan Hannebery, Josh Kennedy, Luke Parker, Kurt Tippett, and another three or four All-Australians besides.
Callum Mills was the almost unanimous winner of the NAB Rising Star this season, fitting into the back half like an eight year veteran, displaying courage and poise in equal measure.
How lovely it would be to call on such prime young talent two years in a row finishing in the bottom four. Now think of them going to a top four powerhouse under manipulated rules.
The theory behind those rules is sound from a 10, 30 and 50 year perspective. But it is somewhat laughable when played out in actuality. Putting all emotion and game-building forward-thinking aside, and looking at the situation from a purely football in 2016 perspective, it is simply unfair. This is undeniable.
The AFL is the biggest sporting league in the country, and Australian rules football is the biggest sport in the land. The game will continue to grow, but the simple wish of an even playing field is a casualty along the way.
It will not be their aim, or remotely thought about internally, but the Western Bulldogs can strike a blow back against the establishment this week. Their fans deserve this win. If the Dogs can secure it, it will be a win for coaching, talent, heart and courage over manipulated outcomes.