The last Saturday in September is always emotional, but this year’s grand finalists each bring emotional storylines to the big day in a way that both combatants rarely do.
Adelaide suffered arguably the greatest tragedy in the history of the game when their coach Phil Walsh lost his life at the hands of his own son in 2015. The best of the human spirit was on display across the competition in the aftermath, and the club forged on to now be on the verge of their finest hour.
Richmond has suffered as a football club more than any other side in the 35 years since their last grand final. In that time, they’ve been the master of the failed rebuild, the butt of every joke, and the eternal resting place of forlorn hopes.
At the Crows, the playing group have been committed to sacrificing for each other, driven and focussed, fuelled by an unwavering belief that they can go all the way. For the Tigers, it has all been about connectivity, firstly as people off the field, secondly as players on it, relationships that have taken them to the edge of glory.
There is no doubt that both teams are playing with a sense of destiny, and believe they are on the verge of something special. For one club, being a losing grand finalist is going to have to suffice. For the other, it will the most emotionally charged day of many of their lives – and that includes players, coaches, support staff and fans.
As many regular readers will know, I am a Richmond supporter. The depths of the club’s 2016 despair led me for the first time in my life to contemplate the idea that I may never see the Tigers play in a grand final, let alone win a premiership. The last two months has been surreal, and frankly somewhat euphoric.
The big question is, can we go all the way?
Adelaide is arguably the most organised, structured and well-coached team in the competition. Their ball movement is in the top two or three, they have the most potent attack, and their defence is ranked in the top four.
But the answer is yes, Richmond can win, and this is how.
We all know that midfield battles shape the game, and the talent on display is mouth-watering.
Dustin Martin, Trent Cotchin, Matt Crouch and Brad Crouch are all in career best form. Dion Prestia is playing his best football after early season struggles. Rory Sloane is a gun player, fearless, and with an iron will.
Sam Jacobs and Toby Nankervis are influential in their own ways as ruckmen. Both teams have hard-running wingmen, half-forwards and half-backs sharing time through the centre of the ground as well.
There’s not a whole lot between those groups. It’s too close to call, and neither team should get a decisive advantage in that regard.
In terms of match-up on Adelaide’s dangerous forwards, Richmond is well placed in the individual battles.
Alex Rance will take Taylor Walker. David Astbury gets Josh Jenkins. Dylan Grimes, fresh off keeping Toby Greene quiet, will have more sleepless nights before partnering Eddie Betts.
Bachar Houli, Brandon Ellis and Nathan Broad will rotate through the half-back line, keeping an eye on the likes of Charlie Cameron, Rory Atkins, Richard Douglas and any other midfielders sneaking forward. We know how dangerous all of those Crows are, but the three Tigers will also be heavily relied on for drive and direction out of the back half.
Nick Vlastuin will likely take Andy Otten when he’s forward, but also spend his time trying to be the loose man in defence when Richmond are pressing up and keeping the ball inside their 50. The Tiger small forwards are there to keep the pressure on, so the Adelaide defence is forced to kick high and wide into the waiting hands of Vlastuin.
The Richmond backline has been a team within a team all year, and have continued that form in the finals, keeping Geelong to only 40 points in the qualifying final and GWS to 67 in the preliminary.
Up the other end of the ground, Daniel Talia will go to Jack Riewoldt, and we’ll see these two multiple All-Australians go head to head all game. Jacob Townsend kept Nick Haynes to only three marks on Saturday, and will be asked to play a defensive role on Jake Lever.
Adelaide will back in their defensive structure, so strong in the air, while the Tigers will savagely attack anything on the ground. Air-force versus army on that particularly battle-field.
But Adelaide has two players that must be stopped above all else, one in the forward half of the ground and one in the back. If it wasn’t obviously already, they were clearly on display in the preliminary final win over Geelong – Tom Lynch and Rory Laird.
Lynch and Laird are the architects around which the Crows’ structure is built.
Lynch leads hard, long and often, roaming between the arcs to give his midfielders and backmen a mobile target. He has sure hands on the lead, kicks the ball well, and often turns his opponent around before charging back inside 50 to mark uncontested.
His leading up the ground isn’t just about getting the ball himself either. The Adelaide forward-line is always so open because of his hard work to clear space behind him.
Richmond has the perfect match-up for Tom Lynch, if Damien Hardwick is willing to use him, and that is Kamdyn McIntosh. He is the same height and weight as Lynch, and also has the running power to go with the integral Crow.
McIntosh has been OK in the finals so far, without being ground-breaking. He is a man of rare focus, and would relish the task on Lynch. A move like this would also free up Brandon Ellis to play more on the wing, where he could get his hands on the football more than he has in the two finals so far.
Rory Laird is the best half-back in the game, and Geelong paid the price on Friday night for not locking him down. He ran riot in the first half setting up the Adelaide victory, and must be stopped at all costs.
Laird reads the play as well as any, is a good mark for his size, but it is his composure, decision-making and execution by foot that are the trademarks of his game. He slices many an opponent open by finding an in-board target from a flank or wing, thereby giving his teammate both sides of the ground to find the next option.
The beauty of Laird is that his first instinct is always to look for that inside option, and he pulls the trigger more often than not, at a degree of difficulty most others would avoid.
While Jacob Townsend has been taking the opposition’s best intercept marker in his return from the side, Richmond hasn’t been playing a defensive tagger on running half-backs this season. Hardwick has been relying on the chemistry, speed and defensive actions of all the small forwards to apply enough pressure.
Richmond can rightly go with the same game-plan, but whoever is nearest to Laird at any given time must take accountability for him, and Hardwick should also have a plan B if Laird is getting off the chain.
The Tigers know their system works. They’ve played in front of 95,000 people twice already this finals series, and have won 11 games at the MCG this year. These latter two are advantages that Adelaide do not have.
The best part of the win over GWS was that the Giants played well; clean, quick and skilful, particularly in the first half. Yet Richmond still broke them down as the game wore on, and put them away due to relentless pressure. It was the same formula against Geelong in the first final.
The Giants and Cats both cracked in the third quarter. Against Adelaide, it’s going to take at least another 30 minutes. They are clean, they are polished, they are rock solid.
The Tigers have the belief. They have the players. They have the momentum.
And yes, they can have the premiership cup in their keeping on Saturday evening.