This is probably going to be a procession. When you have to squint this hard to find a real challenger, the favourite is likely all but home.
The Tigers are not the 2000 Bombers or the 2001-03 Lions. They don’t feel inevitable – they seem beatable. Or, rather, it seems like they should seem beatable.
Who, though, has the team to do it? Even if the Tigers aren’t the historically imposing force that those Lions teams were, perhaps they’re every bit as well-placed entering September, because the gap between Richmond and the next best team seems just as big, if not bigger, than the gap between the turn-of-the-century Lions and Essendon, Port Adelaide and Collingwood.
The challenger should have been West Coast, and it still might be. The Eagles showed a great deal in navigating a tricky last-round match-up against Brisbane with such ease. They’re well-coached, disciplined, tough, skilled, defensively solid and have the game’s most intimidating forward line, if Josh Kennedy can resemble Josh Kennedy.
They have two home finals, and drew a favourable match first up. Collingwood’s strength is pressure and ability to play in fire. The slick Eagles negate that pressure with their possession kicking game and made Collingwood look second-rate when they met this year. And who plays on Kennedy and Jack Darling?
The absence of Nic Naitanui and Andrew Gaff has crippled West Coast’s upside, though, and when a final, as it so often does, becomes a talent contest around the ball, the Eagles will be found lacking, as they were against Melbourne.
Those Demons are now the favoured outsider du jour. Their best is as good as anything and they have enough talent to win the flag. A starting point of Max Gawn, Clayton Oliver, Jack Viney, Angus Brayshaw, Christian Petracca and Nathan Jones around the ball is immense, and Tom McDonald – who might be better than Jesse Hogan – surrounded by a fleet of capable small forwards is a damaging next step. But the defence is suspect – both the back six in personnel and the whole team’s willingness to run both ways. It’s just too easy to move the ball on the Demons.
You figure, too, that if the game is close at the death, Melbourne will be paralysed by its war flashbacks of all the times they’ve screwed up in the clutch. It’s just too predictable – the Dees will outplay the Cats again but lose by less than a kick.
One team that won’t beat itself is Hawthorn. But can they beat anyone else?
The hype is being bought into. The Hawks’ case is so obvious and easily repeatable it has almost become trite – give Alastair Clarkson two weeks to prepare and anything can happen. But this team just doesn’t seem like it has the horses.
Hawthorn’s greatest on-field strength – the dynamism of its forward line – will be outmatched by Richmond’s defence, the best and most adaptable in the league. The Hawks are too slow in the middle of the ground and their defence can be exposed by a quick forward line.
They use the ball beautifully, appear in all the right places, and have a real pressure element to their game, but there is an expiry date on Hawthorn’s over-achievement.
There’s probably one for Collingwood too. The Pies are everyone’s favourite pick and the case is easy enough to see – their midfield is all-world, they can crush Richmond around the ball, and they’re the challenger for whom the MCG holds the least fear. But they’re still playing Tom Langdon as a key defender.
If their wounded – namely Jeremy Howe, Adam Treloar, Darcy Moore and Tyson Goldsack – can get themselves up, the Magpies are a chance. The midfield is dominant, the forward line explosive, and the defence battles bravely. The pressure is manic and suffocating. But the level of skill across the team still leaves too much to be desired, and teams that can slow the game down and make it a contest of foot skills can carve the Pies up like West Coast and Hawthorn did.
The Swans can only play a slow game these days. They’ve broken 87 points once in the past ten weeks – the ball movement is plodding and the forward line meek beyond Lance Franklin. They’re still honest to a fault, and will expose teams that don’t show up, like the Dees didn’t, but they’re a team symbolised by George Hewett now.
We’re left with perhaps the two most intriguing teams on the board – the Cats and the Giants.
Greater Western Sydney have been the season’s most frustrating team, the Cats its most inexplicable. Why aren’t both of these teams better? How, considering the talent, did they finish seventh and eighth?
Neither team, though, beyond missing the double chance, has been punished for its finishing position. Geelong will play their first two finals at the MCG, and GWS are matched up with the struggling Swans.
What this pair have served up so far this season has been wholly underwhelming. But it’s been underwhelming because of the powerful talent on both lists, and that talent still has some life.
The Giants were flying until their last six quarters, undone by injured, tired bodies against the Swans and undone by… well, apathy, against the Dees. It’s not good that this team regularly plays games where they don’t seem to apply themselves for significant stretches. But their best is still commanding, and even with all their injuries they still might have the most talented team.
Their bottom six is poor and was exposed the past fortnight. With Toby Greene back for week one and a host of others likely available for selection, they will be a much more rounded, striking outfit. They’ll have to do it the hard way, which means that they probably won’t do it, but I suspect if you asked a Richmond fan which teams they’d least like to see opposite them in the grand final, they’d say Collingwood and GWS.
Assuming Richmond wins in Week 1, the Cats have fallen into the right side of the draw – their odds-on path to the decider is Melbourne, Hawthorn and then West Coast in Perth – an eminently navigable journey for a team this experienced and able. Geelong’s issue is that they haven’t played desperate football until they’re on life support. September is desperation, and perhaps that will force the Cats into gear from the get-go.
We can only hope that it does – if not for them, then someone else.
The request isn’t for an underdog premier – it’s for suspense, which, at the moment, feels like a reach.