The Weekend Preview is a blog that aims to provide a different angle on the narrative of an upcoming sporting event.

AFL Grand Final: Adelaide vs. Richmond

AFL Grand Final: Adelaide vs. Richmond

Saturday Afternoon, 30th September 2017 at the MCG

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He looked as if he had been hit by a Sherman tank and I just could not believe my eyes.

Neville Crowe [1]

2017 marks the 50th anniversary of Richmond’s 1967 Premiership success – a premiership that ended a 24-year drought for the Tigers. Sound familiar? And in the aftermath of Trent Cotchin’s non-suspension for his bump on Dylan Shiel in the Preliminary Final last weekend, it is worth reflecting for a moment on the story of Neville Crowe in the lead up to that 1967 Grand Final.

Neville Crowe, Richmond’s first choice ruckman at the time, missed out on the euphoria of the 1967 Grand Final win due to being suspended for a strike on John “Big Nick” Nicholls in the Semi Final win against Carlton. Referring to the hit on Nicholls as a strike is probably an overstatement, more an open hand slap. Regardless, contact appeared minimal or non-existent depending on who you asked. Crowe was subsequently suspended for 4 games (his first suspension in an 11-year career) and was in tears leaving the Tribunal hearing, his dreams of playing in a Grand Final extinguished. I’ve included footage below (watch the last 30 seconds of the video) – so you can decide for yourself whether Crowe deserved to miss the Grand Final.

But what did Big Nick have to say for himself? Unfortunately his version of events that he recounted in his autobiography offered little as to whether he took a dive or not. Although, even if he did offer an explanation to his dramatic collapse to the ground, I would question the accuracy of his account, as he couldn’t even correctly recall who the player was that hit him. Nicholls claimed it was Craig McKellar that hit him, even though McKellar didn’t start playing league football until 1971!

John Nicholls [Carlton]: After this semi-final battle Craig McKellar was suspended for four weeks for striking me. The incident was sparked off when the game was at a desperate stage just after half time. Carlton was struggling and Craig was about to take a free kick on the half forward line and on the spur of the moment we had a bit of a hassle. I gave him a nudge in the ribs and he lost his temper and let one go at me and was reported. Regardless of what Richmond may think, the incident was not intentional on my part. I didn’t try to stir him so he would be reported, I was only trying to break his concentration. In Kevin Sheedy, the Tigers had a master at this sort of tactic. [2]

Incredibly, the Semi Final win over Carlton was Richmond’s first final in 20 years and the Tigers did not have a single player in their line-up who had previously played in a final. However, their inexperience in finals didn’t seem to phase them, such was the confidence their coach Tom Hafey had instilled into them. And much like in 2017, the Tiger Army got behind their men:

Dick Clay [Richmond]: The week of the Grand Final, the build-up, after training I looked out and there’s people queuing up for tickets and it’s raining. They’ve got their tarpaulins over their head, a little bloody gas burner going, they’re having something to eat, a beer. These supporters are out their doing that for you. I’m thinking “oh, geez, this is what VFL finals are all about”. [3]

Tom Hafey’s game plan for the Tigers was simple. It was based around hard running and long kicking – moving the ball as quickly and as efficiently as possible. There was also an emphasis on getting everybody forward of the ball and outnumbering the opposition. This notion of forward pressure and Hafey’s love of pace makes comparisons to Richmond’s current mosquito fleet inevitable (although in contrast to Hardwick’s Tigers, Hafey did also like complementing pace with height). And in ‘67 there was also a 19-year old Royce Hart (future Centre-Half-Forward of the Century) whose role in the Grand Final could be compared to that of Jack Riewoldt’s this week, with an emphasis on creating a contest, second efforts and maintaining pressure:

Royce Hart [Richmond]: Key forwards shouldn’t just rely on winning the ball in the air. Key forwards need to be good marks, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. You don’t have to take marks, one-grab marks. Getting the ball on the ground is as good as getting it in the air – the main thing is getting it. A lot of players don’t give second efforts when the ball hits the ground. The attitude should be: ‘If I don’t get it the first time, I’ll get it the second or the third time – or however many times it takes’. You’ve got to keep going at the ball until it’s out of your area. [4]

As it turned out, Hafey’s game plan worked and Richmond won their first premiership since 1943, defeating Geelong in a highly entertaining Grand Final. It was fast paced, high scoring and went down to the wire in the last quarter. The scores were level on four occasions in the last quarter, before Kevin Bartlett eventually kicked the sealer:

Kevin Bartlett [Richmond]: I kicked 778 goals in my career, but I reckon the best of them was on that afternoon. It was late in the last quarter, and there was less than a goal in it, when the ball came loose near the goals and five players converged on it. We all got there at once, but I got my hands on the football first, ran backwards out of the pack, turned around and kicked the goal that sealed the Grand Final. [5]

The drought was over, and despite the continued success of the Tigers over the next decade, the first premiership is always remembered as the sweetest:

Francis Bourke [Richmond]: ’67 was special because of the breakthrough year. 24 years of nothing. All the long-time supporters, you ask them now which one was the best and they’ll say, without doubt ’67. [3]

And as for Neville Crowe, he never played league football again.

 Figure-1: Richmond vs. Geelong, 1967 Grand Final

Figure-1: Richmond vs. Geelong, 1967 Grand Final

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Not to be outdone, the Crows are celebrating an anniversary of their own – 20 years since they first raised the Premiership Cup. Adelaide won the 1997 flag in only their 7th season in the competition and in Malcolm Blight’s first season in charge. And although in completely different circumstances to Neville Crowe their was also heartbreak within the Adelaide team. Adelaide’s champion full forward Tony Modra, in a season where he had kicked 84 goals, broke down with a serious knee injury in the Preliminary Final against the Bulldogs. Parallels can be made to Brodie Smith when he sustained a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee in the Qualifying Final a few weeks ago, ending both his season and his 2017 Grand Final dreams.

However, Adelaide entered the 1997 Grand Final against St Kilda not only without Modra, but without Peter Vardy (28 goals for the season in his second year at the club, eerily similar to the injured Mitch McGovern this week, with his 32 goals in his second year at the club) and a young Mark Ricciuto among other first team regulars. But rising on the big stage was the mercurial Darren Jarman (6 goals), the journeyman Shane Ellen (5 goals) and the brilliant Andrew McLeod whose inspired second half performance took the game into Adelaide’s control and earned him a Norm Smith Medal in the process.

Adelaide’s opponent that day, St Kilda, entered the Grand Final in top form (on a 9-game winning streak) and was attempting to end a long Premiership drought (31 years at the time), not too dissimilar to Richmond this year. Can Adelaide break the heart of a success starved football club again?

Further similarities to 2017 include the attacking flair with which the 1997 Crows played. Malcolm Blight was known for his attacking, free flowing football and so one imagines he would approve of the style of the current Crows outfit. But in Malcolm Blight’s opinion it would be hard to top the 1997 premiership:

Malcolm Blight [Adelaide]: We had a number of players leave, some serious injuries, yet still won 13 games. And then… to win all four finals in a row and take the flag… Every other club in the history of the AFL had a 140-year start, yet none of them won four in a row. No-one said it could ever be done. Still hasn’t been repeated. It’s the most undervalued September in the history of the game. The Adelaide Football Club was magnificent. [3]

Of course Adelaide would go on to win back-to-back premierships, with Vardy and Ricciuto experiencing in 1998 what they missed out on the previous season. Not so, Tony Modra. After battling back from injury and returning to the senior side in Round 16, Modra was dropped after the Qualifying Final loss to Melbourne. After missing out on a premiership a second time, he never played for Adelaide again.

 Figure-2: Adelaide vs. St Kilda, 1997 Grand Final

Figure-2: Adelaide vs. St Kilda, 1997 Grand Final

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As for the Grand Final itself this week, we are presented with the age old debate, does attack or defence win premierships? In one corner we have the best attacking team in the AFL (Adelaide) and in the other corner we have the best defensive team in the AFL (Richmond). Adelaide averaged 110 points per game in 2017 and were the only team to average over 100 points per game. When it came to attacking they were by far and away the best. Whilst Richmond’s defence, led by All-Australian Full Back (and All-Australian Captain) Alex Rance have conceded on average only 75 points per game in 2017, ranked Number 1 in the AFL.

Let's evaluate both team's attack and defence in more detail.

Adelaide: 

Figure-3 and Figure-4 present an overview of Adelaide’s overall attack and defence in the 2017 season. The plots present all 24 games Adelaide has played during the 2017 season (including finals) and indicates how they scored/defended compared to the averages of their opponent. The figures also provide an overall trendline indicating how much they on average played below or above expectation. In attack, Adelaide scored 22% more points on average than what their opponents usually concede, indicating how hard they are to stop from scoring. But their defence is potentially a little underrated. They on average restricted their opponents to a score 15% below what they usually score. This balance between attack and defence is reflected in their very high home & away season ladder percentage of 136.0%.

Figure-3 and Figure-4 also highlight the performances of the Crows in the final part of the season (nominally taken as from Round 17 onwards). Their top end scoring has dropped off, but their defence has improved.

 Figure-3: Adelaide’s Offence in 2017

Figure-3: Adelaide’s Offence in 2017

 Figure-4: Adelaide’s Defence in 2017

Figure-4: Adelaide’s Defence in 2017

Richmond:

Figure-5 and Figure-6 present an overview of Richmond’s overall attack and defence in the 2017 season. Similarly to the figures presented for Adelaide, the plots present all 24 games Richmond has played during the 2017 season (including finals) and indicates how they scored/defended compared to the averages of their opponent. In terms of their attack, the Tigers were just below the average expectation – scoring 3% less points on average than what their opponents usually concede. But it is the Tigers defence that is their big strength, restricting on average their opponents to a score 19% below what they usually score.

However, it is the Tigers performance in the final part of the season (Round 17 onwards) that is worth noting, whereby the Tigers have had both their best performances for the season in attack and defence. The Tigers appear to be peaking at the right time.

 Figure-5: Richmond’s Offence in 2017

Figure-5: Richmond’s Offence in 2017

 Figure-6: Richmond’s Defence in 2017

Figure-6: Richmond’s Defence in 2017

On overall balance, Adelaide is the better side and if the game turns into a shootout, then the Crows will win. And even if the game stays tight, Adelaide will always have the capability to quickly kick 5 goals without reply and break the game open. Adelaide would be fitting premiers given the season they have had and the hardships they have had to endure over the last few seasons. But, their is a momentum that the Tigers have built over the past month that is undeniable - the pressure levels they have been able to exert on their opposition, the defensive stranglehold they have had on opposition forward lines, the incredible crowd support, a captain playing like a man possessed and a newly crowned Brownlow medallist that appears unstoppable at the moment. If the Tigers can maintain the pressure they exhibited in their finals against Geelong and GWS (and I believe they can), then the Tigers will win. This remarkable AFL season is destined to have one last dramatic Act that will result in the 2017 season being forever remembered as The Year of the Tiger.

Richmond to win by 1 point

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As an impartial fan that has embraced the feel good story that is the Tigers, I feel I should offer a closing warning for all neutral supporters this weekend that are getting on the Tigers bandwagon. After not even playing a single Final for 20 years until 1967, the Tigers went on to be the dominant team of the next decade, winning 4 premierships in 8 seasons between 1967 and 1974. Hence, we should be careful what we wish for.

Royce Hart [Richmond]: Winning became a culture at Richmond. It was drummed into us. We wanted to win everything. One time there was a tug-of-war competition between the 12 clubs on World of Sport. It was just supposed to be a bit of fun, but the club even wanted us to win that. Everything we did revolved around winning. [4]

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[1] Roberts, M., Winkler, M. (2003). “Footy in the 1960s: Six games on a Saturday”, Hardie Grant Books, South Yarra, Australia.

[2] Nicholls, J. & McDonald, I. (1977). “Big Nick”, Garry Sparke & Associates, Victoria, Australia.

[3] Zurbo, M. (2016). “Champions All: A History of AFL/VFL Football in the Players’ Own Words”, Echo Publishing, Victoria, Australia.

[4] Collins, B., Eddy, B. (2016). “Champions: Conversations with Great Players & Coaches of Australian Football”. Slattery Media Group, Victoria, Australia.

[5] Bartlett, K., Bartlett, R. (2011). “KB: A Life in Football”. Slattery Media Group, Victoria, Australia.

The 2017 W.S. Cox Plate

The 2017 W.S. Cox Plate

AFL Preliminary Final: Richmond vs. GWS Giants

AFL Preliminary Final: Richmond vs. GWS Giants