Sport AFL Nathan Burke: Trust me, forget stats when looking for a final winner

Nathan Burke: Trust me, forget stats when looking for a final winner

Giants players showed they believe in themselves in overcoming the Lions at the Gabba. Photo: Getty
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I’d like a dollar for every person who asks me ‘Who do you think will win the AFL Grand Final?’

The truth is, I have as much insight as the next footy lover.

In the absence of a firm answer I try to sound intelligent and compare players, game styles, home-ground advantages, all the time looking for a weakness one team can exploit over the other.

The reality is that none of that stuff really matters either when trying to work out who will win and who won’t.

To get into a preliminary final you have to be a good team with few weaknesses.

The real determining factors of how you go beyond that are difficult to identify and you certainly will not find them on any stats sheet.

Mostly they are impossible-to-measure intangibles to do with mental agility.

Finals are, as Western Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge noted, a ‘whole new ball game’.

Sure you still have to kick goals and stop the opposition from kicking goals, but it is what goes on between the players’ ears that makes all the difference.

Finals are won and lost by the mental strength or fragility of the majority of your players, not by pure talent alone.

As yet no one has come up with how to measure the confidence levels of a team.

Successful teams believe that if they play the way they want to play, it doesn’t matter what the opposition do to them they will prevail.

That preliminary final feeling: Geelong players celebrate their win over the Eagles. Photo: Getty

This is a hallmark of all great teams and the job of any coach is to instil this kind of belief.

After a great start on Friday night you could tell the Geelong players believed in themselves and the plan.

The fact that they lost a large lead and still came back to win is evident that they believe they are a good team that can take those knocks and still prevail.

I didn’t get the same sense that the West Coast Eagles thought this was their year.

If you can combine belief with intense focus, then you are well on your way to winning finals.

There are a lot of things that could potentially float through a player’s mind when he is playing in a sudden-death game in front of a huge crowd.

When the scoreboard isn’t in your favour, it is easy to start to think about the repercussions of losing and the impending devastation that is about to hit the club and everyone in it.

These thoughts can’t help but take you out of the moment and distract you from the game itself.

In the increased pace and ferocity of a finals match you cannot afford to think about anything other than where your next kick is coming from or what do you need to do to stop your opponent.

A single momentary lapse of concentration can have major consequences.

The reason why we have a lot of blowouts in finals games is that one team gets to the realisation that it is going to lose sooner than the other one.

The sharp focus needed to compete erodes and the downward spiral begins.

This year it seems that Greater Western Sydney is focused on what it has to do to win. You get the sense the Giants believe it is their time and nothing will put them off.

Giants players celebrate after putting the Western Bulldogs to the sword in their elimination final earlier this month. Photo: Getty

The other intangible you can’t measure is the level of trust throughout the team.

And, no, this isn’t trusting that your teammate won’t knock off your socks from your locker when they forget theirs.

It’s trust that they will do the right thing on the field, which allows you to be proactive about how you play.

You will not be a great team if you wait until things happen before you move on the field.

The top-line teams anticipate what their teammates are going to do and then get a jump on their opponent by leading early, leaving their man to run off or simply being confident enough to play in front, knowing you have help from behind.

You can’t win finals by being reactive as you will constantly be chasing the ball, your opponents and your tails.

Richmond personifies playing with trust. The way the Tiger players shoot off from their opponent can seem almost reckless at times.

That style only comes when you trust your teammate to look after you.

So really if you want a definitive answer as to who will win the big one, look for the team with the most belief, the sharpest focus and the highest trust in each other.

Throw the stats books away this weekend and trust me on this.

Nathan Burke is a former St Kilda captain who played 323 AFL games for the Saints, winning three Trevor Barker Awards as best-and-fairest player.

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