That everything, the ultimate, that one day in September, is upon us.

Many never make it to see a Grand Final. They professionalise every facet of their lives so they can spend so much of their time training to just even get that one shot at glory. The light of glory misses so many and it is captured by so few.

Saturday shapes as an even greater challenge with the weather taking a turn for the worst. The Hawks and the Swans are looking to partake in a modern day contested football masterpiece on the greatest stage of all.

 

Grand Final: Hawthorn vs. Sydney

Hawthorn

Help Ryan Schoenmakers
Being a young key position defender on the big stage must be like walking around in a living nightmare. The spotlight is thrown to you numerous times during proceedings and you have to perform or the game goes to the dogs. Ryan Schoenmakers’ well-documented weakness against strong-bodied players has caused the Hawks headaches in the second half of the year. He gave away a bag to Tom Hawkins in the game that got away against the Cats, was well-beaten by Scott Gumbleton in a dead rubber game and was dominated by Travis Cloke and Kurt Tippett in his last two outings. Considering Sydney are a long-kicking side that put plenty of high balls into their forward half, the Hawks must have Josh Gibson, Ben Stratton and Luke Hodge at the ready to assist. Adelaide used the isolation tactic many times, dragging direct opponents away from Tippett and Schoenmakers’ one on one contests deep inside 50. The Hawks must make sure they do not fall for the Mitch Morton decoy and focus on curbing Adam Goodes’ influence. Goodes won’t go deeper than half-forward, so the Hawks defenders must be sure that their priorities in coming third man up lie deeper inside 50.

Flankers are the key
Hawthorn possess a list that bats deep when it comes to talented flankers and wingers. Matt Suckling, Clinton Young, Shaun Burgoyne and Grant Birchall hold an immense key to victory tomorrow in what appears to be a dour slog. Sydney’s contested ‘cluster’ sees numbers spread throughout the middle of the ground, leaving either end very open once the ball is through the maze of players. Elite kicks of the ball, such as the aforementioned, become valuable to not only navigate traffic, but to even clear the traffic entirely and get the ball to one on one contests deep inside forward 50. Young averages 5.4 inside 50s per game (the fourth highest in the league this season), whilst Matt Suckling is the league leader in rebound 50s with 148. Hawthorn’s greatest asset is its greatest key. If they break the game open and use the ball effectively, the ball is in their court.

Non-key forward impact
Regardless of the tall timber up forward, Lance Franklin and Jarryd Roughead will be covered well. Ted Richards and Heath Grundy, with the assistance of Alex Johnson and swingman Lewis Roberts-Thomson coming over the top, will be the focus of the Swans’ defensive unit. However, the Hawks can strike with their arsenal of classy smaller players who have all run riot at some point this season.Luke Bruest is second on the Hawks’ goalkicking table with 43 goals and ranks second at Hawthorn for average scoreboard impact in setups with 19.7 points per game. Jordan Lewis, who often roams forward, has kicked 27 goals with an accuracy of 71% in front of the sticks. Paul Puopolo has kicked 24 goals for the year, only proving that the multitude of small dangerous options for the Hawks is likely a winning combo. The Swans like to set up from defense with their mid-sized players rebounding off their men, so if the Hawks can find a way to make the Swans’ smaller defenders second guess their decision to run off by hitting the scoreboard, it’s a massive victory in the scheme of things.

Sydney Swans

Defensive brick wall
It seems apt that the firepower Hawthorn will be asked to penetrate the best defence of 2012. On average, the Swans only concede a measly 74 points a game. With Sydney’s contested mid=ground cluster, no ball inside 50 gets a free, unchecked ride inside 50 from an opponent in space. Kicks, both long and short, are rushed, with the midfield’s pressure assisting the defence.Ted Richards is the only player who has kept Lance Franklin goalless in 2012. He’s also won the most contested ball at the Swans inside defensive 50 and has a disposal efficiency of 82.4%, the best of any player at his club. The Swans accumulate a lot of ball in defence in order to start their attacks, with Nick Malceski, Heath Grundy and Heath Shaw ranked within the competition’s top 15 for rebounds out of defensive 50. Malceski is ranked fifth with 4.4 rebounds per game, and Grundy is ranked ninth with 4.1 per game. If both are able to wander with a lack of offensive pressure from the Hawthorn forwards, the Hawks will feel it up the other end on the scoreboard.

Pressure specialists
The Swans’ midfield cluster doesn’t fear anyone. When the Swans got seven goals up on the Hawks up at the SCG and when they turned the tide down in Tassie earlier in the year, the Hawks were completely and utterly choked for room. Good ball users had no space and effectiveness by foot was affected dramatically. Sydney, statistically speaking, has two of the best five midfielders in the competition for tackles. Ryan O’Keefe racked up 141 tackles this year (third overall) and Kieran Jack managed 131 (fifth overall). The Swans average 5.85 tackles a game more than their opponents in 2012 while also being the third-best side in turnovers against, indicating that the ‘bottleneck’ approach has been successful against attack-oriented sides all year (see the Round 5 win against the Hawks, the Round 6 win against North Melbourne and the Round 16 win against the Eagles).

Don’t change
If its one thing the Hawks can do, it’s win the footy, and they sure as hell win a lot of it. They’re ranked second in the competition for average disposals in a game (376), but are only ranked sixth in contested disposal overall (144 per game). The Swans, on the other hand, are ranked fourth for average disposals per game (371), but rank number one in contested footy (average of 151 contested disposals per game).The Swans don’t muck about with the ball; they’re ranked eighth in uncontested ball (with the Hawks being ranked second), in which where they use the ‘bottleneck’ to their advantage. They look to go through traffic by favouring handballs and going to space in their forward half. They can’t afford to muck around with the ball on the big stage. They can’t get lulled into a false sense of security that a wider ground equals more time to use the ball. The Swans haven’t got the kicking skills of the Hawks to play possession and wait for a better option, so in other words, stick to what you know and get on with it.

Prediction

The hardest part of pouring over the stats, game styles and match-ups is finding something that sticks out and that is definitive.  Sometimes, it falls back on September clichés that base themselves on a certain truth: defence wins finals.

Sydney has the best defence and applies the best pressure on opposition ball carriers by a mile. However, what will fall against them is that in no time this year they’ve managed to sustain it for four quarters.

It is a draining style of football that demands complete mental concentration and physical application. Sydney’s last quarters against the Dons and Cat, their and second half against the Hawks last time they played, demonstrates that when the tide does turn, it turns violently.

The Hawks’ back half will be under siege, but are good enough to stand the test of Sydney’s forward line if they protect Schoenmakers and others against the Swans’ big men for the whole game.

In that case, the Hawks will prevail tomorrow, but the Swans will make sure that it is a titanic struggle. A war of attrition may steal the game for Sydney, but it would need more things to go in their favour.

Hawks by 7.