Preliminary Final Review
So here we are. The Tigers and the Cats in the big one, ironically the first all-Victorian Grand Final since 2011 and it's being played in a different state.
Plenty to cover from the two preliminary finals, not the least of which is the discussion around the pre-finals bye having an impact on the teams who win in the first week.
We mentioned there wasn't a lot of talk about Port Adelaide playing their first game in 25 days and Brisbane in 28 days prior to their games. That all changed when the top two teams both failed to make the grand final.
Does the long break between matches really have an influence? Is the sample size big enough to make a reasonable conclusion? Would the reaction have been the same if only one of the top two sides failed?
The numbers certainly indicate that their success rate has dropped since the introduction of the bye. No need to bore everyone with all the figures (Rob Harding's article has a great look at all the ins and outs for those interested), but when the qualifying final winners have a 40% success rate of making the grand final since the bye was introduced, it definitely should be raised as a concern.
What can't be argued is that either Port Adelaide or the Brisbane Lions got off to a particularly slow start - both teams looked "on" from the beginning, but ultimately lost regardless.
So what happened? Let's take a look....
Port Adelaide v Richmond
News of the rain arriving pre-game would have been music to the ears of Richmond fans. Port Adelaide aren't hopeless in the wet by any stretch, but the Tigers have shown for years that their game plan stacks up when the slippery ball comes into play - chaos is normal for them.
So in those conditions, often the game just becomes a long series of 50/50 contests. Win enough of them over the course of the match, you win. It can take a lot of the tactical element of out and just become a total four-quarter grind.
The ability for Richmond to find another gear is extraordinary. In the regular season, the Tigers were 16th for centre bounce clearance differential and didn't seem to care. Similar to the Hawks dynasty not seeming worried about the contested possession numbers, Richmond didn't seem at all fazed by their inability to win their fair share of centre bounce contests.
Until the finals series...
The Tigers are +24 at centre bounces over three games. In week 1 of the finals series they were +7 against the Brisbane Lions (who were 9th at CB differential over the season), taught St Kilda a lesson out of the middle with +10 a week later (the Saints were the fourth best in 2020) and found a way to beat Port Adelaide (the best CB differential team in the competition) by 7 on Friday night. Enormous.
In each of their finals matches, Richmond were +4 or better at Centre Bounce in the last quarter alone. And +5 against Port Adelaide. This is a serious team who deliver when it counts.
Looking at the performance of Port Adelaide, they definitely had their chances.
The coaches box would have been going off their heads at losing their "shape" in the final term - their structure ahead of the ball just fell apart, a few players lacked composure, and the decision making going forward was in stark contrast to the experienced heads of the Tigers.
When that happens, often it looks like the opposition have a lot more players in your forward 50 clogging up space - the experienced backs forget about guarding a man if they aren't in a dangerous space, and simply go to where they know the ball will be. In the case of Port Adelaide, they just launched it into their forward 50 and into the arms of Toby Nankervis.
Big Nank took three intercept marks in Port's defensive 50 in the last quarter alone. He's not a renowned contested mark, and in the wet conditions that should just never happen. It's equal parts the responsibility of the kicker to choose the right option, and the forwards to bring it to ground. This element alone arguably cost them their spot in the big one.
Just get the feeling that the rain changed the fate of this game dramatically - Port started well, missed a couple of early chances and looked pretty slick. But they couldn't execute their forward half game and ball movement we have become used to. The ball just ends up back in a contest too quickly when it's pouring down.
And *that* Brad Ebert contest? What a way for such a brave player over many years to finish his career, with that final act. But tactically it was a huge error not calling for a stretcher to stop the play when he was clearly not going to come back on the field for the last 5 minutes. The umpires only needed him to move out of the immediate area before being able to restart play - Port Adelaide played a man down with the ball in their defensive 50 for quite some time.
We would have heard a lot about that moment had Richmond found a goal, or if Port were the ones ahead and the Tigers managed to pinch the lead from the subsequent stoppage.
Port Adelaide become a fascinating proposition next year - did they peak in 2020, or have they got another level to go to? Some extra midfield help would be high on the priority list, along with perhaps a seasoned key defender if they can find one. Big watch on them in 2021 if we get back to a "normal" season and they have 11 games in front of a packed home crowd...
Brisbane v Geelong
In our preview, we pointed to Geelong's defence allowing only 9 marks inside 50 over the two finals they had played. Brisbane added only 4 on the weekend, and only three of them ended up in a goal. As we predicted, it placed huge pressure on the small forwards of Brisbane to find a way to keep the ball on the ground, lock it in and somehow conjure up a winning score. Clearly that didn't happen.
Charlie Cameron looked dangerous early but was well held by Kade Kolodjashnij, Cam Rayner and Zac Bailey posted single digit disposal numbers, and Lincoln McCarthy didn't trouble the scorers. Ouch.
It probably says a lot more about Geelong's defence than Brisbane overall - the Cats back six or seven are easily the most organised, composed and dominant defensive unit in the competition. They might have looked a little shaky towards the back end of a condensed season, but have lifted in the finals. Even the Port Adelaide loss was more of a case of the variance of a chaos ball at ground level than any issues defensively.
Up the other end, Tom Hawkins had another 6 shots at goal - 2.3 and one miss. He's had 18 shots in three finals matches - the sort of numbers we are used to from Lance Franklin over the years, but not many others.
This time he had some help, which we mentioned was critical to the Cats fate in this game. Rohan, Ablett and Miers hit the scoreboard, while Patrick Dangerfield surprisingly didn't manage a score but was involved in 8 chains throughout the game (4th highest). The even spread of contributors is important heading into next week, because they will need them all.
The Geelong win was built on their dominance at stoppage scoring - 13 scoring shots to 3, and arguably they should have been a further three or four goals in front at the half time break. With 63% of the game being played in Geelong's first half (unusual territory for the Cats given they were 9th overall this season), it made things incredibly difficult for Brisbane to hold up over four quarters, and it took its toll towards the end.
For Brisbane, the introduction of a genuine key forward will help immensely. A fit Joe Daniher (if he makes it) would be amazing to watch in that side. The window has only just opened for the Lions, so they will be fun to follow over the next few years...
The Grand Final preview will land on Friday. After going 6/8 in our picks through the finals series, here's hoping we don't get a Richmond game wrong for the third time this weekend. Still tricky to find a winner with two very different styles of play, but it should make for a cracking contest. Can't wait.