We head off to the big dance on Saturday, with minor premiers Sydney taking on the red-hot Western Bulldogs in what promises to be an enticing encounter. Will it be the consistency of the Swans or the fearless play from the Dogs that will end in premiership glory?
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The Swans were off to a flying start once again in the finals, taking apart Geelong in the opening quarter to stamp their authority on the match. While it didn’t continue in the same fashion over the rest of the match, they were able to withstand any continuous pressure that was applied to them. The most telling statistic to come from the match was the inside 50s, which Geelong led 72-40. This is arguably the most fascinating insight into a match you will see in the near future. The Cats’ entries were rushed, preferring to bomb the ball deep rather than hit up leading forwards in dangerous spots. The Sydney back six held up incredibly well here, and the ground-wide defence denied Geelong any run through the midfield, allowing the majority of the team to drop back to the defensive 50. On their own end, the Sydney forward line was functioning very well, taking 22 shots on goal from their 40 inside 50s. Lance Franklin was threatening as usual, and small forward Tom Papley is providing real headaches for opponents in the latter half of the year.
The Bulldogs are on fire! The first team to make it to the Grand Final from outside the top four under the current finals system, the Dogs are riding high on a wave of momentum that will be hard to stop. Their match against GWS on Saturday evening was arguably the match of the season, with fast paced ball movement and heavy hard-ball moments the highlights. Their midfield is functioning well, with Luke Dahlhaus, Marcus Bontempelli, Jack Macrae, Caleb Daniel and Tom Liberatore all coming strong at the right end of the year. To smash one of the most skilled and heavy hitting midfields in GWS in clearances and contested possessions is a massive win, showing just how strong their own engine room is. Their biggest question remains whether they can do it for a fourth week in a row. Two interstate trips and three heavy hitting matches is surely going to take a toll, but it’s going to be hard to back against one of the best stories in 2016.
Head to Head this Year
Round 15, 2016: SCG – Western Bulldogs by 4
If we get anything close to the drama of their Round 15 clash it will add the cherry on top of one of the more memorable finals series in recent history. Bulldogs defender Jason Johannisen kicked the winning goal with seconds remaining, with the team standing strong up against a rampaging Sydney side that had just kicked three goals in no time at all. This ability to absorb pressure like this bodes well for their chances on Saturday in a match that will no doubt have its up and downs. Statistically, the match was very even aside from clearances. With a 41-32 lead, the Bulldogs were afforded that extra bit of run from stoppages that ultimately led to high efficiency inside forward 50. Individually, all key players stood up for each team, with Luke Parker and Dan Hannebery the pick for the Swans, while Lachie Hunter and Marcus Bontempelli were the strongest for Luke Beveridge’s team.
Josh Kennedy vs Marcus Bontempelli
The two bulls of both teams, Kennedy and Bontempelli are crucial to the success of their respective sides. For sheer match-winning ability you have to favour the Bont, but over the course of the season and into the finals, the more consistent performer has been Kennedy. His match again Adelaide will go down as an all-time great individual performance, while his role around the stoppages against Geelong was instrumental once again. It’s certainly a matchup to keep an eye on, but if Bontempelli gets off the leash early in the piece, expect Tom Mitchell to play a shutdown role.
Lance Franklin vs Joel Hamling
Joel Hamling has one of the toughest jobs in the land on Saturday, responsible for shutting down the most threatening player in the league. Marcus Adams stood Buddy in their last meeting in Round 16, but a season-ending foot injury has left this job to Hamling. Like most opponents for Buddy, it’s all about limiting the damage he can potentially do in even a 15 minute period. Few players have the athletic ability to stand next to the great man, but Hamling’s job on Jeremy Cameron last week was stellar limiting him to just five touches. If Hamling can keep Buddy’s game to outside the 50m arc and limit him to three goals you will consider his job to be a success.
Where the Match will be Won
Run off Half-Back
This is a mouthwatering tactical area to watch, with both teams likely to score heavily from this area. Starting with the Swans, the majority of their scores are going to come from this area. It won’t be the dashing run off half-back like the Bulldogs, but you can guarantee the majority of this match will take place in the Bulldogs’ forward half. The Swans are very comfortable with this, with their back six standing up well alongside the flood of players zoning off key areas inside 50. Committing players like allows them to create a chain of handballs from the drop of the ball, allowing them to break through their opposition with precision disposal. For the Bulldogs, they rely more heavily on pace, with Jason Johannisen the key man to watch. His blistering speed from defensive 50 was the spark they needed in their match against GWS, giving options to his teammates forward as they moved up the ground. Whether the Swans will allow this next option is another thing, so look carefully to see if the Swans’ defence pushes up too close to the stoppages.
A midfield battle of the ages is set to take place on Saturday, with two elite groups fighting for ascendency in the most important area on the ground. With players like Josh Kennedy, Dan Hannebery, Tom Mitchell, Luke Parker and Kieran Jack coming up against Marcus Bontempelli, Luke Dahlhaus, Tom Liberatore, Liam Picken and Caleb Daniel you’re guaranteed to have some stellar moments. Statistically speaking, the two teams are strong in clearances, but not overly impressive in centre clearances. This area represents a real opportunity for the Bulldogs to take advantage of, with the Swans unable to commit the huge amount of players they usually do in defensive 50. Joel Selwood and Patrick Dangerfield hurt them considerably in this department, kicking into what resembled an empty 50 that still featured 12 players. With the Bulldogs having instability in the ruck, even if Roughead does play, it will favour the Swans, limiting the damage that could occur in this area.
For the Bulldogs, they have to go all-out to win this one, adopting their fearless style that has seen them take down three quality opponents in the past three weeks. Their style translates well to playing the Swans, being hard at the contest and playing fast moving footy out from stoppages. If they can keep the Swans within reach in the first quarter, this style of play performs well in close matches with momentum swings. Whether the occasion gets hold of them is another question, but it’s almost impossible to answer without being inside the club.
As a Swans supporter this was always going to be tough to write an unbiased preview. I still believe my 2014 Grand Final prediction was strong – it was just that no-one could see how Hawthorn was going to play arguably the most complete match in AFL history. As for this one however, it isn’t just the overall form over the year that points me in the direction of the Swans.
The Swans are a far more experienced side when it comes to this situation. Much of the team has experienced the highs and lows of a Grand Final, having gone through the elation of the 2012 success and the pain of the 2014 heartbreak. This experience will count in the big moments, trusting your teammates throughout the match and not overplaying the situation.
Final Prediction: Sydney by 16
Norm Smith Medallist: Josh Kennedy
First Goal Scorer: Tom Papley