OPINION

Grand final could prove to be one of the best of the AFL era

ALL SET: The Western Bulldogs prepare for this Saturday's grand final against Melbourne in Perth. Photo: Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images
ALL SET: The Western Bulldogs prepare for this Saturday's grand final against Melbourne in Perth. Photo: Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images

It's the AFL grand final we had to have. OK, so that may sound a little trite, but Saturday's playoff between Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs for the 2021 AFL premiership really is a match-up made in heaven.

There's the romance, of course, Melbourne without a premiership for 57 years, and the Bulldogs having won just one in the past 67 years (and that 2016 win only their second in history).

But this is also a great grand final for the purists. The Demons and the Dogs (despite the latter's final home and away position of fifth) have proved themselves clearly the two best sides of this season, the pair sitting first and second on the ladder for 16 of 23 rounds, and one or the other on top for 21 of 23.

Together, they provided no fewer than eight members of this year's All-Australian team, and two of the top three placegetters in the Brownlow Medal in Bulldog star Marcus Bontempelli and Melbourne's Clayton Oliver.

Both teams have reached a peak at the perfect time. Melbourne effortlessly dispensed with first Brisbane, then Geelong. The Bulldogs held Essendon goalless after half-time in the elimination final, clawed back a sizeable deficit late against the Lions at the Gabba, then wiped the floor with Port Adelaide.

Indeed, the combined 154-point winning margin these two produced in their preliminary finals (83 points Melbourne, 71 the Bulldogs) was the largest in the 28 seasons the AFL has played two preliminaries.

There's no doubting the number of boxes ticked on the excellence score. But the other factor making Saturday's grand final such a mouth-watering prospect is simply how evenly-matched the Dees and Dogs appear.

They played each other twice this home-and-away season, the scoreline 1-1. The biggest strengths of each team will square off against the other, namely the two best midfield groups in the AFL, and the Western Bulldogs' potent scoring mix up against Melbourne's much-vaunted defence.

The Demons had statistically the best-performed backline of 2021, ranked No.1 for fewest points conceded, and No.1 (by a long way) for fewest scores conceded per opposition inside 50, at a low rate indeed of just 35 per cent.

Western Bulldogs finished the season proper ranked No.2 for scores (behind only Brisbane) and No.1 for scores per inside 50 at a rate of 46 per cent.

The Dogs have lost their leading goalkicker Josh Bruce, but still managed their fourth-highest score of the season in the preliminary final. Finding a way has become the Dogs' mantra under coach Luke Beveridge, and in scoreboard terms, they have done just that. Aaron Naughton, Tim English and Josh Schache now the key targets, but the goalkicking of medium-sized Mitch Hannan and midfielder Bailey Smith also proving invaluable.

Melbourne's defensive system, though, is a tough nut to crack, with key men Steven May and Jake Lever not only terrific negators, but brilliant interceptors and rebounders, with the likes of Christian Salem providing plenty of transitional run.

Yet most of the attention pre-game will centre around the battle of the midfields, and rightly so. Both are rich in talent, and both bat deep, though the Bulldogs just a little deeper, with the names Bontempelli, Macrae, Liberatore, Smith, Dunkley, Hunter and Treloar a formidable group.

Absolute top end, though? That's where Melbourne may take the points, with Max Gawn, Clayton Oliver and Christian Petracca an amazing trio now arguably three of best five or six best players in the competition.

Nonetheless, for the latter pair to get off the leash and inflict the same amount of damage they have in Melbourne's first two finals wins, another big game from Demon skipper Jack Viney is vital simply to tie up another player or two of the Bulldog crew.

The Dogs will have a couple of keys to limiting Melbourne's midfield output, Dunkley a candidate to play Oliver closely at the stoppages while still winning his share of ball on the outside.

The other, of course, is at the bounces and ball-ups. Max Gawn is a huge presence in this game, perhaps even larger since his five-goal haul in the preliminary final. Few players with just eight games under their belt for the season will assume the sort of importance Gawn's ruck opponent Stefan Martin will on Saturday.

Martin's job will be to work Gawn over physically and extend him athletically. Doing so will have the twin effect of limiting his output but also enabling Martin's ruck partner Tim English to spend the amount of time in attack the Dogs will be looking for from effectively a second key forward alongside Naughton.

And one final factor?

Who knows what impact the extra week to prepare will have had on these two teams. Melbourne will go into the grand final having played just one game over a 28-day period.

Could the Demons be underdone?

Alternately, will the week off have stymied the momentum the Bulldogs had built in their three finals wins in three weeks?

Even the potential disadvantages in this potential grand final classic may end up evening each other out. But that would only be in keeping with seemingly every aspect of this hard-to-call potential classic.

I've never had as much trouble deciding upon a grand final tip as I have this week. In the end, I've gone for Melbourne to write another of those football fairytales. But only by two points.

I may as well have tossed a coin.

What I'm more confident about is that this really could be one of the best grand finals we've seen of the AFL era.

Fingers crossed.