Swan Heath Grundy training at the SCG. Photo: Ben Rushton
LUKE Hodge is not the type of player prone to denigrating opponents. Nevertheless, the Hawthorn captain's description this week of looming grand final opponent Sydney's defence as ''solid'' was a significant understatement.
For all the midfield riches the season's top two teams possess, both have also benefited significantly from the area where they seem most bereft of stars: defence.
The likes of Grant Birchall and Ben Stratton for the Hawks and Heath Grundy and Alex Johnson for the Swans have been bigger contributors than their public profiles would indicate.
Hawthorn defender Grant Birchall in action. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
The Hawks' master spoiler Josh Gibson has belatedly earned some public recognition for his good form, although he insisted yesterday that was largely due to continuity among he and the other defenders.
''It's been really good this year. We've had guys consistently play a lot of footy together, and over the past few years we've had injuries down there,'' Gibson said. ''Just being able to play so much together, working out each other's game styles and being predictable to one another has made my job and some of the other defenders' jobs a lot easier.''
Across the season, Hawthorn's defence has typically comprised Gibson, Birchall, Stratton, Ryan Schoenmakers, Matt Suckling and Brent Guerra. Sydney's has comprised Grundy, Johnson, Marty Mattner, Rhyce Shaw, Nick Smith and new All-Australian Ted Richards.
The Hawks' first-choice back six has missed only 10 matches between them, which will increase to 11 on Saturday as Guerra remains sidelined with a hamstring injury. The Swans' incumbent defenders have missed only five between them.
Significantly, neither team has gone into a match this season with more than one of its first-choice defenders unavailable.
Hawthorn has been the best team at denying its opponent's inside-50 entries, allowing an average of 46 (although much of that credit must go to its midfielders). It also ranks third-best for scores against (average of 80) and has allowed its opponents to score from only 48 per cent of inside-50 entries, enough for a No. 7 ranking.
Sydney officially boasts the league's stingiest defence, with its opponents scoring on average only 73 points. The Swans are also the most effective at repelling attacks, with only 42 per cent of the inside-50 concessions resulting in scores to their opposition.
What makes both top-ranking achievements more significant is that the Swans are ninth for denying inside-50 entries with 50, meaning they face an average of four more forward thrusts per match than the Hawks but nullify them more effectively. In the Hawks' win at Sydney in round 22, Gibson had only four possessions and one mark, season lows for both, yet still proved his worth with 15 spoils.
Gibson's ability to regularly thwart inside-50 entries has triggered rivals to tweak their game styles to thwart him, largely by avoiding long kicks to packs and by having his immediate opponent draw him away from play.
While Gibson's primary focus is on beating his opponent rather than boosting personal statistics, he is willing to risk leaving his opponents to help a teammate.
''You want to be able to chop-out for your teammates whenever you can. That's not just for me, that goes for anyone in the side,'' he said. ''It's always nerve-racking when you leave your man, you've got to back your judgment and just make sure that if you get there that you impact, so it [the ball] doesn't fall to your man.''