If we thought the 2020 AFL season was unusual, the 2021 season laughed and said, “hold my beer.”
It is a minor miracle the AFL managed to fixture 198 home and away games and (almost) an entire finals series in the midst of a pandemic where state borders have been about as reliable as the bounce of a Sherrin.
Having been given two hours to pack their bags, Sydney and GWS were away from home for 10 weeks, games were called off hours before the first bounce in Queensland and flights turned around, crowds became a luxury rather than an expectation, and for the second-straight season, tens of millions of dollars were spent on hubs and bio-secure bubbles.
Despite these roadblocks (literally), the 2021 AFL Grand Final, to be played in Perth for the first time in the competition’s 121-year history, will be a historic event. Optus Stadium is a world-class venue, Western Australia is COVID-free (at the time of writing), and for the second straight year, the blockbuster will beam live into the eastern states in prime time.
Only Gillon McLachlan would truly understand how the competition has avoided a complete shutdown, especially given lockdowns have forced cancellations of games in all states and territories at one time or another in this season. As he sits in quarantine in Perth, all he will be hoping for is a curveball free run into the Melbourne v Western Bulldogs clash on September 25.
2021 AFL Grand Final: The Competitors
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it should come as no surprise the Demons and Dogs will face off in a Grand Final for the first time since 1954 later this month.
For 16 of the 23 home and away rounds, the two clubs were either first or second on the ladder.
The arguments for both clubs go something like this…
The oldest football club in the country also has the longest drought since winning a premiership: 57 years.
It’s been 21 years since the Demons made a Grand Final and it’s not an overstatement to suggest the opportunity facing them is the best chance they’ve had to win a flag since Ron Barassi’s era.
In Max Gawn, Christian Petracca, Clayton Oliver and Steve May, coach Simon Goodwin has what are surely the four most valuable 10-15 players in the AFL. Crucially, Gawn, Oliver and Petracca have played all 24 games in 2021. If you want synergy with your ruckman and midfielders, then look no further than this trio, who are all at the peak of their powers.
The Demons come into the game having belted Geelong in the preliminary final. Aside from Adam Tomlinson, who ruptured his ACL earlier in the season, they will be at full strength for the Grand Final. May’s hamstring was cause for some concern against the Cats, but he will be fit.
Aside from the talent and strategy, Melbourne is riding a wave of momentum not seen since Richmond broke its 37-year premiership drought in 2017. It is difficult to imagine a team enjoying more seamless preparation for the biggest match of their careers.
Their defence has held up all year. Their midfield bats deep and has elite talent, and their forward-line has finally clicked in the last month. The pieces of the puzzle are there.
The Dogs were destined for a top-two finish until a late-season form slump saw them lose three straight games and slip to 5th.
As a result, they’ve reached the Grand Final the hard way. Not that this is unfamiliar territory – having won the flag from 7th in 2016.
This Luke Beveridge-led outfit carries a similar underdog tag, but it would be foolish to underestimate or dismiss their credentials. Their midfield is probably the only one that can match with Melbourne’s, while a week off will allow them to refresh after a brutal road trip in which they have spent the last month in a bubble in Launceston, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and now Perth again.
The ‘us against them’ mantra has worked for the club in the past and appears to be working again. In captain Marcus Bontempelli, they have the AFL’s most valuable player, as voted by his peers.
If 2016 never happened, ruling a line through the Dogs would make sense. But it did and who is to say history cannot repeat itself?
From a selection perspective, Alex Keath is expected to recover from a tight hamstring, while speedy forward Cody Weightman will be fit after a mild concussion. From their best 22, they are really only missing key forward Josh Bruce, who did his knee late in the year.
Where is the game & how do I get a ticket?
Optus Stadium has a capacity of 60,000 and it will need every last seat on September 25.
If you live in Perth, good luck finding a ticket. The entry-level price is $185, while 12,000 tickets have been made available to members of the two clubs. If any of the 24,000 tickets are not taken up, they will go to the general public.
The AFL has also announced a minimum of 10,000 tickets will automatically be allocated to the general public, which does not happen when the game is in Victoria.
These general public sales will commence on September 16 at 10 am (Perth time) and are available through Ticketmaster.
The match will begin at 5.15 pm local time.
Who’s most likely to win the Norm Smith Medal?
You could make an argument for each of the four favourites to win this year’s Norm Smith Medal.
Petracca ($6 with TAB) is a proven gun and was dominant against Geelong. Oliver ($7) finds the footy and looks as if he was born to play finals footy. Bontempelli ($8) was the Brownlow Medal favourite for most of the season and is a genuine superstar and proven big-game performer. His left foot slices through defences like a knife through microwaved butter.
Then there is the bearded captain and cult figure Gawn ($7.50), who not only was best afield but also played the game of his life against Geelong, booting five goals – four of them in the third quarter.
Of the others, Bailey Smith ($15) is peaking at the right time, kicking four goals against Port. At 20 years old, this man could be anything and he appears to rise with the occasion. Tom Liberatore ($17) and Jack Viney ($21) are likely to cancel each other out in the clinches and would love it to be wet, while Caleb Daniel and Christian Salem (both $26) will play the same role at opposite ends of the field.
If you’re having a punt on the Norm Smith Medal, first decide who you think will win the match. Not since 2005 (Chris Judd, West Coast) has a player won the medal in a losing team.
Oliver is the safest bet, but the best value may be Bayley Fritsch ($26). He comes into the Grand Final having booted 14 goals in his last four games and could go unnoticed with Ben Brown commanding the Dogs attention in the front half.
Who does history tell us will win the Premiership?
Recent history tells us very little about the chances of these two teams. In Round 11, Melbourne won by 28 points, but in Round 19, the Dogs were victorious by 20 points. Crucially, both games were played in front of empty stadiums.
For a variety of reasons, no team has won the flag from 1st position on the ladder since Hawthorn in 2013. The Demons will hope to reverse this on September 25.
Winning from outside the four has been almost impossible since the current top-eight system was introduced in 2000. The only team to achieve the feat has been – you guessed it – the Dogs in 2016. Can lightning strike twice?
Finishing 5th to 8th as Beveridge’s men did in 2016 and have done so again in 2021 is significantly more arduous because it forces the club to win four consecutive cut-throat finals in four weeks.
But the week off between the preliminary final and Grand Final in 2021 mitigates the physical toll somewhat this season. It allows the Dogs to breathe, refresh, and go again.
The Western Bulldogs also know what breaking a drought is all about. In 2016 they snapped a 62-year hiatus for the club’s second-ever premiership. The scenes in Melbourne’s western suburbs lasted beyond Christmas.
Melbourne has won 12 flags since 1897, but 10 of these were in a golden period between 1939 and 1964. Since their last premiership, they’ve played in just two Grand Finals and failed to finish in the top eight between 2006 and 2018. It was less than a decade ago the club was a laughing stock.
The romantic will argue it’s the Demons’ turn. But as Nathan Jones knows, there are no fairytales in football. The Dogs have proved time after time they don’t care for form or fate.
What it means for the coaches
Alongside Nathan Buckley, Simon Goodwin was the coach under the most pressure to keep his job at the start of the season.
Melbourne’s meteoric rise to a preliminary final in 2018 was followed by a 17th place finish in 2019 and another finals miss in 2020.
To assist him, CEO Gary Pert embarked on a football department review at the end of last year, elevating Alan Richardson to head of football, and bringing Demons great Adem Yze and 2004 premiership coach Mark Williams in from oblivion.
Yze, who was poached from under Alastair Clarkson’s nose at Hawthorn, quickly became Goodwin’s go-to strategy guy, organizing the team defence and ball movement. Williams had a focus on player development, but also acted as a senior sounding board to Goodwin.
The revamped football department refreshed players and reinvigorated Goodwin, who needed new ideas after two failed seasons and his career on the line.
As a player, Goodwin played in two Adelaide flags in his first 31 games. A Crows great, he knew what success looked like but needed a kick-along to reboot the club at the end of 2020. On September 25, he has the chance to become Melbourne’s first premiership coach since Norm Smith: Not bad for a guy who likely would have been sacked if things went wrong.
In the other coaches’ box, Luke Beveridge has done things his own way. As a player, he was a workmanlike type operator who managed 118 games for the Demons, Saints and Dogs across a decade.
After retiring, he made a name for himself as coach of St Bedes/Mentone in the Victorian Amateur Football Association (VAFA).
There he became the first and only man to win C Grade, B Grade and A Grade premierships in three consecutive years. Nine of his players were part of the three-peat. Success followed him wherever he went afterwards. In 2010, he was part of Mick Malthouse’s coaching team when Collingwood won the flag, before helping Clarkson and Hawthorn in 2013 and 2014 achieve the ultimate.
In 2016, just two seasons into his time at the Bulldogs, Beveridge’s Dogs upset Sydney to win the flag. In the time since the list has matured but fallen short, until now. No coach – maybe aside from Damien Hardwick – defends his players as vigorously in the media.
If the Western Bulldogs win, Beveridge becomes an all-time great coach. If Melbourne wins, Goodwin’s name will be more iconic to Demons fans than it was to Adelaide’s supporters. Their legacies will be shaped by the result of one match.
Where can you watch the AFL Grand Final?
The Grand Final will be broadcast live on Channel 7 from 7.15 pm (EST).
Fox Footy does not have rights to the game, but the pre-game will begin at 2 pm on the pay-TV provider.
What will the Grand Final entertainment be?
It has been widely reported that Birds Of Tokyo has won the coveted headline slot ahead of other local bands for Grand Final day.
Birds of Tokyo last played at the event in 2013, alongside Hunters & Collectors and Mike Brady.
The league is expected to confirm the entertainment this week. Music acts will be performed before the first bounce and during an extended half-time break.
What are this year’s Premiership odds?
The punters cannot ignore the Demons’ form across two dominant finals against fellow top-four teams, but the Dogs have spirit and culture that is impossible to discount.
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