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Tips and thoughts: AFL grand final

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26th September, 2019
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It all comes down to this. Like pretty much everyone else in the country, we only predicted one of our two grand finalists, but regardless, I couldn’t be more excited about this match-up.

Thanks to everyone for reading over the past few months. This is the last column of the season, so let’s do this!

Richmond Tigers vs Greater Western Sydney Giants

Saturday, 28 September, at 2.30pm at the MCG

Form
To kick things off, let’s update our GWS-at-the-MCG figures. With the preliminary final win over the Pies, the Giants have boosted their recent record at the G to 3-7 over the past four seasons. If you missed last week’s column, the hidden takeaway from that stat is that five of those seven losses have come against eventual premiers or grand finalists. Forget what you’ve heard, GWS are capable of winning at the most important venue of them all.

Unfortunately for the smattering of Giants fans out there, Richmond are more than capable of winning at Australia’s premier sporting colosseum. In fact they’ve made quite a habit of it recently. The Tigers are on an eight-game winning streak at the MCG and have a staggering 39-5 record there over the past three seasons. Richmond have played as many matches at this ground in the last four months as GWS has played there in the last four years. Of course Collingwood held a similar advantage last week, and look how that turned out.

As almost a throwaway line in our preliminary final thoughts, I noted the Giants had won three of their last four against the Pies; well, GWS have also won two of their last three against the Tigers. Extending the sample size to the beginning of 2017 results in an even 3-3 split between the two squads. The bad news for GWS? All three of their wins came at Giants Stadium, while the three losses occurred at this weekend’s venue of choice.

Despite what the media may try to tell you, the Giants won’t suck just because they’re playing in Victoria, but at the same time there’s absolutely no doubt that the MCG’s monopoly on the grand final is a massive advantage for Richmond this weekend.

Phil Davis of the Giants competes for the ball against Josh Caddy of the Tigers

(Matt King/Getty Images)

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Health
There’s a fair bit going on here for both teams. Let’s start with the Giants and the most impactful selection news: Toby Greene, the AFL’s pre-eminent wrestling heel, is back from suspension. Can we please have Greene strut out of the tunnel by himself with his own entrance music as the entire MCG rains down boos, a la Vince McMahon in the WWE? I don’t ask for much. I mean, is it that much more unlikely than Toby hitting Dustin Martin with a security guard’s folding chair while the umpire isn’t watching? Sorry, sorry, I’m getting a bit carried away now.

Anyway, in less polarising news, Lachie Whitfield will also return after a routine bit of appendix surgery – I love that this is barely a story; if you or I had appendicitis, we’d be staying away from work for as long as possible – and Phil Davis was never missing his club’s first grand final despite seemingly copping a new injury every time he stepped on the field last weekend.

It’s a far cry from the preliminary final. The Giants are regaining two of their top four or five players and all of a sudden have an almost full list to choose from, with the one notable exception of Stephen Coniglio, who never managed to make it back from his Round 17 knee injury.

On the Richmond side Jack Graham is out but Nathan Broad has been cleared to play, having sustained a dislocated shoulder and concussion respectively in the win over Geelong. The Tigers are clearly no stranger to injury issues this year, though, and the silver lining of the bad luck they suffered over the first half of this season is the depth they’ve been able to foster because of it.

It’s legitimately surprising that Damien Hardwick and the coaching staff have decided to debut midseason draft pickup Marlion Pickett for their biggest game of the year. Now I don’t know much about Pickett, but I’d wager that’s kind of the point, because the Giants won’t know much about him either. After a best-on-ground showing in last weekend’s VFL grand final, the Tigers would appear to believe that Pickett gives them a higher offensive ceiling than a more experienced option (Kamdyn McIntosh) or a like-for-like inside-mid replacement (Jack Ross).

Marlion Pickett of the Tigers

(Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

Gameplan
We might not be getting the Richmond-Collingwood mega bowl, but instead we should be treated to a really fascinating match-up between two very contrasting styles. As pointed out by Marc McGowan of afl.com.au this week, Richmond were the No. 1 team in the league for percentage of scores from turnovers this season and last in the league for percentage of scores from clearances. GWS was the exact opposite – No. 1 for scores from clearances and dead last for scores from turnovers. As you can see, I wasn’t kidding when I said contrasting styles.

Similar to Geelong last week, the Giants can pretty much pencil themselves in to win the contested ball count. GWS has been the second-best contested possession team this season, behind only the Cats, with a +9.4 average differential, while the Tigers are second-last at -8.9 – and their numbers balloon to +11.3 and -16.5 respectively if we only include the finals series.

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There’s a but coming, though, and it’s a big one. We’ve talked about it all year – winning at the contest isn’t usually enough to beat Richmond. The Tigers have an 11-6 record this year when they’ve lost the contested possession count, easily the most wins of this type in the league. During their current 11-game winning streak, they’ve lost the contested ball count seven times.

Is there a tipping point, though? A number that’s so lopsided that even Richmond will struggle to get the game on their terms due to the sheer weight of possession being driven by the opposition? Possibly. The highest contested possession disparity the Tigers have been able to overcome so far this season is -27 in Round 10 against Essendon. In Rounds 12 and 13 Geelong and Adelaide won the contested possession count by 33 and 40 respectively and Richmond lost those two games by an average margin of 50 points.

GWS are absolutely capable of putting up those differentials, having won the contested ball by 30-plus on four occasions this year – second in the league, and that includes the elimination final win against the Bulldogs – accumulating a 4-0 record in those contests.

The huge caveat here is that Richmond’s list was at its most decimated during the aforementioned period. The Tigers may not put a big focus on winning the contest, but with basically a fully healthy team once more, they shouldn’t get smashed to that extent again.

So let’s assume the Giants are going to snaffle around 10 to 20 more contested possessions than the Tigers – what else do they need to do to cause their fourth straight upset (for some; I at least tipped them to beat the Dogs) this finals series?

Josh Kelly is tackled by Shane Edwards

(Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

I think there are two key areas GWS need to win in order to have a chance here – and notice I said ‘chance’; the Giants have barely scraped through the last couple of games, so I can’t see them winning in a blowout. The first is the turnover battle, and the second is efficiency inside 50.

The first one is obvious, and I just told you that Richmond are the best team at scoring off turnovers, it’s the primary reason they’ve dominated the past three seasons. GWS have done a good job in this area in September, with their +3.3 differential the second-best of finals teams. On Saturday it won’t just be quantity that matters, though; the Giants have to make the most of the turnovers they create and limit the damage when they give up the ball themselves. The Tigers are 16-1 when outscoring their opponents from turnovers this year, while the Giants are 11-0. That seems like an important stat to win.

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As for inside 50 efficiency, well, winning turnovers would feed directly into it, but the influx of talent and creativity delivered by Greene and Whitfield is also an automatic plus. GWS’s points per inside 50 figure has dropped from 1.70 during the regular season to 1.49 for the finals. It’s bot disastrous, but when you consider that Richmond are running at 1.79 points per inside 50 and conceding only 1.13 per inside 50 conceded during this finals series, the rate the Giants are currently scoring at isn’t going to cut it.

Luckily for them, they happen to employ Jeremy Cameron and Jeremy Finlayson, new finals legend Brent Daniels, the versatile Harry Himmelberg, the booming boot of Daniel Lloyd and of course villain Toby Greene. That’s a dangerous, multi-faceted forward line, but Richmond’s defensive crew contains Dylan Grimes, Nick Vlastuin, David Astbury, Bachar Houli, Jayden Short, and Nathan Broad. Those guys are just as versatile and are capable of shutting down their opponents – they’ve conceded 63.4 points during their 11-game win streak – while also providing crucial intercepts and offensive ball movement (some of Houli’s kicks last week were sickeningly good) out of the back half.

The match-ups are mouth-watering all over the ground, but the Giants forwards getting the better of the Tigers defenders shapes as a must for GWS.

To finish up, let’s quickly bounce around the other big factors to watch.

Tom Lynch was an absolute monster in the preliminary final. He was consistently double and triple-teamed by the Cats but managed to either win or halve almost every contest he was involved in. Nick Haynes may have been best on ground against the Pies and Sam Taylor had the game of his life, but those two and a less-than-100 per cent Phil Davis will have a hell of a time trying to contain Lynch and Jack Riewoldt.

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Riewoldt didn’t have a big game possession or goal-wise in the prelim, but that tap-out-of-the-air goal assist to Dustin Martin was outrageous. In my eyes Jack is the best – or luckiest? – player in the league at those knock-on plays that don’t count as possessions but inevitably lead to goals. That said, he did start going for a few too many mercurial single touches after that first stunner. Expect a few more clean grabs this weekend.

Speaking of Dustin Martin, we may as well address the likely Matt de Boer tagging situation. If I’m Damien Hardwick and De Boer is being pesky straight out of the gate, I’d just send Martin forward. Dusty has been at his most dangerous inside the forward 50 this month and the Tigers aren’t afraid to use him there. De Boer seriously frustrated Martin – to the point he got suspended for striking Adam Kennedy – in the Giants’ Round 3 victory this season; Richmond will be more than ready for it this time around.

I’ve already gone over how GWS’s midfield should be able to go about their business in their preferred manner and how that might not be a huge contributing factor in the result, but that doesn’t mean that the on-ball and wing brigade of either team will be irrelevant. Far from it. Dion Prestia kicked two huge goals against Geelong and Shane Edwards had a couple of moments that elicited from me involuntary noises of excitement. Josh Kelly snipes goals from the boundary for fun, while primarily inside-mids Jacob Hopper and Tim Taranto have also combined for 20 goals this year. Oh, and Trent Cotchin won a Brownlow once (kind of). What I’m saying is: don’t be surprised if one of the guys in this tier comes up huge and ends up walking away with the Norm Smith.

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Verdict
Richmond are solid favourites for this game, and they deserve to be. They’ve got the MCG and they have no real major injuries – not including Alex Rance of course, but he hasn’t been there all year – and therefore somewhat negate the big personnel inclusions GWS can claim. Most tellingly, the Tigers game style stacks up against anyone and they can win even when their opponent theoretically has an advantage in one or more areas.

I’m not writing off GWS by any means – they’ve proven me wrong the last two weeks in a row and they may have more top-end talent than the Tigers. But Richmond just seem to have the stronger case. They’ve been the best overall team of the past three years, so two premierships out of three seems about right.

The tip: Richmond

Record

Last week: 1-1
Overall record: 138-68

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