1. We got the right Grand Final
Admittedly, it was not looking good for the Bulldogs after Round 23. They’d lost three in a row and had slipped outside the Top 4. Their form was indifferent and they were faced with entering the finals race without the double-chance. However, prior to those final three weeks they were clearly one of the two best sides in the competition. Geelong had been good throughout the year, but the Bulldogs seemed to have an edge on them. Port Adelaide found some form late in the season but prior to that had really struggled to be competitive against teams in the Top 8. And as for the Lions, they squeezed into the Top 4 by the skin of their teeth on the back of some questionable form late in the season as well. Melbourne also had a couple of flat weeks and looked gone for all money against the Cats in Round 23 and we all know how that panned out.
Since then, they haven’t looked back and have been in a class above their opponents during the finals. The platform has been set for a huge game. Both sides are flying. They will both have a week off to ensure they can be as close to full strength as possible. They’re both coming off crushing wins and had the luxury of resting players late in their games. Some are suggesting the week’s break is more beneficial to the Dogs as they’ll need the time to recover more after three weeks of arduous travel all over Australia. Others also say the Dees may be disadvantaged having played just two games in a month by the time the big day arrives.
I say whoever is more switched on come the Grand Final will win. Either side is capable. They both seem to be peaking at the right time. I can’t separate them.
2. The most lop-sided preliminary final weekend ever
If somebody told me the two preliminary finals would both be decided by margins above 70 points I would’ve thought they were crazy. It was obvious early in both games that one side was in control, and watching the games, we were waiting for fightbacks that never really came. To put things into perspective, from the previous decade we had an average margin in the preliminary finals of 28 points. Our average for this year was 77 pts.
Since the inception of the dual preliminary final system, this is far and away the highest ever. The Cats were mediocre in the first half but still had a pulse with a couple of late goals in the second quarter and trailed by a manageable 29 points. The capitulation after half time, particularly in the third term where the Demons piled on eight goals to nil, showed a tired group that simply had nothing left in the tank bringing into question their aging list.
The story between the Bulldogs and Port was more about the first quarter in which there was a 37 point margin already established by the first break. The old cliché of one team simply “wanting it more” was on full display as the Dogs continually won every 50-50 contest, or so it seemed. The bamboozled look on Ken Hinkley’s face showed a man who was resigned to the fact that his boys were mentally weaker on the night and, aside from a couple of shining lights such as Wines and Bonner, there was nothing the Power could do to get back into the game. They came out with a better mindset after half time and dominated play for most of the third quarter but still couldn’t penetrate the resolute Doggies defence and only finished with two goals on the back of their heightened work rate. It did indicate that the problems from their earlier struggles against the better sides were still there.
3. Going, Going, Gawn
You won’t get a more complete game than that from both a ruckman and a captain of a club in a preliminary final. It also has to be said what an incredible leader Max Gawn has become. He booted five goals for the first time on the most important occasion in his career so far, proving he can produce when it counts. The Bulldogs will have their work cut out to quell his influence on Grand Final day and I’m sure they’re grateful Stefan Martin is back in the side providing much-needed help for Tim English.
I expect Max to win the day on the big stage, but with Martin there to help out, the damage may be limited somewhat at stoppages. Around the ground is a different story. Max also had 19 possessions, five marks and six tackles. The big man does it all. Many have Clayton Oliver as a Brownlow fancy despite Petracca potentially taking numerous votes off him, but perhaps many have forgotten how strong a season that Gawn has had which may also result in votes being spread some more within the Melbourne team making a Brownlow winner amongst them more difficult despite winning 17 games. I’m sure it won’t be a huge concern to any of these boys if they were to get up and win the big one, and with Max in this sort of form, it will not do their chances any harm whatsoever.
4. Geelong’s aging list must be a concern
Of the 23 players who played for the Cats on Friday night, 11 of those were over the age of 30. That’s a staggering number of players heading into the twilight of their career, but what’s more concerning is the seemingly high dependence on most of these players for success. They are still playing good football, but surely this can’t be sustained for much longer.
A quick look at the players who played in this game will show you a reasonable absence in that 22-26 year old age bracket that will be needed to bring success when many of the over-30’s call it a day. There were just six on the field against the Demons including Gryan Miers (22), Tom Atkins (25), Brad Close (23), Zach Guthrie (23), Jack Henry (23) and Esava Ratugolea (23). These are solid players but hardly a group you can build a future around. The question will be do the Cats hold the line for one more year and persist with their current trajectory where they clearly believe their window may still be open, or is it time to bite the bullet and perhaps move some of these players on?
It’s a tough one as many are still playing well, but if they were to continue with things as they are, will we then see a lean time in the following few seasons? There is also talk of players in that middle age bracket seeking alternative homes due to lack of opportunity including the likes of Charlie Constable and Quinton Narkle. There may be some big decisions coming.
5. Chris Scott’s finals record continues to flounder
Chris Scott took over the reins at the Geelong Football Club in 2011 from the previous coach, Mark Thompson when the Cats were at the peak of their powers. It was a successful year, with the Cats winning the premiership with a coach achieving the rare feat of ultimate success in just his first season at the helm. The record since has been mixed and there are growing questions about whether or not Scott has underachieved since his first year.
On the one hand, it is an incredible effort for anybody to coach a side that has reached the top 4 seven out of the last ten seasons and missing finals altogether on just one occasion, in 2015. But the fact that in all of those seven seasons where the Cats had the double chance after 2011, they’ve been unable to secure a single flag and that’s where the problems lie. What’s even more concerning is the number of wins against losses that Cats have suffered during finals campaigns. From 2012 they’ve appeared in 22 finals matches and have only managed to win on seven occasions. When comparing this against other teams who’ve had their fair share of finals games during this same period, it doesn’t stack up well although Brisbane’s last three years are starting to take a shape that’s not all too dissimilar.
As I said, it can be successfully argued that Chris Scott has done well to make Geelong contenders in most years throughout his tenure, however, the powers that be at Geelong Football Club must be wondering if persisting with Scott beyond this year is going to produce the success they’re chasing, particularly when he hasn’t been able to close the deal.
6. The Dees won by 83 points despite losing the clearances
I’m really not sure what to make of this stat. How can you win a game by 83 points and lose the clearance count in a game where you score 101 points from stoppages? It almost doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Whatever the case, it’s clear that if the Cats were winning the ball a little more this way, the Demons were able to thwart their attacks or they were possibly butchering the ball and giving it right back.
Whilst I’m sure that Goodwin wouldn’t be too concerned about this, I’m sure just like me he probably realises that the Western Bulldogs won’t be as ineffectual if they were to get on top of the clearance count on Grand Final Day.
On Saturday night, the Bulldogs were soundly beaten in the hitouts against Port but won the clearance count 41-35 which suggests their onballers were adept at winning the ball off the opposition ruckman. I expect Max Gawn to also get his hand to the ball first more often than not, so it will be crucial to keep the likes of Macrae, Bontompelli and Liberatore under control. A lot depends on how all this plays out as to who will be premiers in 2021. Oliver, Petracca and Viney will need to be at their best to ensure the Doggies’ mids don’t hurt them. They seemingly made light work of the experienced Cats midfield. That said, the Bulldogs destroyed the Power mids as well. As I said, the right Grand Final encounter has eventuated.
7. Bailey Smith played his career best game two weeks in a row
Last week, the 20-year-old Bulldog played a scintillating game against the Lions in a tight contest, finishing with three goals. Many thought that was his best game and we would’ve all understood if he wasn’t as dominant this week, but what we saw on Saturday night was an equally impressive display and arguably an even better result, finishing with four goals including a 55-meter drop punt he seemed to ease through in the last quarter with a minimum of effort.
This kid has more tricks in his bag than I ever imagined. And what’s more, he seems to thrive on the big stage of finals football too. What makes the Bulldogs so good at the moment is they have a dominant midfield with several players in the team that can play a role in that besides the usual suspects in Bont, Macrae and Libba. The midfield stocks run very deep and Smith is a part of that as well as his ability to play forward and hit the scoreboard. If Bailey Smith can continue on with this level of form and the Bulldogs can prevail on Grand Final Day, it might even put the kid in contention for a Norm Smith.
8. Perhaps Port were imposters after all
It may seem mean, but I was a little non-plussed during the home and away season with Port Adelaide as a genuine contender. The latter part of the season saw them perform better against the top teams with wins over the Sydney, the Giants and the narrow win against the Bulldogs in Round 23. What I first thought of a higher level of form on the back of some good players returning to the side after injury turned out to be fools’ gold in the end. The reality is they still ended the year with as poor a record against Top 8 teams as any of the finalists did. Their high number of wins was also the result of an inexplicably favourable draw which saw them playing twice against sides that didn’t finish in last year’s Top 4 despite finishing on top of the ladder at the end of the home and away season. That makes no sense to me.
The other noticeable thing about the game on Saturday night was a seeming reluctance to put their head over the ball, particularly in the heat of the first quarter. As I mentioned earlier, the Bulldogs made a mockery of the ground ball gets and monstered the Power boys when it came to contested possession. The exception of course was Ollie Wines who worked his butt off all night for his 38 possessions, but he didn’t have a lot of mates. All in all, it was the type of showing that a side not really worthy of playing finals would offer, which I know seems cruel, but there can’t be anyone associated with the Port Adelaide Football Club that would be happy with that effort.
Last year they finished first and were out in the Prelim. This year they finished second and although they won their way through to the preliminary final again with a good showing against the Cats, I still see their elevated ladder position as an untrue indication of where they are as a club.
9. Did Josh Schache just resurrect his career?
He’s been the talk of the town after Saturday night’s effort. A quick look on paper might have you scratching your head. He had just ten possessions and kicked 1.3 for the night. So why is he getting plaudits? I think that may have something to do with the six marks he took and the fact that Port Adelaide’s most damaging defender for the year in Aliir Aliir was well below his best due to the headaches Schache’s presence was causing him.
Aliir still finished with seven marks in a 15 possession game, but his effect on the game was nowhere near it normally is and the Bulldogs were able to penetrate the Power defence with ease. This was due, of course, in part to another marking forward in Schache alongside Naughton which proved very difficult to defend against.
Since coming across to the Bulldogs from the Brisbane Lions in 2018, Schache has struggled to cement his place. He has only managed 29 games in four seasons, including just seven this year. With his career very much on the line, he has somehow managed to make his way back into this team and in true fairytale fashion, has found some form and will be a certain starter for the Grand Final.
It’s a credit to him for persistence, and hopefully, it goes on beyond this year. It also goes to show how fine a line it is between stardom and career ruination. Hopefully, Josh can continue on with this new found form and have an impact on the big day befitting the much-touted number two draft pick that he was when the Lions took him in the 2015 draft.
10. It’s going to be a long two weeks for Dees fans
Fancy going 57 years without winning a flag, then being teased a little in 1988 and 2000 where they made the Grand Final only to be smashed on both occasions. Then, of course, we had the heartbreak of 2018 where they were soundly beaten in a preliminary final by the eventual premiers, West Coast.
So here we are in 2021.
Melbourne won the minor premiership and have played two exceptionally strong finals matches which now sees them enter the Grand Final slight favourites. Dees fans will no doubt be chomping at the bit for the big day but must be exasperated that there will be a weekend of no football this week. Perhaps it’s just as annoying for the Doggies fans as well, although most supporters would probably prefer them to have a break after three games on the road in three weeks. I’m sure they’d see it as a bonus for the players and a huge upside for their prospects of winning. You could also imagine having tasted recent premiership glory just five years ago means the fans aren’t as anxious about how this game plays out in comparison to Demon fans, most of who have never seen premiership success in their lifetimes.
As for the neutral supporter, we just want the season to be over. Whilst I’m looking forward to this game, once your side is done for the year, the interest is limited. It’s kind of fitting that Melbourne fans are still engaged in a season where the Melbourne snowfields are out of action. Perhaps one could argue the Victorian Alpine resorts would’ve been hit financially, either way, this year. And yes, I love a running joke…