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Figures say ‘defence wins flag’ mantra doesn’t tell full story

Alex Rance’s capacity to launch counter-attacks from defence will be just as important to Richmond as his defensive qualities. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Figures say ‘defence wins flag’ mantra doesn’t tell full story

Luke Michael    

While most AFL fans enjoy watching a high-scoring, attacking brand of football during the season, there is often a perception come September that defence wins premierships.

This popular train of thought assumes that under the intense, contested ball style of finals, the team with the sturdiest defence will come out on top.

Given this mantra, Richmond should be confident it will be able to break its 37-year premiership drought on Saturday.

After all, this grand final is being billed by many as a game between attack and defence, with the Crows an ultra-attacking team, while Richmond relies more heavily on its defensive prowess.

Saturday, in terms of points scored and conceded this season, pits the best attacking team (Adelaide) against the third-best defensive team (Richmond). But while the “defensive” bandwagon picks up a lot more passengers this time of year, the stats don’t necessarily confirm that it’s a finals fashion essential.

Since 2000 (not including the draw in 2010), only six of the 17 grand finals played have been won by the team ranked higher defensively.

And of the nine grand finals played since 2008, only two higher-ranking defensive teams have won the flag – Sydney in 2012 against Hawthorn, and the Hawks themselves in 2015 against West Coast.

And even the Swans five years ago won despite Hawthorn having 18 more inside 50s, the Hawks’ loss as much due to their inability to make the most of their scoring opportunities as Sydney’s efforts.

This doesn’t mean more attacking sides always win the premiership. The higher-ranked offensive team has still won only 10 of those 17 playoffs since 2000. But it has proved a more accurate guide to predicting the winner than a defensive measuring stick.

In fact, “attack wins premierships” may be a more appropriate mantra, given 13 of the 17 premiers since 2000 have been ranked in the top two offensively, compared to 10 out of 17 ranked top two defensively.

What does it mean for Saturday? That Richmond would have to buck the trend offensively, the Tigers’ attack ranked only eighth this season.

Sydney in 2005 (14th) and the Western Bulldogs last year (12th), are the only teams ranked lower than sixth offensively in the post-2000 era who have gone on to win the flag.

Perhaps more concerning for Richmond is the fact that Adelaide, whilst an attacking juggernaut which has averaged nearly two goals per game more than its nearest rival this season, is also ranked fourth defensively, the Crows covering off both bases.

Richmond has passed 100 points only seven times this season (including finals). Over the same period, Adelaide has scored 100-plus on 15 occasions.

Richmond full-back Alex Rance acknowledged on Monday that Adelaide was the best offensive side in the league, but denied that the Tigers would need to keep them under 100 points in the decider.

“It’s not on my mind too much. If you have always got a goal in your head to limit, less than 100 points, less than 80 points, you are setting yourself up for success or failure,” he said. “It’s more about live in the moment, enjoy each contest for what it is, and really soak it in.

“If we can bring our defensive intent, which we did at the weekend, it will definitely make the game interesting.

“I am sure there are plenty of different things to play out during the game, winning the contest and things like that. But if we can bring our defensive intent, it will stand us in pretty good stead.”

Adelaide’s posse of goalkickers, Taylor Walker, Josh Jenkins, Tom Lynch, Eddie Betts and Charlie Cameron, are all capable of scoring heavily on their own, let alone as a combination.

Richmond will rely on its incredible defensive pressure to get it across the line, but will need to curtail an Adelaide forward line that even sans Mitch McGovern, boasts considerable fire power.

The Tigers have conceded the third-fewest points this season for a reason though, and have the league’s best defender in Rance on their side.

But given the importance of scoring on grand final day the stats suggest, Richmond will be hoping Rance can get off the leash and use his intercept marking ability to launch counter-attacks off half-back.

The Tigers will need to take a different approach to that adopted in the round six clash this season, where they managed only 64 points and allowed a rampant Adelaide to score 21 goals and record a comprehensive 76-point victory.

Richmond can take heart, though, from the Bulldogs’ success in last year’s decider. Like the Tigers, the Dogs relied on manic pressure, a sturdy defence and a smaller forward mix to topple a more-fancied opponent in Sydney.

And unlike the Dogs, the Tigers do have at their disposal a recognised key forward in Jack Riewoldt, and the best attacking midfielder in the game, recently crowned Brownlow medallist Dustin Martin.

While Richmond’s defensive strength and feverish pressure will almost be a given on Saturday, it will be its ability to hurt Adelaide on the scoreboard which perhaps will be just as important as stopping the Crows’ potent forward line.

Defence may indeed by key to winning premierships, but, as obvious as it sounds, its sometimes worth repeating the fact it’s the team which can score most which will hold the premiership cup aloft.

Adelaide knows it has the offensive capability it takes to win a grand final. But whether Richmond can utilise its own attacking weapons to kick a winning score will be one of Saturday’s most intriguing questions.

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