West Coast Eagles are in the AFL Grand Final up to their necks, have no doubt.
They have form, they have a great method and they have belief charged from a last-start win over mighty Hawthorn. But the one imponderable of a Grand Final is this: do they have the composure?
Can they withstand the kind of torrent of early aggression and unsociable footy that Hawthorn unleashed on the famed warriors of Sydney exactly one year ago?
Nerves play a part in every Grand Final and in this case, there is a gulf in experience between the teams.
Needless to say, Hawthorn is into its fourth Grand Final in a row; other than James Frawley and Billy Hartung, they have all been to the Big Dance. The Eagles have their lone survivor from 2006, Sam Butler, along with Xavier Ellis (2008 at Hawthorn) and Sharrod Wellingham (2010 at Collingwood) who can tell their mates about the experience.
Will the callow Eagles be nervous? It’s not a question we can answer until Saturday. But it’s enough to make me favor Hawthorn.
Fremantle in 2013 is the best recent example of what happens when a team – or specifically, a few members of a team – don’t handle Grand Final nerves. The Dockers had the will that day two years ago, but not the calm to execute under pressure. Even Nat Fyfe, who’s become the greatest player in the game, was jittery. Others, like Hayden Ballantyne, were invisible.
No Grand Final team can afford passengers, and this is the concern for West Coast against a team with veterans and big-game specialists of the ilk of Luke Hodge, Sam Mitchell, Jarryd Roughead, Shaun Burgoyne, Brian Lake.
It’s interesting, West Coast’s coach Adam Simpson said this week that he planned some levity in the build-up to the preliminary final to ease the tension at his club. But Simpson backed off when he realised that the Eagles were actually chilled, incredibly so.
Then they came out flat against North Melbourne and almost fell so far behind that there was no coming back.
No wonder people say that a coach also needs to be a psychologist! Somehow, Adam Simpson, a coach in just his second year, must get this right at the weekend, for if the Eagles are in the game at quarter-time, then they are a huge chance of winning.
Of course, Simpson is a protege of Alastair Clarkson’s and hence knows the secrets to beating Hawthorn. In a word, it’s about disruption.
The opposition needs to take Hawthorn out of its comfort zone of 40-metre speared passes to each other, ball security and then the easy path to goal. The Hawks, unquestionably the best kicking team ever, have been doing it since Clarkson’s method kicked in around 2007.
The number to look at is marks, or drilling down further, uncontested marks. Hawthorn marks the ball an average 103 times this season, but West Coast restricted this to just 64 last time. Richmond cut the figure to exactly the same number when the Tigers beat Hawthorn in round 18. In seven defeats, Hawthorn averaged just 85 marks.
So there’s your number. Secondly, teams who beat Hawthorn invariably apply enormous physical pressure, like Sydney did in the 2012 Grand Final, and West Coast managed in the qualifying final. They make Hawthorn players rush and kick down the line to contests, rather than setting up.
You can’t play shoot-out, like Adelaide did a fortnight ago. You can’t allow 140 marks, like Fremantle did.
Does Simpson send a tagger to Sam Mitchell? I doubt it. Tagging is not part of his method, and while Mitchell had high statistics in the qualifying final, West Coast still won. Last time it was mainly Mark Hutchings who went to Mitchell, and that could happen again. Better still, send Matthew Priddis to Mitchell’s side, for as Ross Lyon says, “you have to make Sam defend”.
Mitchell will get plenty of the football anyway. He’s just that good.
Who takes Josh Kennedy? I am tipping James Frawley for the task, leaving Brian Lake to mind West Coast’s resting ruckmen, which brings us to another potential issue for the Hawks. What if Nic Naitanui starts dominating centre bounces, as he is capable of doing, and connecting with Messrs Priddis, Luke Shuey and Chris Masten?
It’s a concern for Hawthorn, and that’s a message from this game. West Coast has the firepower to score, even against Hawthorn’s tight defence. It presents a vastly different challenge for Clarkson than, say Fremantle or Sydney, the strong defending teams.
West Coast’s rise from ninth last year under Simpson has been incredible, but it is very real. The Eagles have scoring power in a multi-pronged front half, all of those players skilful and different to each other. They are great around the football and in close, led by Priddis and Luke Shuey and Wellingham. The so-called ‘web’, a floating defensive zone that is a variation on previous zoning tactics, has caught a few teams by surprise and the results are there to see, with the Eagles conceding just 70 points a game.
It is quite a package, but in recent years, a team needs to feel the acute pain before it’s ready to win a flag. Not always, but often. West Coast might need to feel the cold, hard glare of a very hungry Hawthorn team on its favorite track on the biggest day before it is ready.
The Hawks have the talent, and they are close to unbeatable at the MCG.
Footballing immortality awaits them.
TIP: Hawthorn by 22 points
NORM SMITH MEDAL: Jarryd Roughead
The AFL Grand Final kicks off at 2:30 pm AEST on Saturday.