Eighteen were cut down to eight, and after four weeks of finals, we’re left with two. Were they the two teams we thought would make the Grand Final? No, particularly in regard to Collingwood, but it took me a while to warm to the Eagles as well.
I’ll happily put my hand up and confess to thinking the Eagles would struggle to improve this season. I didn’t subscribe to the Robert Walls lengths of forecasting doom and gloom, but after Priddis, Mitchell and Petrie hung the boots up (three of their best in the Elimination Final win over the Power) I didn’t think West Coast had the depth.
I was dead wrong.
Then you have Collingwood. One more win, and they’ve pulled off a “Richmond”, coming from 13th to win the flag. Things have just clicked for the team as a whole, despite the rash of injuries to key players, and the sort of criticism usually reserved for a team about to start a rebuild, rather than contend.
It’s been a remarkable season, overall. Richmond flew too close to the sun and crashed back to Earth. Big recruits failed to have the desired impact, with Geelong, Port Adelaide and Essendon not performing the way they’d envisioned with their new recruits taking a while to find their feet and have the influence they’d envisioned, and we had fairy tales dashed by teams wearing the black hat, Melbourne being humiliated by a powerful Eagles outfit.
And we enter the last Saturday in September with Collingwood and West Coast still standing. Both were super-impressive in their respective Preliminary Final wins. Both have potential match winners up forward, powerful midfields and stingy back lines.
It may come down to one powerhouse performance by a single player that swings the pendulum in favour of his team. They say there is no “I” in team, but only one man wins the Norm Smith Medal, and it’s usually awarded to the best player on the best team.
Here’s The Mongrel’s Talking Points.
THE HOME GROUND ADVANTAGE
This has been big news all week, and really, all finals. West Coast have to travel to the home ground of Collingwood, despite finishing on top of them, etc…
Well, we’ve only got another 38 or so years of the same scenario, so it’s a little redundant to continue to talk about it.
What I will touch on – West Coast is undefeated at the MCG in two tries this season (ridiculous they've played so few there), including a win over their Grand Final opponents. If traveling to the ‘G’ has upset them at all, it has not been evident to date. Much has been made of the Eagles’ training facility that enables them to train and have match simulation on a ground the size of the MCG. If West Coast is able to pull out the win, this will be considered one of the best planning decisions a club has ever made. Hell, even if they don’t, it’s still a wise investment.
THE BIG WEST COAST FORWARDS
If the weather holds off, this could be a huge problem. Tyson Goldsack did an admirable job on Josh Kennedy in the Qualifying Final. Back from a knee reconstruction, Goldsack restricted Kennedy until the last change when the full forward managed to cut loose, but did he really restrict him? Or was Kennedy a little off after missing plenty of time himself?
The amount of times Kennedy got both hands to the ball in a marking contest, only to lose it on the way down was startling. He would’ve changed that perception of Goldsack’s performance had he held a few. He also kicked four behinds to go with his two goals for the game – again, perceptions would be very different if he’d kicked a little straighter.
I have no doubt he will be much, much better for the couple of runs back, as would Goldsack, but one is a match winner, and another is a stopper. If Kennedy gets an unimpeded run at the ball, and the West Coast mids get some time to deliver, we might see Kennedy put Goldsack, and the Pies, to the sword.
And then there’s Jack Darling. Still not back to his best after his ankle injury, the signs have been good. In drawing the second best Collingwood tall defender (Langdon perhaps?), Darling will get plenty of chances, and he has some personal demons to exorcise after his abysmal 2015 Grand Final efforts.
If Darling takes marks at half forward, and there is space for Kennedy to lead into, this game could be over early.
THE LITTLE WEST COAST FORWARDS
Yeah, we’re focusing on West Coast here – settle down Pies fans…we’ll get to you.
If the bigs don’t get you in the Eagles forward line, the little men will. Rioli, Ryan, LeCras and this fella named Cripps can tear a game open. Let’s focus on Cripps.
He has been the barometer for the Eagles this season. Since Round 18, he has kicked three or more goals on five occasions, and every time he’s done it, the Eagles have won. With the more spectacular players like Ryan and LeCras often getting the attention, Cripps has snuck under the guard of many coaches and defenders, but it’s hard to imagine that’ll happen this week.
If I were Nathan Buckley, besides pondering why I look so much like a lion, I’d be looking for options to counter this bloke, but he is such a tough match up. On paper, it looks like Jack Crisp will get the job, and if so, it should be a cracking encounter. Crisp has been excellent all year, but running off Cripps and having the ball come back over his head might be enough to prevent the run and carry Crisp has provided.
That’s the problem West Coast presents. Every forward line player is so dangerous, that leaving them to provide options can bring you undone within seconds. Who do you leave in order to provide run off half back? Who do you risk being exposed out the back? Do you run off Venables when he slots in there? He has shown that he’s more than capable of hurting teams in the last few weeks, but do you bank on him being a little overawed on the biggest stage?
The West Coast forward structure is a perfect storm. Even if four of their forward six are on song, it spells enormous trouble. The Pies will be hard pressed to cover them all, but recent history tells us if you don’t shut down Cripps, you pay.
Speaking of perfect storms, last week against the Tigers was the kind of performance that can either become the building block for a great career, or the high-water mark that is never duplicated. Pies fans will be hoping it’s the former.
Cox ripped the Tigers to shreds, but for a better guide, we should be looking at how he handled himself against West Coast the last time they met. In the Qualifying Final in Perth, Cox drew the ire of fans with a five disposal performance. Playing deep forward, he was blanketed by both Tom Barrass and Jeremy McGovern. He dropped marks and failed to have any impact on the contest at all. If the Pies are to have a genuine chance, he has to do more than that.
Whilst expecting a replica of his performance against Richmond might be a stretch, expecting somewhere in between that, and his last outing against the Eagles is a lot more realistic. With the weather looming as a potential issue for Saturday, Cox’s ability to impact the contest may be substantially reduced. A slippery ball means that those towering one grab marks won’t be taken so easily. He will need to do the things Nathan Buckley has been preaching all season – contest, and bring the ball to ground.
If he does that, and one or two marks stick, he’ll have more than done his job.
BRODIE GRUNDY V THE TWO HEADED MONSTER
On paper, this is where the Pies should have a huge advantage, but on paper, so should have Melbourne.
The tandem of Scott Lycett and Nathan Vardy refused to allow Max Gawn to play his game last week, tag-teaming to ensure that Gawn couldn’t get a clean run at the ball in the back half, and wasn’t able to drop into the hole all over the ground without another big man to contest with.
It was foreign territory for Gawn, as it will be for Grundy, but whilst Gawn is a tap-ruckman, Grundy adds the work-ethic around the ground that is unparalleled for a big man. Simply put, he works his ass off to make contest after contest, and isn’t out of the play by any stretch when the ball hits the deck.
I’ve heard a couple of people tip Grundy for the Norm Smith, and why wouldn’t you? He is up against a second string ruckman, and a third string ruckman. He should dominate!
Just like Richmond should’ve dominated Collingwood, and Melbourne should have put up more resistance against the Eagles. Things happen in big games that people don’t expect, things that SHOULDN’T happen. Lycett and Vardy will be buoyed by their efforts last week. They slayed a bearded dragon, and took down one half of the All-Australian ruck duo, contributing heavily to their side’s win. This week, they get their crack at the second half of that duo.
For Grundy, he will do what he does best/. He will work, and work, and when he’s finished with that, he’ll work some more. He has often been referred to as an additional midfielder given his second efforts and ability to be a link in the chain. He will need to make space, and run whoever is matched up on him to exhaustion in order to capitalise. I just hope he doesn’t exhaust himself in the process.
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THE PROBLEM OF MCGOVERN
Read that any way you like. Whether it’s the problem with his hip that left him looking very sore at the Eagles most recent training run, or the problem he provides Collingwood floating across and destroying contests, McGovern will have an influence on this contest.
In their last encounter, Buckley stifled the early dominance of McGovern by throwing Chris Mayne into a defensive forward role on the three time All-Australian. It worked a treat, with McGovern taking only one mark after the move was made, but will it work as well this time? Or does Adam Simpson come prepared with measures to ensure McGovern is not bodied out of contests?
I think it is a fair call to say that McGovern is a pivotal defender in this contest – probably the most important back half player across both sides. If he allowed to play his natural game, Collingwood will have a hard time getting the ball past half forward, particularly early in the game when McGovern has been known to stamp his authority. However, if Nathan Buckley attempts to negate his influence early, it will be up to Adam Simpson to pull the correct string to counter. It provides a wonderful backdrop for the game unfolding around it.
ONCE MORE ROUND THE BLOCK
With the rise of Treloar, Adams and Sidebottom, for the first time in… forever, Scott Pendlebury doesn’t have to be the best player in Black and White for the Magpies to win, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be when it matters most.
There’s only been three players to win the Norm Smith Medal twice - Gary Ayres, Andrew McLeod and Luke Hodge. Could there be a fourth on the weekend?
With all the attention on the other mids, could it be time for a certain Rolls Royce to get out of second gear and put his foot to the floor? I have a feeling we might see a bit of a role for Pendles in subduing Elliot Yeo in the Grand Final, and what a clash that would be! Pendlebury has really increased his defensive presence over the last few years, with tackling now a feature of his game. If he can stop Yeo and hurt the Eagles going the other way, there’s a big chance that the Captain may have one last stellar finals performance in the tank.
He is a proven big game player - a proven star, yet in the current climate, he’s almost the forgotten man of that Collingwood rotation. Adam Simpson would be wise not to forget about the influence Pendlebury can have. To do so would be a disaster for the Eagles, and yet another triumph for Pendlebury - a title he hasn’t added to his CV as yet - Premiership Captain.
Mark Hutchings and Levi Greenwood will be allocated tasks this weekend, and each may have a direct bearing on the outcome.
Nathan Buckley has a few options for Greenwood. Luke Shuey seems the most obvious, but the possibility of Elliot Yeo receiving the attention is not out of the equation. Both players provide great run through the middle, with Yeo also strong overhead. Greenwood is coming off a win over Dustin Martin, who struggled through the game with an injury – nonetheless, Greenwood was all over him every time he touched the ball.
The surprise in this may be that Greenwood does not go to either of the above and instead goes to the Eagles’ best performed midfielder over the finals series – Jack Redden. This would allow Shuey free rein, which is a dangerous proposition, but in terms of stopping one player, do you go with the one player who could be huge in this contest, or the guy who has been huge in the last two finals?
On the flip side, Mark Hutchings’ papers would have just one name on them – Steele Sidebottom. The Collingwood midfield maestro is coming off two huge games, and is the leader in the Gary Ayres Medal going onto the big game. However, Hutchings has history in taking Sidebottom out of the game. He did it in Round 17, holding Sidebottom to a season low 18 touches.
Strangely, in their Qualifying Final clash, Hutchings did not apply the hard tag to Sidebottom, which allowed him to have significant impact. A hard tag this time around seems a foregone conclusion. I’d be very surprised if we don’t see these two side by side at the first bounce. I can't see Sidebottom breaking the Hutchings shackles easily. He'll need help, and I'm not sure the Pies are equipped to give it to him.
Fast becoming one of the must-watch players in the competition, de Goey has match winner written all over him. He dismantled Alex Rance in the first half against Richmond before being subdued by logical match-up, Dylan Grimes, but if ever the stage was set for one player to tear the game to shreds, it’s de Goey.
He simply has it all – speed, agility, power, and the X-Factor. If he gets going early and snags a couple of goals, the West Coast defence could be thrown into disarray. He is almost an impossible match up – too strong in the air for a mid-size defender, and too quick for a big man, he possesses that incredible change of direction whilst running at top speed that only one or two players can pull off.
Tom Cole will probably get the starting job, but will need help, particularly if the Collingwood mids get on top early. McGovern will need to sacrifice his help on Cox and start aiding Cole – it’s not an enviable position to be in for Cole.
De Goey has built from a prospect into a star this season, and he is threatening to become so much more. A big Grand Final would all but push him into the realm of superstardom. Can the Eagles stop him? They’d better hope they can – he has the ability to the difference.
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FAIRY TALES AND REDEMPTION
I’ll finish on this. In the Grand Final we can find dozens of subplots, but there are three players I will be keeping an eye on.
After the tragic passion of his sister, Travis Varcoe is a story that warrants attention. Putting his hand up to return to action as soon as possible, he was embraced by the club and he has returned that love with some of the cleanest hands in the game. Some of his reads of the ball off the pack have been unbelievable this post-season. He has been the set-up man several times, with his ability to one-grab incredibly difficult to control groundballs or half volleys that have set up the Magpie attacks. His role on the Grand Final is the fairy tale. It is testament to Varcoe’s ability to fight through heartache and despair. It almost makes me barrack for Collingwood. Almost…
And then there’s redemption. For Jack Darling and Elliot Yeo, Grand Final day does not hold positive memories. To put it bluntly, they both stunk in 2015, but they had plenty of mates. Both men are looking to erase those horrible memories of going missing in the biggest game of the year, and you have to wonder whether an early mistake could start them sliding on a very slippery slope.
How mentally strong are Darling and Yeo? Have they been able to work through the weight of memories that 2015 conjures? And will they put those memories to rest, or compound them?
We’re 24 hours away. Soon the players will roll down Swanston Street in front of a 100,000 people, and in one of those cars will be the Premiership Cup. So close, yet so far. The Mongrel can’t wait.
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