2020 Grand Final Preview
So here we are. The most unusual AFL season in history draws to a close at the Gabba on Saturday night - with an all-Victorian Grand Final.
While it's exciting to see a Grand Final being played after looking highly unlikely several months ago, it's hard not to feel for the City of Melbourne - the soul of the city thrives on big crowds, big events and big moments. Without the usual Grand Final week and a subdued Spring Carnival, Victoria's heartbeat has been reduced to a dull murmur for now.
It's fitting that with all the twist and turns this year, we end up with our first night Grand Final. What a perfect time to give it a crack, even though it won't be in front of 100,000 fans at the MCG.
Did the two best sides make it? Probably a question without a clear answer, but we do find ourselves with the two most experienced teams going head to head.
Assuming both head into Saturday unchanged, the Tigers will have an average age of just over 27 years and 132 games under their belts. The Dad's Army of Geelong will take the field with nearly 28 and a half years and 161 games on average across their 22.
It's a fascinating matchup between two extremely well-coached units with very distinct game styles - the unpredictability and creativity of the Tigers up against the composed, controlled Cats.
It would be ironic for the Grand Final to be affected by showers and thunderstorms, given all the talk for the past couple of months has been centred around a potentially dewy night-time deck at the Gabba.
Some have proposed that any rain on the surface favours Richmond, generally regarded as the best wet-weather side in the competition.
Since the original forecast for Saturday night in Brisbane, it looks like the predicted storms might stay away. A warm night with a shower or two seems to be the consensus at the moment.
Rain or no rain, if you think the Cats aren't going to find the conditions up their alley (pardon the pun), then you'd be wrong. Geelong have a midfield full of some of the best wet-weather players in the competition - Guthrie, Dangerfield, Duncan, Selwood, Parfitt, a forward line that doesn't rely on their tall-timber like many others, and a game style that can adjust to a change in conditions.
Yes, their controlled kick-mark style from the back half might be less effective in slippery conditions, but just like Richmond the Cats can beat you a few different ways. If they lose, it's unlikely to be anything to do with the weather.
By now we've become used to the Tigers being a very, very good side. In their first grand final in 2017 they remarkably started $2.25 underdogs against the Adelaide Crows (you couldn't find two sides with completely different paths since that day), then they were absolutely jumped as $1.35 favourites in the 2018 preliminary final against Collingwood, and were nearly unbackable at $1.41 in the 2019 grand final against a GWS team who basically failed to turn up.
This time they will go in as marginal favourites against a Cats side who we can absolutely trust to give them a run for their money. There won't be any power stances from Geelong, that's for sure.
Are the Tigers going as well as their other two Grand Final years? They are likely to find themselves challenged in what promises to be a pretty tense first half, so it will be fascinating to see how that plays out.
Richmond's finals series has been a bit of a mixed bag:
Qualifying Final: Beaten by the Lions and their own lack of discipline in Week 1 - bearing in mind that the Lions were absolutely dismantled by the Cats on the same deck they will play on this weekend
Semi Final: Faced St Kilda, who are a rung below the Tigers on talent and their stage of development. A 31-point win on the scoreboard, but 77-72 on expected score was well worth noting
Preliminary Final: Found a wet deck at the perfect time against a Port Adelaide side crying out to be able to unleash their slick ball movement, forward half game. In what was basically a long series of 50/50 contests, the Tigers still lost the contested possession count but stood up through the middle with a whopping +12 clearance count against the number 1 ranked side in the competition. Port Adelaide's lack of composure in the final term was super costly, but the Tigers found a way.
Usually with that sort of setup we'd be very keen to side with their opposition here.
But taking on the Tigers is a scary proposition. They just consistently get the job done.
Here's how they can do it this weekend:
1) Go with speed: The Tigers are the best team in the competition at transitioning the ball from defensive 50 into their attacking 50 and generating a score. Their main weapon needs to be at its absolute best against this Geelong back six, and they know it.
2) Neutralise the Centre Bounce: Remarkably, Richmond have gone from 16th at centre bounce clearance differential in the regular season, to winning the clearance count in all three of their finals. The territory game becomes even more critical in a finals series. Against the Cats they don't need to dominate again but would be looking to break even at least.
3) Feed the small forwards: If there is a chink in the armour of the Geelong defence, it's definitely against the sharp small forwards. We know the ball will spend plenty of time on the ground given the Cats don't concede many marks in defence, so the likes of Rioli, Castagna, Bolton and the midfielders get their chance to step up.
Will the absence of their usual Tiger Army make a difference? The pro-Richmond crowds of the past two Grand Finals have certainly helped against two non-Victorian teams. Totally different setup this weekend.
This sets up to be the sternest Grand Final test Richmond have faced. With so many players that have climbed the mountain before, they certainly won't be overawed with the occasion, even if it's on foreign territory.
And spare a thought for Noah Balta - the only Tiger in their likely 22 without a Premiership medal...yet.
Without even looking in-depth at the numbers, it's a different Geelong than the side who has failed to reach a Grand Final since 2011, despite several attempts.
Remember last year's "experiment" against Richmond with Mark Blicavs on the wing? Or the constant tinkering with their best ruck setup for many years? None of that seems to have happened this year. It's the most settled we've seen Geelong in many years. They know what their best side looks like, and they get to put it on full display this weekend.
The Cats finals series has been impressive, especially since we had our doubts on whether they had lost their edge over the final few matches of the regular season.
Qualifying Final: A classic final that could easily have gone the other way. An expected score in favour of Geelong (57-52), not including two golden scoring opportunities cruelled by the siren. Hawkins with one goal from six shots.
Semi Final: Obliterated Collingwood. Hard to tell how comprehensive the win actually was, given the Pies just didn't seem to have anything left after their win over the Eagles the week before.
Preliminary Final: Beat the Lions at the clearances and ground balls early on, and if not for their wayward kicking they would have been further in front at half time. Importantly, the Cats posted a 210+ pressure factor in the second half, so their dominant 40-point win was on the back of a defensive work rate that they will need again this weekend.
So there is an angle that Geelong are the ones with the better finals form out of this matchup. They have found another gear after losing a classic coin flip final in the first week, and look so comfortable in how they want to play.
Their best chance of winning looks something like this:
1) Bring the pressure: The Cats had the second-highest pressure factor of any team this year, which might surprise a few. Richmond benefited from the least amount of pressure against them for the season, so if the Cats can turn up the heat on Saturday night they will at least generate enough opportunities to score
2) Win the midfield turnover battle: The Tigers thrive on winning the ball back through the midfield, so the Cats need to find a way to win some critical contests between the arcs. As good as their defence is, they have to limit supply as much as possible or the speed of the Tigers will be an absolute headache.
3) An even contribution from the forward six: We know that Hawkins will get his opportunities in front of goal again this week - he's had 18 shots at goal in three finals matches - but the Cats need all of their forwards to get dangerous. Deny Richmond's intercept marking game (through Grimes, Vlastuin, Balta etc), lock the ball in there and find ways to score. Grand Finals often throw up some unlikely heroes. Can the Cats find one?
The biggest concern for Geelong at match committee will be Richmond's speed and dare. If the Cats can somehow heap the pressure on the Tigers, particularly in their own front half, then they will get enough opportunities to find the right option up forward.
Dangerfield becomes the key - at his best he's basically unstoppable. We've never seen him in Grand Final mode, so he will be absolutely wound up like a steel spring for this one. He was quiet by his standards last week and didn't hit the scoreboard, but this could be his moment to terrorise Richmond up forward.
Geelong have the experience, class and hunger to win this one. Ideally they would have loved another crack at Port Adelaide, but this Richmond matchup isn't anything to be feared. It will all come down to who gets the game on their terms for long enough...
Clearly the market thinks this could go either way, and we can't argue with that. Richmond are currently -2.5 point favourites, with a little support for Geelong during the week. Let's hope it's that close in the final quarter.
Siding with Geelong in this one. Their finals form is arguably superior to Richmond, their back six will enjoy the kind of defensive contest this promises to be, and they have enough firepower up forward to match it with Richmond if the game opens up.
The Cats were the highest scoring team in the regular season, and they face off against a Richmond defence which allowed the second-fewest points for the year. Anything other than an absolute arm wrestle of a first half would be very surprising.
We've been wrong in our finals predictions in two games this season - both of them were Richmond matches (vs Brisbane and Port Adelaide). Hoping it doesn't happen for a third time here...
Geelong to win in a close one.
Pick: Geelong by 8
Norm Smith Medal
Always fun to try and find an angle with the Norm Smith Medallist. Let's give it a shot.
The voting panel haven't been afraid of casting their votes a little wider lately, so it gives us an opportunity to find a few outside of the obvious (Martin and Dangerfield rightly the favourites for both sides)...
Shane Edwards - He's definitely fresh after sitting out a long period of the season, and looked to be the player that was going to blow the game wide open in the wet last week against Port Adelaide. Often bobs up with a goal or two, which is important to catch the eye of the panel. A lot of his work is in close and could go unnoticed, the only query.
Shai Bolton - If the Tigers are to win, Bolton's speed and scoring ability becomes super important. He's had 25 scoring shots this season and kicked a goal a game this finals series. Doesn't need a lot of it to stand out.
Nick Vlastuin - Of the defensive pair of Grimes and Vlastuin, you'd think Vlastuin has more of a chance to stand out. On paper you'd back him to win his matchup on any of the Geelong forwards, and could be the one that does some incredible things in a close contest.
Bachar Houli - Another half back who could get plenty of the footy and catch the eye. With the Tigers midfield being so even and making it hard to find a strong case for the likes of Cotchin, Prestia and Lambert, Houli is the kind of story that makes a little more sense the more you look at how the game might be played.
Cam Guthrie - Will handle the conditions (wet or slippery) no problem, potentially gets a job on Martin when he's in the middle, can win his own ball and will be front of mind after his All-Australian selection. The feel good story for the Cats, among many.
Mark Blicavs - In what promises to be a pretty tight contest, does Blicavs become the kind of player to stand out? He's their leading intercept marker for the year, doesn't have to be glued to Lynch or Riewoldt given the other Cats talls in the side, spends a fair bit of time in the ruck when needed, and can be deployed basically anywhere else on the field if they need something different. Huge chance.
Rhys Stanley - Left field, but if he can get on top of Toby Nankervis, grab a few contested marks and hit the scoreboard, then he's worth consideration. Grand Finals have seen many a breakout performance from soldiers like Stanley. It's not out of the question.
Sam Menegola - Initially we went with Mitch Duncan for the last spot on this list, but Menegola might be suited to a dour struggle a bit more. Importantly, he can hit the scoreboard and is only behind Patrick Dangerfield as their leading inside 50 distributor. What a story it would be...
So there you have it. Can't wait for a super day of sport on Saturday - the Cox Plate as our entree, and the Grand Final as the main course. Bring it on.
Let us know your thoughts via Twitter! Who wins?