Richmond went into the post-season with a fresh premiership, no retirements and an already slim list that the list managers did not need to cull drastically.
For the eighth year in a row we have a Victorian team taking on a non-Victorian team in a grand final. The Eagles snapped a five-year Victorian stranglehold last season, defeating Collingwood to take the crown.
In a similar vein, this is the fourth year in a row without one of the previous season’s grand finalists returning to the big stage – only the five-year run from 1961-65 is longer in AFL/VFL history.
And while I found those to be a couple of interesting pieces of trivia, they mean three-quarters of stuff all to the Tigers and the Giants.
Last time they met
It was a significant day when these sides last played. Stephen Coniglio went down in the opening minutes with the knee injury that will keep him out of today’s decider.
The Tigers took charge early, held off a GWS challenge in the middle quarters and ran out comfortable 27-point winners.
Shai Bolton earned three Brownlow votes for the first time thanks to 29 disposals, six tackles and a goal. Kane Lambert received one vote for 19 touches and three goals.
Bachar Houli had it 30 times, Tom Lynch kicked three goals, and Dustin Martin had a season-low three contested possessions in his 25 touches.
Jeremy Cameron kicked three, Tim Taranto had 36, and each of Lachie Whitfield and Jacob Hopper had 33 disposals. Dawson Simpson had a career-high eight clearances.
Toby Greene – the actual best player on the ground – got two votes for 34 touches, seven clearances, six inside-50s and a couple of goals.
The Giants had 24 more contested possessions, eight more clearances and one more inside-50 in the loss.
None of Mabior Chol, Derek Eggmolesse-Smith, Kamdyn McIntosh or Sydney Stack will be out there this time for the Tigers, replaced by Toby Nankervis, Josh Caddy, Liam Baker and debutant Marlion Pickett.
For the Giants, Coniglio is the most notable omission, and Bobby Hill – who kicked three goals in his debut back in Round 17 – has been dropped from the preliminary final side. Matt Buntine and Brett Deledio are out.
Shane Mumford swaps in for Simpson, Josh Kelly for Coniglio, and Matt de Boer and Aidan Corr are the other two players who didn’t play in the last clash against Richmond.
The power of the bye
Much like the Bulldogs of 2016, the pre-finals bye came at a good time for the injury-hit Giants. That useful week off probably feels like a distant memory after back-to-back punishing finals.
They seemed to be running on the spot in the final term against Collingwood and it’ll take a mighty effort to get up again for what is likely to be another bruising encounter.
Two players who will be feeling fresh – or at least fresher – are Greene and Whifield. Whitfield was well held against the Lions and will be eager to perform well today.
Greene’s only difficulty has been staying out of trouble. It’s not difficult to make the case that he was the best player on the ground in each of the Giants’ first two finals.
There’s never been a footballer less likely to be overawed by the big stage. Don’t boo him, Tigers fans, you’ll only make him angry.
Welcome to the big time, Marlion
Imagine making your AFL debut in front of more than 95,000 people in a grand final. It’s impossible to predict how Pickett will handle the incredible step up to the biggest time. If he plays well and finishes the afternoon with a premiership medallion, he’ll permanently etch his name in Richmond folklore.
There always seems to be question marks on the health of one key player. Last year it was Jeremy McGovern, this year it’s Phil Davis. The GWS co-captain was extremely limited in the preliminary final, but has been putting on a brave face all week and is named, so … we’ll soon see.
If Davis is limited, things quickly get complicated for GWS as they try to cover Tom Lynch, Jack Riewoldt and Dustin Martin when he makes his way forward.
The biggest challenge against the Tigers is to get the ball out of congestion and find time and space. The Giants certainly have the players to to that. Kelly and Greene will be crucial as both have that rare ability to win it in tight and open the game up. Williams and Whitfield will be important from there.
The Tigers won’t make it easy though. Many a good side has fallen into their trap and been punished on turnover.
It might seem a harsh label, but just about everyone is second-tier when you have Dustin Martin on your team. Often we get caught up on the Tigers’ stars, but they bat incredibly deep these days.
Dion Prestia, Shane Edwards, Lambert and Josh Caddy will all have a significant say in today’s outcome. Don’t be surprised if Edwards sees de Boer come his way.
Houli is earning a reputation as a big-game player and, like Edwards, can expect plenty of attention from the Giants – Daniel Lloyd might be the man to clamp him.
And everything else
Who does Dylan Grimes go to? Can Harry Himmelberg get off the leash as he did last time these sides met in a final? Where does Dusty spend most of his time? Will the Giants just toe the line, or will they cross it? And will the Tigers care? Is this the last time we see Heath Shaw?
There’s so much to look forward to – it’s a grand final, after all.
At full health these might be the two most talented teams in the competition. There are stars missing – Alex Rance, Stephen Coniglio, Callan Ward – but at this time of year, they’re about as healthy as you can hope to be.
Since the reinforcements arrived mid-season, the Tigers have won 11 straight games and looked like the best team in the league.
GWS limped to the finish line of the home-and-away season, but flipped a switch since September. After hammering the Dogs and then winning road finals against Brisbane and Collingwood, an MCG clash with the Tigers will hold no fears.
There’s not much between these sides on paper. The venue and Richmond’s fresher legs might be all that separates them.
It’s going to be tough and tight and I think Richmond will pull away to win by four goals.
Norm Smith Medal: Kane Lambert
First goal: Jack Riewoldt
That’s my grand final forecast. What’s yours?