That last day in September is upon us once more and for football purists, this year’s Grand Final once again offers up a mouth-watering contest between the two best teams this season: Hawthorn and Sydney.
After contesting in arguably the best game of the season in round 22 as the Hawks won in Sydney by 7 points after the Swans won the opening fixture in Launceston by 37 points, the final game of 2012 is set up perfectly for a real classic. Melbourne’s ever fickle weather will only add to the drama of the occasion with thunderstorms and hail forecast for the big day. With both sides at almost full strength, fans can’t ask for much more as neither side can be separated on paper.
Hawthorn will go into the game as favourites at $1.52 having finished the regular season as minor premiers. The Hawks went from strength to strength this year, amassing 17 wins with precise kicking game, utilizing their array of raking left footers from the half back line as well as dominating in the middle with a blue collar midfield. Throw in a very versatile forward headlined by two of the AFL’s headline acts in Lance Franklin and Cyril Rioli and it is easy to see why the Hawks start favourites.
However, Adelaide exposed the Hawks’ weakness in last week’s Preliminary final. By isolating key defenders in one on one contests, the Adelaide forwards took away Hawthorn’s penchant for having the third man come in over the top to spoil marking contests. Isolating Ryan Schoenmakers and Ben Stratton will help Sam Reid and Lewis Roberts-Thompson win their matchups on the day, even if the conditions are greasy. As long as the Swan’s tall forwards get the ball to ground, the crumbing ability of Lewis Jetta, Mitch Morton and Ryan O’Keefe can put the Hawks to the sword in what looks to be a low scoring contest.
If the weather rolls in, the Hawks kicking game will be put to the test. With so much of their forward drive being generated by Grant Birchall, Matt Suckling and Clinton Young off the back 50, coach Alistair Clarkson will hope that they aren’t affected as much as they were back in the round 9 clash against the Tigers, when they got smashed by 58 points. It won’t take much for the Swans, regarded as one of the best two way running teams, to pounce on a misdirected kick and score on the counterattack, so the pressure is on.
In a side which was criticized for being too ‘one dimensional’ going forward, Hawthorn have proved that they can win with or without Franklin winning 5 of 6 games while he was sidelined with a torn hamstring. The addition of Jack Gunston in the offseason created another dimension in an already potent forward line which will cause headaches for the best defence in the league. The Swans defence allowed a miserly 74 points against this season but will be hard pressed to keep a Hawks team which averaged 121 points per game from scoring. This may prove to be the best battle on the ground as many eyes will be on the Ted Richards-Lance Franklin battle. Richards was named in the All Australian team for the first time this season but enters the game under an injury cloud after rolling his ankle against Collingwood last week. Franklin must capitalize on this and in tandem with Rioli, must provide Hawthorn with the spark needed to lift this side to its first premiership since 2008.
Sydney came from nowhere this year to finish 3rd. The ability for the Swans to regenerate their list and reinvigorate recycled players has inspired fans around the country this season. The Swans are very strong on the road and will be no pushovers on Saturday, having already beaten Hawthorn in Launceston, West Coast in Perth and the Crows in Adelaide. The strength of the Sydney midfield is as damaging, if not stronger around the stoppages than Hawthorn. Josh Kennedy and Kieran Jack will face off against the likes of Sam Mitchell, Brad Sewell and Luke Hodge in a titanic battle which will be decided by the ruckmen. Sydney’s ruck duo of Shane Mumford and Mike Pyke have been the unlikely heroes of this Sydney team, giving their midfielders first use of the ball many occasions throughout the season. Going up against Hawthorn’s David Hale and Jarryd Roughead means the trend is very likely to continue giving the form of the Hawks pair in recent weeks.
Sydney will be more suited to the tight contested nature of a wet weather game should it arrive, with the likes of Jude Bolton and Jarryd McVeigh thriving in the close confines. They also bring stronger form into the final after dispatching the hapless Magpies at ANZ Stadium last week for their first win against Collingwood in 7 seasons. However their record at the MCG is less than impressive having won just one of their last 15 encounters at the ‘G whilst the Hawks have 12 wins from 15 games record at the MCG this season.
Adam Goodes is the man for the Swans if they want to hoist the cup after the game. Having been used as a full forward by coach John Longmire this season, Goodes must create and provide goals for Sydney. With that being said, I would like to see the two time Brownlow medallist unleashed in the midfield to give Sydney that extra body around the stoppages. In full flight, Goodes can turn a match on its head but the same can be said for Rioli. If either of these two can produce a match winning effort, their team’s chances will greatly increase.
It has been said all year that this is Hawthorn’s premiership to lose. The pressure of the situation was beginning to show in last week’s Preliminary final. However, now with the jitters possibly out of the way, can the Hawks seize the day knowing they’ve beaten Sydney in Sydney? They are a very hard team to beat at home, but the Swans have shown the ability to win huge road games.
Anything can happen in a Grand Final, and factoring in the weather may just swing this in the Swans’ favour, but I will go with the odds and say Hawthorn will win this by 5 points.
Ben Sathananthan is a first year Sports Journalism student at Latrobe University. You can follow his Twitter at: @bensathsports