The aggregate winning margins in the preliminary finals (154 points) are the largest since AFL went to an eight-team final series in 1994.
The previous high was in 1995 when Geelong defeated Richmond by 89 points and Carlton defeated North Melbourne by 62 points (aggregate 151 points). This makes these preliminary finals the least competitive in the modern era – in fact, over that time, these two finals have the third and equal fifth largest winning margins over the last 28 years.
Can we conclude anything from this for how close the grand final might be? Interestingly enough, the teams with the two largest winning margins in modern preliminary finals – Geelong by 89 points over Richmond in 1995 and Port Adelaide by 87 points in 2007 – both struggled in their grand finals to lose by 61 and 119 (the largest margin in VFL/AFL grand final history) respectively.
A side note may be that Carlton in 1995 was one of the most dominant teams in history, losing only two games all year and Geelong in 2007 commenced a dynasty with a run of three premierships (and four grand final appearances) in five years.
Whilst Melbourne’s dominance may have not surprised everyone, not many people could have foreshadowed the Western Bulldogs’ demolition of Port Adelaide on Saturday night. Such a complete performance over a team playing at home, with a week off and a minimal injury list is nothing short of spectacular.
When you add in the extra travel and quarantine restrictions the Bulldogs had to endure and there are serious considerations for this being one of the greatest performances in recent memory. Can the Bulldogs ride this wave into next week, or will the demands of five states in four weeks take its toll?
The comparisons of this current Bulldogs squad to the drought-breaking 2016 team are gaining more traction as this extraordinary season reaches its climax.
Both teams came into the finals under a cloud, with the 2016 version losing three of their last six to drop from equal second to seventh on the ladder, while in 2021, the drop was probably more dramatic, losing the last three matches to free fall from first in Round 20 to fifth in the dramatic last round.
The final series has seen them being challenged by an in-form Essendon in the elimination final to facing a Brisbane team desperate not to go out in ‘straight sets’ in a pulsating one-point semi-final victory at the Gabba.
The resilience of this team is evident and again reminiscent of the 2016 side, which knocked out reigning premiers Hawthorn in the semi-final and beat GWS in a classic preliminary final. That team won four finals in a row, the first time since Adelaide had done so in 1997, and were the away team every week.
In 2021, with the elimination final in Launceston, semi-final in Brisbane, preliminary final in Adelaide and grand final in Perth, if they win on September 25th, they will have outshone the 2016 version by winning on the road every week.
It is difficult not to admire Luke Beveridge and this team for their ability to overcome hurdles this finals series, and the first five to ten minutes of the grand final shapes up as a physical, do-or-die contested battle that is mouth-watering.
Let’s not forget Melbourne are on their own quest seeking to break the longest active premiership drought, 57 years since their last victory in 1964, not forgetting that was the last time they won the minor premiership. They have only been in two grand finals over that span, 1988 and 2000, where they were uncompetitive against Hawthorn and Essendon, losing by 96 and 60 points respectively.
Their long-suffering fans have experienced everything from mediocrity to abject failure and accusations of tanking, plus the ill-fated Hawthorn merger over this time. After a preliminary final disappointment in Perth in 2018, followed by the dramatic slump to 17th in 2019 and a hit and miss 2020 where they finished ninth, their rise to the top of the ladder this year has been surprising yet emphatic.
Simon Goodwin has been building a strong squad that plays a very sound defensive structure, with speed on the outside and great strength and decision making in the midfield.
It has been interesting to observe the more experienced Demons fans trying to keep a lid on their expectations, while the younger generation are bullish indeed and why not, this team has the makings of one that could build a dynasty, with a young group of leaders and 2021 Rising Star recipient Luke Jackson, this Demon team could be a contender for many years to come.
There were similarities in the game style execution last weekend with both sides’ small forwards and forward pushing midfielders and wingers irrepressible and a constant threat. The ability of Ben Brown and Max Gawn pushing forward for Melbourne, and Aaron Naughton and Josh Schache for the Western Bulldogs to create a contest and disrupt the intercept marking of Geelong and Port Adelaide respectively was critical to both victories.
The contested possession dominance, coincidently plus-30 for both victors, was also the platform both teams used to dominate inside 50s, again eerily similar with plus-13 for Melbourne and plus-12 for Western Bulldogs. Geelong won the clearance battle by plus-4, but often it was shovelled behind and then sideways as opposed to Melbourne bursting forward of centre and driving deep inside 50 on a regular basis.
The Bulldogs won the clearance battle by plus-6 but Port Adelaide seemed more on par and had a period in the third quarter where it looked like they might mount a challenge on the back of goals to big men Dixon and Marshall.
Over the next 20 minutes, the Bulldogs’ defence held firm, repelling many attacks with a number of desperate lunges and touched balls, including an important touch on a Marshall set shot by Bontompelli standing the mark, before breaking away to score two goals late in quarter to Schache and Treloar, seemingly breaking Port’s spirit.
Just to add to coincidence is prior to 2016, the Bulldogs only premiership was an emphatic 51-point victory in 1954 over Melbourne.
That loss obviously hurt Melbourne as they would go on to play in the next six grand finals, winning five, including three on the trot from 1955 to ’57, and back-to-back in 1959 and ’60, with Collingwood defeating the Demons in 1958 to break the streak and hold the record for consecutive premiership with four (1927 to ’30).
I wonder if Demons fans would trade a loss on Sat 25th September for a period of dominance as they had in the late ’50s-early ’60s? After such a long wait, the answer is probably a resounding no!
All in all, this will be a fascinating grand final, played at a magnificent stadium with, if Friday night is any indicator, a likely strong pro-Melbourne crowd.
Though it is a real shame the legion of Melbourne-based Demons supporters won’t be able to be there, if the social media response to the preliminary final win is an indicator, if the drought is broken they really won’t care.