It’s the white collar Swans versus the blue collar Bulldogs for AFL’s grandest prize

Date: October 1, 2016 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

sydneyIn 2005, the Sydney Swans ended the longest premiership drought in the history of the VFL/AFL. Its four-point win over West Coast brought to a close a 72-year run without a flag.

On Saturday, the Western Bulldogs will be hoping to snap the longest current premiership drought of the existing 18 clubs. Footscray’s only triumph was in 1954. Its last grand final appearance was in 1961.

In recent times, the Sydney Swans have known all about grand finals. This Saturday will be their third in the past five seasons. It will also be their fifth appearance on the big stage in the last dozen years. Only Hawthorn can boast a similar record.

Bulldogs fans will be hoping this year is the start of a similarly golden period.

The Bulldogs got close to a grand final berth between 2008-10 with three consecutive preliminary final losses. This weekend they finally get their shot under second-year coach, Luke Beveridge, who yesterday was named Coach of the Year for the second consecutive year.

The appointment of Beveridge, who replaced Brendan McCarthy, has proved to be a masterstroke. In his maiden season at the helm he took the club to sixth on the ladder before a heartbreaking seven-point loss to Adelaide in an elimination final.

Despite the improvement last season there were plenty of naysayers in the pre-season predicted a slide for the Bulldogs this year. In terms of ladder position after the home-and-away season the club finished one spot lower despite notching up 15 wins, one more than last year.

Getting to that point was a significant achievement in itself given the long list of injuries the club suffered, headlined in round three when skipper Robert Murphy suffered a season-ending knee injury.

At one point pretty much the entire first-pick backline was sidelined and in the run home Mitch Wallis, Marcus Adams and Jack Redpath all saw their season end prematurely. The fact that the Bulldogs, largely bereft of key tall defenders, had the third lowest points against is testament to the coaching prowess of Beveridge.

Much has been said in the lead-up to this weekend about the advantages Sydney has reaped from the AFL’s COLA (Cost of Living Allowance) and the Academy zones.

COLA no doubt played a part in securing the talents of Lance Franklin and Kurt Tippett, while young gun Isaac Heeney and 2016 Rising Star Callum Mills came to the club through the academy system. For the Bulldogs there has been no such advantages.

In the four seasons prior to Beveridge’s arrival at Whitten Oval the club finished 14th, 15th, 15th and 10th.

Since 2010 the Bulldogs have assembled a grand final squad with the aid of very few high draft selections. Just three have come inside the top-16 – Jake Stringer and Jack McRae at picks five and six in 2012 and the outrageously talented Marcus Bontompelli at pick four in 2013.

The cornerstone of the Beveridge game plan has been ‘fast footy’. There was no better illustration of that than the 47-point dismantling of the Eagles at Domain Stadium on the opening Thursday of the final series.

The swift ball movement cut a swathe through the normally redoubtable West Coast defence. Allied to the run and stun style has been a ferocity at the contest.

In week two of the finals the win over Hawthorn continued to generate self-belief. That would have been amplified last week by overcoming a 13-point deficit in the final quarter against GWS.

The Bulldogs have had 14 players average 20 or more disposals this season, indicating how the workload has been spread. Of those 14, Murphy and Wallis are definite non-starters on Saturday while Koby Stevens is a doubtful selection.

Sydney has had seven players average over 20 disposals this season – Dan Hanebery (31), Josh Kennedy (31), Tom Mitchell (28), Luke Parker (27), Jake Lloyd (25), Kieren Jack (23) and Jarrad McVeigh (21), who is not a guaranteed starter on Saturday.

While the Swans have more guilt edged midfielders, the Bulldogs have a solid core of blue collar workers with Bontompelli the clear standout.

And then there is Buddy. While he only kicked two goals last week against Geelong, Franklin’s attack on the footy and ability to crash through defenders was one of the driving forces behind the Swans’ seven goal to one opening term. In terms of goal kicking he has had a relatively lean finals series with six goals from three finals. He is of course an ever present threat.

The Swans are the number one side for inside-50s this season and they showed in the opening term against the Cats that when they get on a roll they can do real damage on the scoreboard. Sydney’s midfield is ranked number two in clearances with the Bulldogs at number three.

The Bulldogs have to prevent the Swans from getting clean ball at stoppages forward of the centreline if they are to help nullify the Buddy effect.

The Bulldogs have to prevent Sydney from starting like they did against Adelaide and Geelong in their last two finals. They led the Crows by 25 points at quarter-time and the Cats by 39 points the first change.

It is crucial that the Bulldogs are not overawed by the occasion and stuck in the blocks otherwise the game could be out of reach at the first break.

The Bulldogs can take heart from their last two encounters with the Swans, which resulted in four-point wins each time, 83-79 and 77-73. Both games were played at the SCG. It is often said that the Bulldogs are a several goal better side at Etihad but their recent record at the MCG is solid with five wins from their past seven games.

Since its victory in the 2012 grand final, Sydney has won nine of its past 14 games at the MCG, including four of its past five.

This season’s finale shapes as an intriguing affair. Sentiment rests with the Western Bulldogs as the majority of non-Sydney fans will be cheering them on.

Across the board, the Swans have the more talented side but matches are not always won on talent alone.

The Bulldogs will be fortified by the fact that they sit one win away from club immortality.

For me, the head says Sydney albeit narrowly. The heart however is with the Bulldogs.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 22 September 2016, soliciting 46 comments