This year’s Grand Final is being billed as “one for the ages.” Well, in fairness every Grand Final gets billed as that. After all, the two best teams are often playing in the final match of the season – and so it is this year as the defending champion Magpies take on the mercurial Cats in the Grand Final.
But are we to get the nailbiting, hard-fought, tight and tough Grand Final? One that all non-supporters crave and all competing supporters say they want (but secretly hope their team wins in a blowout)? Well, in all likelihood – yes. These two teams have shown they are the best and statistically there is really nothing that sets them apart – points for, points against, tackles, clearances, hitouts, inside 50s, you name it – the Cats and Pies are pretty much equal over the balance of their respective 24 games to date in 2011. Further, both teams have highly potent forward lines, miserly defenses and a mixture of hard-nosed and classy midfielders.
So what will set them apart? Well, I have picked out a few key areas that will most likely affect the outcome in a big way.
Without question the most underrated aspect of our great game. The Cats kicked fewer goals than the Pies in their round 8 clash this year yet still managed to win with a mountain of minor scores making up the difference. The Hawks wayward kicking on Friday night was arguably the single reason that cost them a spot in the Grand Final. St Kilda fluffed so many chances in the 2009 Grand Final, as did the Cats in the 2008 decider and the result being that both teams finished runners-up to their much more clinical opponents.
Of course, predicting which team is going to kick straighter on Saturday is harder than picking a broken nose. Both teams won’t be too jittery with previous Grand Final and big game experience. Also, both have shown an ability to kick straight and kick poorly over the course of the year.
Generally every player has some sort of niggle or complaint by the time the Grand Final rolls around but some generally have more than the odd bump or bruise. Darren Jolly and Ben Reid are both under injury clouds but in all likelihood will play. Their influence for Collingwood cannot be underestimated. Jolly could barely walk let alone compete by the end of the game on Friday and his crucial stoppage influence was non-existent. Reid was a shadow of his deserved All-Australian status and as result the Pies struggled to clear the ball efficiently from their back half. If they both play it gives the Cats a massive edge at stoppages and also in their ability to kick a winning score.
Offsetting the latter is Steve Johnson who will have to be pulled from the hyperbaric chamber at 2:00pm on Saturday just to make it to the ground on time. Johnson’s injury for the Cats is even heavier given the loss of their other small dangerous forward in Dan Menzel. The Cats look to him often to kick goals and set up forward play and make no mistake – injury or no injury they will keep going to him. If his knee doesn’t hold up the Cats have a gaping hole to fill in their forward half.
Geelong have had a superb lead-up into the Grand Final, beating all other top 4 finishers each by at least 5 goals. Conversely, the Pies have been underperforming of late, only just squeezing by the Hawks on Friday by 3 points as well as the Eagles a fortnight earlier by 20 points. The week prior to that, they lost to the Cats by 96 points in the remaining home and away game of the season.
Bottom line – the Cats are flying and the Pies are not. However, the Pies have shown they are a fantastic team throughout the year and, importantly, have found a way to win in tight games of late. Should this game go down to the wire they have the belief to finish the game off. The obvious problem is that in the last few games the Cats have shown a ruthlessness not seen since 2007-8 which could see them blow the game open by 3-quarter time.
THE BOTTOM SIX
It is often noted that to win a Grand Final your bottom (or least rated) six players need to play better than your opponents bottom six players. The theory is that champion players are meticulously watched and planned for that the guys that fly in under the radar, well, fly in under the radar.
Previously underperforming Cats players like Hawkins and Varcoe as well as up-and-comers West and Christensen are playing great footy and all look dangerous on or around the ball. Throw in the fact that their two finals games have been very even across the board with no obvious weaknesses and the Cats are going into this match in the best possible shape. The Pies may very well rue their 96-point mauling by the Cats only 4 weeks ago which ran a lot of players into some much needed form…
Conversely previously outstanding Pies players Brown, O’Brien, Beams and Blair are all struggling to match their form from 12 months ago. Chris Dawes has shown scratchy performances since his return from a hand injury, as has Nick Maxwell. Also, Daisy Thomas and Heath Shaw have missed a lot of footy over the last 2 months. I guess you could say the Pies preparation has been less than ideal. However, Thomas and Shaw are great players who leave their best footy for when it matters most, and Maxwell and Dawes did enough against Hawthorn to show they can still be real thorns in the side for any opposing team. Still, the Cats definitely have the edge going into the match.
Playing injured players rarely works in Grand Finals. Reid and Jolly combined have a greater effect than Steve Johnson so if all three play, I think the Cats gain a massive advantage. Certainly if Jolly plays the Cats are already ahead around the all-important stoppages. The Cats have form but the Pies are playing tough footy, which cannot be discounted in big games. However, the Cats are playing well right across the board whereas the Pies are showing signs of weakness, even if they have shown to do enough to get over the line in recent games. But the biggest bottom line of all – whichever team takes their chances and puts their opponent on the back foot will have the best chance of winning this match.
Cats by 14 points.
NORM SMITH MEDAL TIP
Note: This preview may or may not have been written by a die-hard Cats supporter….