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Best team versus best story: An early look at the AFL grand final

Tigers fans celebrate a goal during the Second AFL Preliminary Final match between the Richmond Tigers and the Greater Western Sydney Giants at Melbourne Cricket Ground on September 23, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
Expert
24th September, 2017
53
3118 Reads

To frame the grand final as a clash between the best team and the best story perhaps does an injustice to Richmond’s team and Adelaide’s story.

The Crows have been perennially overlooked and undervalued, a team that everyone figured should have been more broken by the departures of Kurt Tippett and then Patrick Dangerfield. They lost their coach in tragic circumstances and have been forced to deal with more of life and football’s obstacles than seems reasonable. But here they are.

The Tigers’ story is sufficiently recognised, but their sheer excellence and dominance as a football team perhaps aren’t.

Richmond have won 12 of their past 15 games, triumphing in the finals by 51 and 36 points in games that were supposed to be close. They finished the season third, two premiership points or a bit more sweat on David Mundy’s brow away from top spot.

By differentials, they rank in the top four for inside 50s, tackles inside 50s, marks inside 50, intercepts and centre clearances.

The Tigers aren’t last year’s Bulldogs. This is no fairytale – this is just an outstanding team reaching its logical destination.

But despite the weaknesses in the best team versus best story framework, its reality remains. The lack of superstar names in the midfield beyond Rory Sloane has long obscured the following fact: the Crows are a genuine force.

With or without Mitch McGovern, they have the game’s most potent attack, and even without Brodie Smith they have close to its best defence, a punishing crew of hardness and counter-attacking efficiency.

Rory Sloane Adelaide Crows 2016 AFL

(AAP Image/Julian Smith)

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Aesthetically, they play the competition’s finest brand, a devastating, sumptuous game of free-flowing movement, tireless spreading from the contest and immaculate, precision passing. The abrupt two-game losing streak to end the regular season muddied the waters a bit, but the Crows have clearly been the best team all season, and the gap between the top side and the rest arguably hasn’t been this large since Collingwood won the flag in 2010.

Collingwood, though, almost blew that flag, and Richmond can help Adelaide go one step further on Saturday. On paper, one might expect the grand final to unfold much like the first half of Richmond’s preliminary final did, but with Adelaide capitalising on all the chances that GWS missed.

The Crows are the more talented and accomplished line-up, they are rested, and they have no MRP worries (if Sloane is suspended, parliament must intervene). But the Tigers have their story, and last year the Bulldogs proved that a story is not just something cute and warm, but something that can be weaponized and made unstoppable.

Last Saturday morning, at 11am, I drove to work along Hoddle Street with traffic at a painful crawl. A journey that should have taken ten minutes took 30. As Hoddle turned into Punt, I saw the cause. I saw the yellow and black. Richmond fans were causing a traffic jam six hours before the first bounce.

I turned up Swan and down Cremorne, and they were everywhere. The energy, the excitement, and, oddly for such a tortured club, the rapturous confidence, was infectious and unavoidable. I knew then that the Giants would have to play a perfect game, and the Tigers don’t let teams play perfect games.

Richmond versus Adelaide is not David versus Goliath, although the gap is perhaps a touch bigger than the current odds suggest. Richmond belongs here, and in a pure football sense, they can overcome the Crows.

They can close down space, force the Crows wide, exploit the absence of Smith, and make the game a series of contests. But it’s not the tactics that will win Richmond the game – it’s the traffic jam.

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