Harris Andrews takes a mark

How this grand final will be won and lost

The best teams in the AFL have made it to the grand final with the stage set for a thrilling finale.

The minor premier Magpies have been the team to beat for most of the year, but they’re up against the one team that has shown an ability to do that with any sort of regularity.

Brisbane has won its past six games against Collingwood, including two this season.

But grand final day, in front of 100,000 fans heavily weighted towards the black and white, is a completely different prospect.

Here’s how both teams could win the flag on Sunday.

Walls come tumbling down

There has been no greater focus in the league than on how to beat Collingwood’s system in the second half of the year. To win the flag you have to beat the best, and no side is better than the ladder leader.

At its core, Collingwood’s system is somewhat simple — based on furious attack from a dominant defensive base, lulling teams into making mistakes and capitalising on them.

Led by captain and All Australian Darcy Moore, the Pies’ defence allows the rest of the puzzle to work. They absorb opposition pressure thanks to well-drilled positioning and defensive fundamentals.

For much of the year, Collingwood have deployed a faster, more mobile defensive unit than most sides. It allows the back line to recover quickly to close off “fast break” opportunities, covering space that other defences can only dream of.

That mobility in defence has a second benefit — increasing the ability to attack from the back third of the ground. No team is as efficient or prolific at scoring from defensive intercepts as the Pies are.

The Pies often move the ball slowly out of defensive 50, poking at space, before looking to the corridor to unleash their waves of aggressive handballs.

The Magpies are the most dangerous side at scoring from the corridor and boast one of the most effective attacks when getting the ball inside 50, helped by the speed and space they usually generate with their entries.

The Magpies also aren’t concerned if they can’t get clean possession of the ball. With plenty of downhill runners attacking loose balls, knock-ons and ground kicks play to the Pies’ advantage.

These strengths have allowed the Pies to keep the game close against almost any team, with the potential exception of their grand-final opponent. (More on this later.)

“It’s gonna be hard to kick 125 in this competition,” Collingwood coach Craig McRae said after their 124-100 loss to the Lions in round 23.

“We’re not happy with the way we are defending the ground.”

If the Pies are to stand a chance in the grand final they will need their defence to be firing against the dangerous Lions attack.

When the two teams met this year, the Lions were able to dominate from Collingwood’s turnovers, particularly when the Pies struggled to get the ball out of their defensive half. What was normally a strength for Collingwood turned into their biggest weakness as the Lions attacked the short field.

After that Lions loss, McRae was confident they could repair their defensive frailties, committing to a “growth mindset” to keep working on their weaknesses.

Against both of their finals opponents to date, Melbourne and GWS, the Collingwood defence has shown dramatic signs of improvement.

They’ve been able to limit the ability of opposition sides to score from intercepts, locking down the game.

It’s come at the cost of their own attack, but has allowed them to get into what they perceive as a strength — their late-game mode.

Close again

The Magpies are masters of the close contest.(Getty Images: AFL Photos/Robert Cianflone)

There’s another potential benefit to the Collingwood brand of footy — their ability to win tight games.

Due to Collingwood’s penchant for attacking contests and risky ball movement through the corridor, the side is well-drilled on how to win close games through an amplification of their normal effort.

“We’re well-versed in those situations,” former captain Scott Pendlebury said in the lead-up to the grand final.

“We’re well-versed if it’s tight, what we need to do if we’re up or down by a few points, what we need to do if we need to get the game back on that situation.”

Generally, each team has two modes of play late in games.

Last week against the Giants, holding on to a seven-point lead, the Pies went into “kill the game” mode, trying to induce repeat stoppages and chipping the ball around to open teammates.

Both elements of this play into Collingwood’s hands, as these form elements of their ordinary set-up. Against the Giants, they were able to eat up the clock by inducing eight ball-ups or throw-ins in the last two minutes, far more than the usual average of about one stoppage per minute.

Most teams find the other mode a bit harder to pull off.

“Win the Game” involves increased risk-taking with ball movement. You might notice teams more likely to tap it to advantage and move the ball through the corridor. Teams often go long and down the middle from kick-ins and prioritise distance and speed over sheer accuracy of disposal.

It’s sort of like how Collingwood ordinarily plays.

This might be why the Pies have another edge over opponents in late-game situations. History suggests this isn’t sustainable over a long period of time, but the Pies only need that luck to last one more week.

The elusive 16th

Collingwood is tantalisingly close to joining Essendon and Carlton on 16 premierships, with only their current bogey team in the way.

The Pies will need to work out a way to lock down Brisbane’s potent attack and turnover game in order to be triumphant. They’ll have to do so while maximising space for their own dangerous forwards, like Jamie Elliott and Brody Mihocek.

One way they might be able to hurt Brisbane is to limit their ability to gain ground from stoppages. When they are firing, they have arguably the best defensive midfield in the competition.

The minor premiers know they can put it together against anyone on their day, but of course, they’re up against the one team that has not allowed them to have those days this year.

The bogeymen from Brisbane

Harris Andrews takes a mark

Harris Andrews leads the Lions’ defensive efforts.(Getty Images: AFL Photos/Michael Willson)

For the past two years, Collingwood has confounded most opponents with its attacking and direct brand of footy, but Brisbane might have the clearest blueprint to beat the Pies of any side in the competition.

They currently hold a six-game winning streak against Collingwood, including two convincing victories this year.

The bedrock of Brisbane’s game is built on attacking teams on the counter. No team scores more heavily from intercepts than the Lions and it starts up forward.

Brisbane finished in the top four for tackles inside 50, setting the stage for valuable forward-50 stoppages and repeat inside-50 entries.

Extremely capable intercepting defenders — led by Harris Andrews with a support crew of Jack Payne, Keidean Coleman, Brandon Starcevich and Darcy Wilmot — specialise in picking up any loose ball and getting it in the hands of their best ball users.

This ability to attack from intercepts was at the heart of their two wins over the Pies this year. Brisbane racked up 157 points from intercepts against just 63 for the Magpies. Of those 157 points, 89 came from front-half intercepts.

This higher set-up does come at some cost, weakening Brisbane’s ability to stop scoring when the other side goes inside 50. The Lions were only the 10th-best team at defending scoring from inside-50 entries, a weakness for an otherwise solid side. If opposition sides can break through the defensive line, or generate quick entries from stoppages, the Lions can occasionally fall into trouble.

But the risk is usually worth the reward.

The Lions are unafraid to use the width of the ground to shift opposition defences, changing the angles of attack. This puts opposition sides off guard when going forward, making it harder to defend forward-50 entries.

Take you apart

Brisbane also has one of the most dangerous and well-balanced attacks in the league.

The Lions have long been one of the most efficient teams going inside 50, finishing 4th for points per inside 50.

The Lions have a defined group of focal tall and small forwards, and they share the load within their group.

Each week the roles that they play vary, between focal points and decoys. Fagan looks less at the individual contributions of each of his forwards, but more at how it contributes to the bigger picture. It makes them hard to plan to beat, and almost impossible to stop.

“When it comes to finals, it’s a little easier for teams to pick you off if you’re predictable going inside 50,” Fagan told the ABC earlier this year.

“So the fact that we’ve got a good mix of targets is important to us. We’ve got to keep going with that — we don’t want to become reliant on any one player.”

Building in the middle

All finals losses hurt, but blowouts sometimes show the signs of bigger issues at play.

In the back half of last season, Brisbane’s talented midfield struggled to find the right balance between attack and defence, ball winners and line breakers.

This year, their ability to win clearances and limit opposition damage has improved significantly.

The recruitment of one of the league’s better two-way midfielders in Josh Dunkley has helped their flexibility.

Father-son draftees Jaspa Fletcher and Will Ashcroft have helped their burst to the outside. This has allowed their other remaining pieces, like recently minted Brownlow medallist Lachie Neale and Hugh McCluggage, to settle into clearer roles suited to their strengths.

The last challenge

Only the minor premiers stand in the way of Brisbane’s fourth flag.

They’ve done it before against this side. If the Lions can execute their game plan, they know they can beat Collingwood.

Some question the ability of the Lions to win at the MCG, given their recent poor record at the ground.

In reality, the MCG on grand final day is a completely different task than any other day of the year. The last time the Lions played in front of a crowd of more than 90,000 was their 2002 Grand Final win over the Pies.

A new footballing empire might be rising in the north again, and maybe it’ll be for good this time.




Author: Russell White