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Big men can help Pies and Eagles hit the premiership heights


Mason Cox takes a big grab during his second quarter burst of three goals in Collingwood’s preliminary final win over Richmond. Photo: AFL MEDIA

Big men can help Pies and Eagles hit the premiership heights

Rohan Connolly    

There’s many factors which will determine the winner of Saturday’s AFL grand final between West Coast and Collingwood, but there’s one looming as pivotal which almost seems a bit of a throwback. Height.

Big players taking big grabs was always an important feature of the game, but never had it appeared to have become more passe than at the business end of the season over the last couple of years.

The Western Bulldogs won a flag two years ago on the back of relentless pressure, a bevy of medium-sized forwards and without even a recognised ruckman.

Last season, Richmond broke a storied premiership drought taking the pressure game to even greater heights, but with just one recognised key forward in Jack Riewoldt and with Toby Nankervis doubled for hit-outs in the ruck by Adelaide’s Sam Jacobs.

But the lead-up to this year’s grand final is looking a lot different. Literally, a lot bigger.

The big men loomed large over the two preliminary finals. On Friday night, no-one could miss Collingwood’s beanpole American key forward Mason Cox.

His domination of the air and three goals in the second quarter against Richmond took the Pies from an already handy position to one almost impregnable. Cox finished the game with 11 marks, eight of them contested, and was a massive threat every time the ball went forward for Collingwood.

But no less important was ruckman Brodie Grundy, who smashed Richmond in the middle. Collingwood won 60 hit-outs for the evening to the Tigers’ 26, Grundy constantly giving the Pies first use out of the centre square.

Grundy, as he does so well, also won plenty of ball himself around the ground, with 21 disposals, winning five of his own clearances, including the game-sealing goal he kicked in the final term.

That pair present significant challenges for West Coast. It was in the two teams’ round 17 clash at the MCG when the Eagles’ ruck powerhouse Nic Naitanui went down with his season-ending knee injury, and a day in which Nic Nat’s No.2 Scott Lycett stepped up to the plate to cover the loss.

Lycett has Nathan Vardy to help him out now, and the pair were effective in curbing a tired-looking Max Gawn for Melbourne on Saturday. But Grundy is flying right now, and in Cox, has far more of a chop-out should he fatigue than Gawn was offered.

That’s another string to Cox’s bow even if he doesn’t exert the same forward influence this Saturday. Plus, the not insignificant matter of his height at least tying up West Coast’s defensive stocks a little more, giving Jeremy McGovern a little less licence to pursue his intercept marking.

McGovern was enormous in the Eagles’ MCG win over the Pies, and was just as dominant early on in the qualifying final in Perth three weeks ago. Collingwood would love to keep him as busy as possible just negating to be able to exert much positive influence.

At the other end, meanwhile, West Coast’s height poses all sorts of issues to which Collingwood’s brains trust will this week have to devote considerable time.

The Eagles are far and away the AFL’s premier kicking team. As they should be with forward targets the calibre of Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling near goal.

That pair had six of West Coast’s 10 goals to half-time between them in Saturday’s demolition of Melbourne. And it’s not just the goals they kick, but the crumbs their marking contests create for the likes of Mark LeCras, Jamie Cripps, Liam Ryan and Willie Rioli which make them so pivotal to the Eagles’ modus operandi.

When the Eagles beat Collingwood in July, Kennedy and Darling were both returning from injury and not at their peak, yet still booted three goals each in West Coast’s 35-point win.

In the qualifying final, Kennedy was well held by returning Magpie defender Tyson Goldsack, and Darling also subdued. But in the tight final stages of a close game, both rose to the occasion with three of West Coast’s last four goals, key figures in helping their side get over the line.

To that end, Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley has a huge selection decision to make this week.

The Pies’ slashing preliminary final win should logically dictate no changes to the grand final line-up. But how sure can Collingwood be neither Kennedy or Darling will turn it on against an undersized opponent?

At the very least, the Magpies are going to have to think long and hard about a change based purely on height, either veteran Ben Reid, who hasn’t played AFL football since round 10, or Darcy Moore, still to convince his coach of his fitness after a hamstring injury, coming in at the expense of a smaller player who will be desperately unlucky to miss.

There’s no doubt it would be a selection based not on form, but purely on structure, and in this case, purely about extra height.

Collingwood and West Coast have had some memorable finals clashes over the years, many of their seven previous September jousts decided by a matter of moments. This grand final meetings could well produce another classic. And this time, the decisive factor may well be a matter of inches.

*This article first appeared at SPORTING NEWS.

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