2013 AFL Grand Final Preview

Grand Final weekend is nearly upon us and OH MY GOD FREMANTLE ARE PLAYING. That can’t be right? Fremantle? The purveyor of disastrous trades and two win seasons? Well this Fremantle is no longer the child relentlessly picked on by the other kids in the playground. That child hit adulthood, decided enough was enough, hit the gym, got ripped, and vowed vengeance on all who had mocked him. He even decided to administer the beatdowns in purple, just to rub it in.

On the other side of the ledger is Hawthorn, who are appearing in their second consecutive Grand Final. They let it slip last year after a dominant season, and will be desperate to avoid a similar outcome this weekend.

So who will win, and how will it be won? Sure, we could just wait until Saturday and witness the answers to those questions. Much less potential for embarrassment that way. Or we peruse the recent history books, try to garner some insight into how these two teams play, make grandiose statements and predictions based on that so called insight, then watch as literally nothing you thought and said would happen, happens. This is the life for those who foolishly attempt to predict the future. Me? I am a fool.  Let me point out my pre-finals breakdown had Geelong taking on Sydney on Grand Final day. Read everything that follows with a grain of salt, because clearly I have no idea what I’m talking about.

Now onwards and upwards!

A Tale of Two Philosophies 

In the lead-up to this Saturday’s Grand Final, nearly all of the analysis will focus on the “offence v defence” aspect at play, and, on this occasion, it will be right to do so. Hawthorn are clearly the best offensive side in the competition, while Fremantle clearly own the defensive perch. We are unlikely to see two sides with such divergent winning formulas take place on the last Saturday in September. It’s going to come down to one aspect:

How effectively can Fremantle prevent Hawthorn from doing what they want to do?

Up Forward
  Hawthorn Fremantle Ranks
Inside 50s 56.1 47.9 2 v 15
Marks Inside 50 15.3 11.3 1 v 12
Goal Accuracy 54.00% 53.20% 1 v 2
Points Scored 113.75 92.54 1 v 10

Hawthorn, on the back of their tremendous centre clearance work and alarming amount of firepower, are by a considerable margin the best offensive team in the league. Up forward they boast four thirty plus goal scorers in Roughead, Franklin, Gunston, and Bruest, with both Hale and Rioli effective forward options in their own right. They also get a lot of goals from players other than forwards too, with the main suspects being Burgoyne, Hill, Smith, Lewis and Puopolo.

Fremantle are a below average side in terms of offensive output, but that isn’t really due to poor forward play. They themselves have four integral goal scorers in Walters, Mayne, Ballantyne and Pavlich, though they are far less prolific than their Hawthorn counterparts. More impressive is their defensive efforts. They are merely another extension of Fremantle’s defence, one that includes “every single player on the field”. In terms of importance ,Walters, Mayne and Ballantyne’s job descriptions would have “apply relentless forward pressure” ranked right alongside “kick goals”. The Docker’s don’t really tell any one or two players to “kick goals”, but rather tell the whole forward line group that if the opposition struggles to get the ball out of the forward fifty, then someone is likely to kick a goal eventually. Their coaching staff won’t be measuring their grand final performances on goals kicked, but rather time spent in forward half, tackles laid, errors forced, and scoring opportunities created.

Another interesting tidbit is the fact Fremantle are second most accurate side, behind the Hawks. These two sides take their chances, so who creates more may prove telling.

Team Defence
Hawthorn Fremantle Ranks
Clearances Conceded 38.8 35.7 14 v 3
Tackles 63.9 65.9 8 v 5
Opponent Disposal Efficiency 72 70.6 10 v 2
Inside 50s Conceded 47.2 44.3 4 v 1
Marks Inside 50 Conceded 10.6 9.4 8 v tied 1
Points Conceded 83.6 69.3 5 v 1

Fremantle’s rough game plan every single week is “make these few hours living hell for the opposition”. Win, lose, or draw, the opposition will not feel good about it. As a result I find it hard to fathom this weekend being a blowout. Fremantle will be relentless, just as they were in the first half against Sydney, and the game will come down to how many more clean chances Hawthorn will create over Fremantle.

Hawthorn are likely to have more inside fifty entries, just by virtue of the way these two teams play. How many more will be important. How many result in marks will be important. How many of those marks are turned into goals will be important. and how many goals they manage to snare from open play will be important. That all seems very obvious, but this won’t be a game where Hawthorn can blow opportunity after opportunity and still win comfortably. It’s hard to see Fremantle allowing them too many marks inside fifty, so the ones they do take have to be turned into goals. I’m looking at you Franklin.

Creating Chances.

Winning Possession
  Hawthorn Fremantle Ranks
Hitouts 41.5 40.1 7 v 8
Centre Clearances 14.7 11.3 2 v 17
Clearances 38.1 36.8 Tied 6 v 12
Contested Possessions 142.2 143 8 v 7

As we are all aware, Hawthorn are one of the best ball using sides in the competition. They get more of it than their opposition, and they use it better than them too. On the other hand Fremantle are average to below average in the same facets. The biggest deviation between the two lies with centre clearances. Hawthorn are second best. Fremantle are second worst. This seems like an appalling figure for a side with Aaron Sandilands in it, but the giant ruckman has missed most of the 2013 campaign. Since coming back in the latter half of the year he has increasingly improved, and his past two weeks have been tremendous. In fact, Sandilands has been so brilliant that Hawthorn’s advantage in this area of the game may not be so clear cut this weekend.

Centre Clearances Total Clearances
Fremantle Opposition Fremantle Opposition
Qualifying Final 14 6 43 22
Preliminary Final 17 9 42 34

They’ve slaughtered both Geelong and Sydney in clearances so far this finals campaign. If they can get on top of the Hawks in this area, then it will go a long way to ensuring a Fremantle victory. Not only because it would grant them first use of the ball, but because it would eliminate one of Hawthorn’s major advantages.

Indeed it perhaps the single most important aspect of the game. If Hawthorn win in the middle, then it is likely they will create enough chances to score then ten or more goals that will likely earn them victory. It might not be pretty, they might go in sixty times for five marks and ten goals, but such is their quality that it’s hard to see them not them manufacturing ten from such supply. However if Sandilands gets on top, and Fremantle win the centre clearances with the same conviction as they’ve done their past two games, then I don’t know if Hawthorn can win. I find it hard to believe the Hawks will be able to pick apart the Dockers like they do most sides each and every week. It’s going to be scrappy. They aren’t likely to generate too much run and carry out of the backhalf. The likes of Mayne and Ballantyne simply won’t allow it. Fremantle rank in the top two for forcing opponent disposal efficiency down, and second in forcing opposition clangers.They are going to have to manufacture their goal scoring opportunities, and the easiest way they can do it is through centre clearances.

I think they need to win about ten clean ones, and I think they need to turn those ten clean ones into marks inside fifty, and those marks need to be turned into goals. If they can do this, and get approximately five goals from open play, be it turnovers (most likely), or rebounds from defensive fifty (less likely), then that will probably be enough. Fremantle can’t afford to get into a battle of goals, because they know they will lose, so it will almost certainly be about whether or not the Hawks can kick twelve or more.

For Fremantle to win…..

We’ve already looked at what Hawthorn need to do to win (create significantly more chances than the Dockers, manufacture twelve goals), and in doing so have established what Fremantle need to do to win. So who needs to have big games for Fremantle to pull this off? It goes without saying that the team defence needs to be at the level against the Swans the previous week. If the Dockers drop from the level they’ve exhibited throughout the majority of the year, then they’ll be in major trouble. That seems unlikely though. The number of goals they’ve conceded in their five losses this year are 10, 18, 11, 12, and 16. The sixteen was against the Saints was in a game they were clearly phoning in, while the 18 were against the Hawks (and an illustration of what can happen when you don’t bring your A game against them), the rest though are relatively low totals. They’ve rarely been blown off the park.

Avoiding being blown out and winning are two different things though, and if Fremantle want to beat the favoured Hawks and snare their first flag, then they are going to need a few significant performances from a couple of players. I think Sandilands has to be the most influential player on the ground for them to win. Their best chance of winning would be on the back of him controlling the ruck and placing the ball down the throats of his team mates. His showing against the Cats in the Qualifying Final was a match winning one, and one he needs to replicate on Saturday. I think Crowley needs to shut out one of Mitchell, Hodge or Burgoyne, as those are the three most likely to orchestrate those chances out of the middle mentioned earlier. They need Fyfe to be the dominant in and under player on the field, and for he and Barlow to get on the goal sheet.

They can’t afford the Hawks to waltz out of the middle and hit targets on the lead. In round four the Hawks turned their centre clearance dominance into marks inside fifty dominance. This can’t happen again. They concede a league best 9.4 marks inside fifty on average, and they’ll need to keep it below that level on Saturday. Allowing Hawthorn ten or more set shots is flirting with danger.

Can they do it? I think it’s a tough task, but I believe they can. If I was being asked to make a selection based on the balance of probabilities, I’m taking Hawthorn. But today I’m picking Fremantle. I just have a feeling deep in my gut that this weekend will be theirs. I envision massive games from both Sandilands and Fyfe, and Hawthorn being pressured into an 8.17 kind of scoreline. I don’t feel great going against Hawthorn. I believe they are the best team in the competition, just as they were last year, and perhaps the biggest roadblock for tipping Fremantle is the acceptance that Hawthorn would have lost two Grand Finals in a row that they were favourites for. That just doesn’t seem likely. However I’m ignoring logic and following my gut. Fremantle in a thriller.

(You can thank me Saturday night Hawthorn fans)

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