How will the cards fall for the 'lesser lights'?
GRAND finals are littered with big-game performances from big-name players. A look at the list of Norm Smith medallists quickly confirms the point.
Jimmy Bartel was inspirational last year, winning the Norm Smith Medal, and helping to get the Cats across the line.
Scott Pendlebury, Lenny Hayes, Paul Chapman, Stevie Johnson, Luke Hodge, Chris Judd, Simon Black, Nathan Buckley, Andrew McLeod. These are names that are all either in, or destined for, the AFL Hall of Fame, and their ability to perform on the biggest stage of all validates their position among our football elite.
With the likes of Buddy Franklin, Sam Mitchell, Brad Sewell, Adam Goodes, Ryan O'Keefe and Josh Kennedy in action this afternoon, the honour roll of winners is highly unlikely to suffer.
The fact is, the elite performers in each team have a narrow gap between their best and worst performances. Take Buddy as a classic example last week against the Crows. Watching the game, you had to be impressed by the performance of his direct opponent, Ben Rutten. He won his share of one-out battles, used his footy smarts to compensate for the athletic advantage Buddy held over him and competed ferociously
. Yet Buddy finished up kicking 3.5, with one out on the full, and gave two others to teammates.
The big guns find a way to have an influence on the game. What may be the defining factor in today's grand final is how much influence the so-called lesser lights can impart on the match, and how well they can deal with the pressure of this enormous "all-or-nothing" occasion.
For the Hawks, the four players that I will be most interested in to see how they settle into this high-pressured environment are Paul Puopolo, Shane Savage, Ryan Schoenmakers and Isaac Smith. Puopolo has been able to break into this strong Hawthorn side and hold his place throughout the year. He has played 20 games and kicked 24 goals, which is a very serviceable return, given his predominant role is to put enormous offensive pressure inside the Hawks' forward 50. He averaged just fewer than three tackles a game but his two finals have served up a mixed bag. Seven tackles in the first final was compensation for just nine possessions.
Last week, however, he managed just six touches and laid a solitary tackle, without hitting the scoreboard at all. He needs to get involved early with his tackling against the Swans, who have tremendous rebounding defenders in Rhyce Shaw, Marty Mattner and Nick Malceski. I'd like to see him set for Shaw, who was close to best on ground for the Swans, and make him his priority. Scoring becomes a bonus and his focus is very clear.
Schoenmakers has generated plenty of discussion and has conceded plenty of goals to his direct opponent in the past five or six weeks. But he did have a very good game in the Hawks' narrow victory over the Swans in round 22. Sam Reid shapes as his likely opponent and he appears better suited to Reid than the likes of Kurt Tippett, Travis Cloke and Tom Hawkins. The Swans will isolate him at every opportunity but Alastair Clarkson and his group have maintained the faith and will back him in again.
Smith has averaged 18 possessions in both finals this year and his ability to run the lines is critical for the Hawks. The Swans may opt for Lewis Jetta on one wing and even Adam Goodes on the other, which would place enormous pressure on Smith's defensive accountability. Would Clarko trust him with either of the two Swans matchwinners? A Smith v Jetta match-up is a possibility, though I feel Liam Shiels is the more likely option. He will need to be flexible in his mindset and planning and may find himself playing in a different role. This is his biggest challenge.
Savage has played as the sub in both finals and may find himself in the role again. He came on early against the Pies and had a terrific impact when Brendan Whitecross was forced from the ground early with a knee injury. The Hawks would take a 14-possession, two-goal performance from him, which he produced when called on against the Pies. He followed up with three possessions in the preliminary final from restricted time. The substitute role can be critical and, if entrusted to him, he needs to be able to make an impact. The pressure will be on.
For the Swans, the corresponding four are Luke Parker, Mitch Morton, Craig Bird and Nick Smith.
Smith and Bird have more games under their belt than any of the Hawthorn quartet. Smith, who has 73 games to his name, was sixth in the Swans' best-and-fairest award last year — a terrific result. He is a big chance to go to Cyril Rioli and if he was able to take the honours in this battle it would go a long way to deciding the outcome of the game. Bird is even more experienced, with 86 games to his name. He, too, can be trusted with a lockdown role, and in lots of ways epitomises the Swans and their success. He is low-profile, unobtrusive but rarely plays a poor game.
Both Bird and Smith shape as the most reliable two players of the eight we are talking about. It may prove decisive.
Parker is a wonderful competitor. Before he broke his collarbone in round 10, he had established himself in the Swans' ferocious midfield rotation. He, too, has had to deal with the substitute's vest in both finals, and with a week off in between, he hasn't played a lot of football in recent times. With just a combined five touches in both finals, trying to have an impact in a grand final will be a very big challenge.
Morton bobbed up in the qualifying final against the Crows in a big way — 14 disposals, four tackles and two goals, in a low-scoring affair, had him as one of the most influential players on the ground. He looked a little lost in the prelim against Collingwood and wasn't able to present as a dangerous scoring option, but he finished with seven tackles, which would have pleased John Longmire.
In the overall scheme of things, it could be argued the Swans bat a bit deeper than the Hawks. They could possibly have a more even spread of talent.
But whether it is enough to offset a slight imbalance at the very top end, where the likes of Franklin, Mitchell, Hodge, Rioli, Shaun Burgoyne and Sewell preside, remains the question, and the reason why we look set for a terrific grand final.