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Previews with punch – The 2018 Grand Final

Eyes on the prize: West Coast’s Nathan Vardy and Collingwood’s Brodie Grundy battle it out in the ruck during the qualifying final. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Previews with punch – The 2018 Grand Final

Ronny Lerner    

WEST COAST v COLLINGWOOD – Grand Final (MCG, Saturday 2.30pm local time)

After six months and 206 games of gruelling footy, it comes down to this – West Coast v Collingwood in one of the most unlikely grand finals imaginable pre-season.

The Eagles were widely predicted to tumble down the ladder in 2018, as low as the bottom four, as even coach Adam Simpson asserted in March his team was embarking on a reboot focussing on youth which would see the playing list enter a transition phase.

And after four consecutive years of no finals, with coach Nathan Buckley hanging on to his job by the skin of his teeth, the doomsayers had Collingwood sharply in their sights heading into the favourite son’s seventh year at the helm.

But footy is a funny game, and if seasons 2016 and 2017 taught us anything, it’s that unpredictability is the only thing predictable about the modern game.

Thank goodness these two teams are playing off for the premiership as well because given how evenly matched they are, the 2018 Grand Final has the potential to be one of the best.

And if their finals rivalry is anything to go by, with only one of eight games ending up a blowout, another September classic looms.

For the Eagles, it’s their seventh grand final in just 27 years, in what can only be described as a remarkable strike rate.

For the Magpies, a foundation club of the VFL/AFL, it’s their 44th premiership decider – 15 more than the next best, which not only speaks to what a powerhouse club they have been but also illustrates just how cursed they’ve been by the “Colliwobbles” given they still trail Essendon and Carlton (16) for most premierships in the history of the game.

Yet Collingwood, which hasn’t made it this far in a season since 2011, will finally get its chance to join its bitter local rivals on Saturday at the top of the pile as they close in on flag No.16.

West Coast is aiming for its fourth flag since joining the competition 31 years ago and, like Collingwood, will be out for a form of redemption after failing dismally in its last appearance on the biggest day of the year three years ago.

In order to claim victory on Saturday, many things have to go right for the Eagles – starting in the middle of the ground.

Collingwood’s All-Australian ruckman Brodie Grundy could be a massive stumbling block to premiership glory for the Eagles, especially considering he is fresh from one of the best performances of his career in the Magpies’ stunning upset victory over Richmond in last week’s preliminary final.

However, West Coast is one team that has handled the potential game-breaker well this year with Scott Lycett doing the job in round 17 at the MCG after Nic Naitanui went down, and he and Nathan Vardy quelling Grundy’s influence again in the second qualifying final, working him over and gradually wearing him down at Optus Stadium three weeks ago.

Importantly, the Eagles won both games, and in the first meeting dispelled any concerns over their perceived inability to play well at the MCG.

And Lycett and Vardy did the job again last week on arguably the best ruckman in the AFL, Max Gawn.

Steele Sidebottom, fresh from a second placing in the Brownlow Medal, is another major threat, and he will likely be tagged by Eagles stopper Mark Hutchings.

Collingwood’s midfield is probably stronger, but Dom Sheed has done very well since West Coast star Andrew Gaff exited the side due to suspension, and Jack Redden is having a brilliant finals series. Elliot Yeo, Luke Shuey, Chris Masten and Lewis Jetta round out a formidable on-ball brigade.

West Coast employs a very precise kicking game that sees its players use the angles well, while the Eagles’ propensity for controlling the air with uncontested marks could prove vital. The Eagles haven’t lost this year when taking over 90 marks in a game.

Jeremy McGovern, who has been battling a hip issue, in particular will be a crucial player in that department, and it wouldn’t surprise to see Chris Mayne go straight to him at the first bounce after the job he did on him in the qualifying final after McGovern had got off to a blistering start.

Up forward is where the Eagles have the best chance of winning. They boast arguably the best front six in the competition with Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling sure to test Collingwood’s undersized backline, the exciting Liam Ryan and Willie Rioli possessing the potential to wreak havoc, the evergreen Mark LeCras always a threat and, fresh from one of the best games of his career, Jamie Cripps capable of kicking three or four goals.

The Magpies are backing in Tyson Goldsack, but it must be said as the game wore on last time against West Coast, Kennedy started to get the better of him, while Richmond spearhead Jack Riewoldt beat him soundly last week. It could prove to be the most crucial match-up of the day.

It would have been tempting for the Magpies to recall either Darcy Moore or Ben Reid, but they’ve backed in their back six and, like West Coast, go in unchanged, probably the sensible thing to do given how unreliable Moore’s and Reid’s bodies have proven.

Jeremy Howe (ankle) trained strongly on Thursday in a further boost for Collingwood’s defence.

But to make the most of its potent forward line, West Coast needs to provide enough supply, and Collingwood’s midfield is not going to allow that easily.

Grundy, Sidebottom, Scott Pendlebury, Adam Treloar and Taylor Adams form the nucleus of an extremely dangerous midfield unit that has the ability to take the game away from a team very quickly, as minor premier Richmond found out last week.

The Magpies’ all-ground pressure has been a sight to behold for most of the year, but last week it went to a whole new level as the Tigers, who have been the best pressure team in the competition for over 12 months, wilted and collapsed under the intense black-and-white heat.

West Coast knows all too well how full-on Collingwood’s pressure can be. After all, the Magpies were leading their qualifying final at the 24-minute mark of the final term and came very close to snatching a famous win in Perth on the back of it.

The Pies’ forward line also has the potential to be extremely damaging and Jordan De Goey reminded the footy world last week of how much respect he needs to be paid as he tore five-time All-Australian Alex Rance apart.

Mason Cox played the game of his life in what was one of the great individual finals performances against the Tigers, so Tom Barrass will have his work cut out to replicate the brilliant blanketing job he did on him three weeks ago.

And in Jaidyn Stephenson, Josh Thomas, Brody Mihocek and Will Hoskin-Elliott, Collingwood has plenty of other avenues to goal, which means West Coast’s backline will be on high alert for most of the day.

The momentum that Collingwood takes into this game is enormous, but can it play as well as they did last week? Probably not.

Yet if Nathan Buckley’s men bring the fundamentals of their pressure-based game to the table again, as they have done for most of the season, they will be very hard to beat, perhaps just a little too much for the Eagles to handle.

RONNY’S TIP: Collingwood by 8 points. Norm Smith Medal: Steele Sidebottom (Coll)
ROCO’S TIP: West Coast by 8 points. Norm Smith Medal: Elliot Yeo (WC)


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