The last Saturday in September…

There are some bloody big days on the Melbourne sporting calendar – Melbourne Cup, the Boxing Day Test, the Grand Prix, Australian Open final, and so on, but for me, none is bigger than AFL Grand Final day.

I’m off tomorrow to the Cheeses for the GF barbecue they have every year. We’ll have a snag or two, a few beers, a wine, a kick of the footy, and the boys will gather around the TV to watch the big game. This is a scene repeated thousands of times around Melbourne, even in non-football following households. The fact of the matter is, regardless of the result, the day is a good excuse to get social and kick back regardless of the result. It’s one of those days the whole city and much of the country stop to enjoy.

I love it. I love the whole vibe, the grand final parade, the media, the face painting, the expectation you feel in the streets, the slowly focussing curiosity on the game. Most people have an opinion, and over a beer and amongst friends are unafraid of expressing it.

My team isn’t playing tomorrow, and so I don’t have any stake in the game, and the two teams playing are reasonably inoffensive. Between them, Geelong and St Kilda have been starved of success. Geelong won a couple of years and have been the dominant team of this era, but hadn’t won since 1963; St Kilda famously won their only premiership in 1966. I hope St Kilda wins but won’t be upset if they don’t.

Picking a winner is tough and something I’ve been pondering all week long. St Kilda has been the best-performed team all year, Geelong the next best but with a wealth of experience behind them. Drawing a line through recent form is tough too. Geelong had a very good win running away against a very disappointing Collingwood in their preliminary final. St Kilda had a much narrower win against far superior opposition in the Bulldogs. That was a quality but low-scoring game that meant that the Saints needed to pull out all stops to win – and did.

Both teams are littered with great players playing well but have contrasting styles. The Saints are quite possibly the best defensive team of all time. Geelong, at their best, play breathtakingly audacious football. St Kilda goes wide, Geelong goes through the middle. In large part, that will be the tale of the day – will St Kilda shut down Geelong, or will Geelong break free.

Looking at the teams’, St Kilda has the better big forwards in Riewoldt – possibly the best player in the comp – and Koschitzke, compared to the erratic Mooney and the pup Hawkins. Schneider and Milne are handy small forwards, but Johnson and Chapman at the Cats are all class. 

The midfield of both sides are great, but again there is a contrast in how they play. Geelong has great inside players with outside flair – Ablett (probably the best player in the comp), Bartel and Selwood. By contrast, the Saints have very damaging outside players – Del Santo, Montagna, but Hayes is their only real inside player, though he’s a beauty. Both have great stoppers in Ling and Jones. It’s a good battle in the rucks, though the St Kilda pairing of Gardiner and King just shade Blake and Ottens. Ottens ability to go forward and be dangerous could prove critical on the day.

Both have fantastic back-lines. Scarlett for Geelong is the best defender in the league. Mackie, Enright and Milburn are all superb. Taylor is their weak point. St Kilda don’t have the big names, but it is a great unit – Dawson has been great, Gilbert excellent, and both Fisher and Goddard are stars. Minimal advantage either way – so where is the difference going to come from?

There are a few variables to consider. Which team did have the better preparation? I’m inclined to think St Kilda. They had a much tougher match but an extra day to get over it. Geelong’s win looked impressive and was, but it was against a team that barely gave a whimper after halftime. On the back of returning injured players and patchy form, a good solid workout might have been better for them. And the lack of pressure is poor preparation for the big game against a team renowned for their pressure game.

Injuries are the next variable. There have been ongoing queries about Riewoldt’s knee, but I don’t think it’s an issue given he’s been the best player of the finals series. I think Johnson from the Cat’s is a much bigger concern. He played very well last week after 4-5 weeks out, but in my experience, it’s often the second game back a player struggles. He’s an important player, but I think he’ll be quieter this week.

The third variable is the weather. For the first time in many years, we look like playing a Grand Final in the rain. This definitely suits Geelong more. They are the bigger-bodied team with great finals experience. They are more used to playing in the wind and rain down at Skilled Stadium than St Kilda playing under the roof at Etihad. And St Kilda relies more on their tall marking forwards.

So what does all this point too? A draw just about, and I think it will be close whichever way it goes. It may be the wild-cards that get one team or the other over the line. So what are the wild cards?

For Geelong, it’s Ottens. He’s a quality player coming back from a long term injury. He has the ability to go forward for Geelong and take the game by the scruff of the neck. I don’t think he’s ready yet, and the weather won’t suit him, but it’s possible.

My St Kilda wild-card will surprise many. I think it’s Goddard. He is so important delivering the ball with precision out of the back-line, but I actually think we might see him swung forward where he can do some damage, particularly on a wet day and with his kicking skills.

Most people are leaning towards Geelong, and I think more has to go right for St Kilda for them to win. If Riewoldt kicks 5 goals, they’ll probably win, but if he doesn’t, it doesn’t mean they’ll lose. I think Koschitzke needs to present, though, and their out of form small forwards fire – if Milne and Schneider kick 5 goals between them, then the Saints are home – that’s my tip.

In the end, I’m going with the Saints. I think they’re ready, and I still have a feeling that the Cats aren’t quite right yet. There’s no doubt their best is better than St Kilda’s, but these days their best is only rarely seen. I think it will be close all day; Geelong will surge occasionally, while the Saints will be steady, and in the end, get over the line by about 9 points, with Riewoldt kicking the sealer at the 29-minute mark of the last quarter.

Final score, just for the hell of it, St Kilda 13.9.87 to Geelong 11.12.78.

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