This week – the lead up to the AFL grand final – has belonged to the GWS Giants.
They’ve become the impartial fan favourite and there’s a big, big sound on the internet. But the underdog love affair will end today.
All things considered, the Richmond Tigers are the better football side and that’s what matters.
The Giants are littered with stars, high draft picks, and from all reports, an ironclad team culture and connection.
But in grand finals, even the smallest of weak spots become amplified. And where the Giants are lacking, the Tigers are powerful.
It’s the Greater Western Sydney backline where this dynamic is most obvious. Phil Davis’ monumental task of containing Tom Lynch, for example.
In Davis’ post-game interview last week he admitted he wasn’t much use during the preliminary final win against Collingwood. He wasn’t wrong. The Giants captain finished with just four disposals after his finger and shoulder popped out, and his tight calf had him hobbling around like an off-balance giraffe.
If any of these injuries worsen, it’s hard to imagine him preventing Lynch, a contested marking beast coming off the most important performance of his career, from kicking a bag.
Of course, modern-day footy is not a one-on-one game. You can bet Nick Haynes and Sam Taylor will be dropping off their opponents to offer Davis a lifeline. But who does that leave open? Oh yeah, Jack Riewoldt.
Momentum is also a key consideration. If this finals series has taught us anything it’s that when they’re clicking on all cylinders, the Tigers are virtually unstoppable.
Halting momentum hasn’t exactly been the Giants’ forte over the past couple of weeks. They’ve instead just held on for dear life and let the final siren end it for them.
With the added pressure of this being the biggest game of the year, and indeed of the club’s existence, it is asking a lot of a group who must be physically and emotionally drained at this point.
Granted, the Giants are no longer the ‘young but talented’ team they once were. They are an experienced side with four years of playing in meaningful games behind them.
But mixed among them are young players with big roles. Jeremy Finlayson, Brent Daniels, Harry Perryman and Tim Taranto have all had big moments in this finals campaign. Richmond’s 16 premiership players to the Giants’ two is significant.
When the Tigers make their move and their fans get vocal, it may well be the final straw for these inexperienced yet important players.
The much-discussed match up between Dustin Martin and Matt de Boer could prove to be a major turning point, and one of the many things that will need to go perfectly for GWS to win.
But with a backline already stretched to cover the dual threat of Lynch and Riewoldt, sending Martin deep forward, as Richmond have been doing all year, will cause some serious headaches for Leon Cameron.
A major Giants asset is their ability to set up defensively and prevent the opposition from moving the ball freely. But as the Tigers have shown for most of the year, they don’t need to move the ball freely to win.
Richmond’s comfortable Round 17 win over GWS is our reference point here. Their brand of chaos-ball is the perfect counter to a well structured defence because it’s completely unpredictable.
Players like Bachar Houli and Dion Prestia are prime candidates to break a line off halfback with an adventurous kick or a give-and-go handball that can break down the Giants press.
From a coaching perspective, Cameron’s strategic nous is up there with the best in the comp. But with the limited on-field access of runners this year, coaches don’t have as much influence once the game starts.
Two weeks in a row we have seen the Giants get out to very winnable leads, only to see them dwindle away to the point of almost losing the game.
They are clearly vulnerable to big momentum swings and there doesn’t seem to be much Cameron can do to stop it. Their calling cards, contested possessions and clearances, became afterthoughts in these moments.
The Giants have just held on two weeks in a row. It took an unlikely late goal from Brent Daniels against the Brisbane Lions to regain what was once a 20-point lead.
And in all of this week’s GWS adulation, it has seldom been said that they almost blew a 33-point fourth-quarter lead last Saturday and once again had no discernable response to their opponents quickly shifting momentum.
But we need to zoom out with the Giants.
They’ve completed an eight-year-long climb to finally stand at the top of the mountain with just one other team. It’s an incredible feat when compared to the Gold Coast Suns, who haven’t made it past base camp even with a year’s head start.
But as far as today is concerned, the big, big sound will be comfortably drowned out by the roar of the Tigers.
Prediction: Richmond by 38