Footy’s ultimate prize is just 100 minutes away.
It’s a fitting showdown for Richmond and Geelong, the two best teams of the last two years, and it’s clear the Grand Finalists have been preparing for this very match-up.
We run through the keys to success for both teams and where the flag will be won and lost.
For so long, the Tigers have defined modern footy with their dominant intercept game, allowing them to control territory and score from it.
But after their qualifying final loss to Brisbane, there was a clear personnel shift, and it has flipped their style on its head.
“We’ve seen over the years, you want territory – that’s how you win big finals,” Brisbane great Jonathan Brown said on Fox Footy’s Ultimate Preview.
“Richmond started their run as a territory team, a forward-half turnover team when they won in 2017.
“And just remember last year, they won the Grand Final with absolute dominance around the stoppages against what was last year’s best stoppage team in GWS.”
The Tigers’ centre bounce line-up now typically includes some combination of Dion Prestia, Shane Edwards, Trent Cotchin and Dustin Martin – a switch for Dusty, who has spent plenty of time in the goalsquare this year.
It’s the centre bounces where the Tigers now dominate, with the 6-6-6 rule forcing even numbers. However around the ground, they’re less impressive.
Perhaps even more stark is the change in how Richmond is generating territory.
Having focused on winning the ball via turnover in the home and away season, the Tigers are now getting it at the source and pushing forward.
“It’s a shift in the investment of your stars. You’re moving your higher-quality players up to the stoppage, so you’re going to win them more often than not,” Brown said.
“That’s a huge shift. That’s taking pressure off your defence, and giving your small crumbing forwards repeat opportunities to score.”
It doesn’t matter where they’re winning the ball – Richmond just wants to get it forwards. Fast.
The key to this success in the finals series has been through what David King coined the ‘Tiger line’, which is the area of the ground just inside the centre square where they can do the most damage.
“Any time you see a handball go from the logos into the corridor, to the wing line, they’re queuing up,” King explained on Fox Footy.
“And then the game goes from first gear to overdrive straight away. The forwards light up. Opposition plus-ones or loose men are rendered useless, and they get good quality one-on-ones when they go in.
“With the ball in contest, they’re getting themselves ready, and this is where the speed comes in. It’s super aggressive.”
But it’s not unstoppable. Brisbane found success in the qualifying final by focusing on halting this sort of ball movement.
It’s not clear whether the Cats have the right personnel to do the same thing though. As detailed below, Chris Scott’s side has sped up its own ball movement this finals series, but they can’t reach Richmond’s heights.
“If Geelong want to go fast, they’ll (Richmond) keep going faster, because they’ve got a higher speed limit than any other team,” Brown said.
All year the Cats had great success running out games, with their older bodies clearly enjoying the shortened quarters.
They were dominant after halftime, turning slender leads into thumping wins.
However something has changed in their two finals victories – they’re starting well, instead.
It’s an impressive and important shift, as seven of the last 10 Grand Finals have been won by the team that led at quarter-time.
It also means the Cats can play their preferred game style and dominate possession, going slow if they need to, rather than being forced to play fast and loose to get back into the game.
Richmond might’ve improved in the midfield this finals series, but they’ve got a ways to go to catch the Cats.
Chris Scott’s side ranks second in the AFL for clearances and first for scores from clearances – it’s their bread and butter.
The problem for the Tigers is they rank 12th for pre-clearance pressure applied, meaning they haven’t shown an ability to stop opposing midfielders at the coalface.
“Around the ball, the size of the Cats is going to be an issue. It’s their greatest strength,” St Kilda champion Leigh Montagna said on Fox Footy’s Ultimate Preview.
“They’re not a team that tends to just throw it on the boot and get territory, a bit like Port Adelaide or Richmond. They love to come out the front, take on the tackle and use the ball.”
The notable exception is Patrick Dangerfield, who is one of the best players in the AFL at extracting the ball from stoppages and driving it forward – but not with the best accuracy.
In one example shown on The Ultimate Preview against Richmond during the home and away season, Dangerfield thumped the ball forward, but the Tigers vacuumed it up and quickly rebounded for a score.
“There’s a better balance now with him in the forward line as opposed to in the midfield. He’s a high metres gained player, we know he can burst through stoppages, but he can tend to blast it at times and make it difficult for the forwards,” Montagna said.
“With the other guys in there, (Mitch) Duncan particularly, (Cam) Guthrie, (Brandan) Parfitt, (Sam) Menegola and (Joel) Selwood, they’re very good at using their hands and taking better looks.”
Duncan has had a tremendous finals series, with half of his inside 50s finding a teammate’s hands, while defender Tom Stewart has also become a sneaky threat up forward.
But a lot of this success is because suddenly the Cats aren’t taking forever to get the ball forward.
Their worst game of the year – against Richmond – saw them constantly kicking into a well set-up Tigers defence, because they gave Damien Hardwick’s side the time to prepare.
But there has been a dramatic shift since the qualifying final loss to Port Adelaide, with an almost 50 per cent increase in the number of times the Cats play on from marks in defence.
“It’s an adjustment made with Richmond in mind,” Saints great Nick Riewoldt said on Fox Footy.
“We know how organised Richmond are behind the footy, that’s their great strength … the quicker you move it, the less time they have to get all set up.”
It means the Cats aren’t controlling the footy quite as much – they averaged 85 uncontested marks across the home and away season, but 75 in their finals wins – but it’s clearly working.
If the Tigers get the game on their terms, and can move the ball downfield at speed, they’re going to be hard to stop.
The premiers love a chaotic contest on a wing, with their talls knocking the ball forwards or finding a running teammate who can quickly get it to Tom Lynch or Jack Riewoldt.
They’ve had great success against Geelong in recent years doing exactly this.
However the Cats have been even more stifling than usual from this source in this finals series.
Of the 107 times an opposing team has rebounded the ball from their defensive 50 this October, just once have they scored.
That’s an unsustainably low rate, but if the Cats can get anywhere close to that on Saturday night, they’re a real chance of winning the whole shebang.