After six months and 206 games of football, it is finally here. AFL Grand Final week is upon us and the two indisputably best teams of the 2014 season are setting themselves for the ultimate prize. For the winner a place in history awaits, for the loser it's back to the drawing board on how to go one better next year.
Hawthorn are by far the best attacking team in the competition, averaging 110 points in their 24 games this year. Meanwhile, Sydney are the best defensive team this year, averaging only 67 points against. The Hawks go into the game having won eight of their last nine matches, Sydney have won six of their last seven. In their two clashes this year they are one-all. Sydney won by 19 points in Round 8, Hawthorn by 10 in Round 18.
Despite the apparent evenness of the contest, Sydney are overwhelming favourites. The betting agencies have them as short as $1.60 for the win. In my humble opinion, this can be put down to the 'you're only as good as your last game' syndrome. Sydney's game against North was as close to a walk in the park as can be expected from an AFL final. Hawthorn, conversely, were given an almighty fright by Port, hanging on by virtue of some Luke Hodge heroics to win by just three points.
Cast your mind back to Round 18, though. A Hawks lineup still missing key players to injury took on a Swans outfit at full strength. Sydney were enjoying the longest winning streak in the club's history and led by four goals early in the third quarter. Then Hawthorn did what they do so well, in the next 30 minutes of football they kicked nine goals to Sydney's two. A four-goal deficit became a 20-point lead, and it was enough for them to hold on for the win.
That game exemplifies the Hawks' greatest strength. Their precision ball movement can cut even the best defence to ribbons. There is always a great deal said about Finals pressure, but nothing puts pressure on the opposition like not being able to get the ball. Whether Hawthorn will be allowed to play their favoured style will go a long way to deciding the winner.
If Hawthorn do manage to win, they will rightly be regarded as one the great teams of our time. Depending on who is selected for the match, they could have as many as seven players with three premierships to their name. That's a record that rivals some of the greats of their 1980s golden era. However, if they lose they could be seen in the same light as Essendon at the turn of the century: the best team in the competition for three years, with only one premiership to show for it.
The biggest question of the week will be centred around the selection of Cyril Rioli, Brad Sewell and Ben McEvoy. Sewell and McEvoy were late withdrawals from the Box Hill side in the VFL Grand Final on Sunday, suggesting they may be called up, while Rioli played the game as part of a glorified fitness test. From what Rioli showed in the three quarters that he played one would infer that he is not even close to 100% fit, but even a 70% fit Rioli may be worth the risk.
It's harder to imagine either Sewell or McEvoy getting a game. Hawthorn have no midfielders that would be obvious omissions to make way for Sewell, while the ruck combination of Jon Ceglar and David Hale is working well enough to keep McEvoy out of the team.
Sydney are unlikely to make any changes to the side that beat North Melbourne. Sam Reid was subbed out of the Preliminary Final with concerns about his knee, but he is confident he'll be fit to play.
So, we'll have a full strength Swans taking on a full strength Hawks. Sydney playing for their second premiership in three years, Hawthorn playing for back-to-back flags. A replay of the 2012 decider, a game which has gone down as one of the all-time classic Grand Finals. It's all set for a great contest and I, for one, can't wait.