In 2008, when Hawthorn emphatically over-ran favourites Geelong to win a memorable Grand Final, you’d have been excused for expecting Hawthorn to fill a gaping window for success with premiership cups over the following years. They were young, exciting and had finally proven themselves on the biggest stage.
Sydney were ageing, dour and at the end of an era of great success. A 20-year-old Josh Kennedy had played his first three games for Hawthorn, and looked likely to continue the Kennedy family’s proud history at the club.
Sydney’s lack of promising youth meant an uncertain future for a team still struggling to win over a stubborn Sydney market. The very fragility of the Swans’ place in the Sydney market suggested that the Swans couldn’t afford to ‘bottom-out’ and prioritise youth like other teams, with high draft picks often the quickest way back to the summit of Australian football. After waiting 72 years for their 2005 premiership success, it appeared that the Swans’ faithful faced another lengthy stint of mediocrity.
This picture, however, had begun to change drastically by the end of 2009. For Alistair Clarkson’s men, 2009 was the first of three seasons of pain and frustration. Hawthorn crashed out of contention, finishing a tame 9th, missing the finals to the dismay of their swelling supporter base, and were left to rue a catalogue of injuries.
The Swans, on the other hand, didn’t have an easy year either. Their failure to reach the finals for the first time since 2002 marked the end of an era, but also a period of great potential for the club. Renowned for their innovative approach to recruiting and ability to rejuvenate discarded, unsettled and out-of-favour players, the Swans would foray into the market, picking up both Kennedy and Ben McGlynn from the Hawks, as well as young guns Lewis Jetta, Gary Rohan and Sam Reid in the 2009 end of year draft.
Jump forward to 2012 and both teams are well and truly back on track. After both making it past the first week of September last year, Hawthorn (1st) and Sydney (3rd) impressed this year over the course of strong home-and-away seasons. Josh Kennedy has a penchant for playing his former side and picked up five out of a possible six Brownlow votes in the two season fixtures against Hawthorn. While the Swans’ were impressive in their win against the Hawks down in Tasmania in round 5, it’s the Hawks victory up at the SCG in round 22 that is likely to have a greater bearing on Saturday’s outcome. On that occasion the Hawks were able to recover from a 38-point deficit to outclass a gutsy Swans outfit in one of the best games of the season. As such, and considering they won the minor premiership, the Hawks will enter the clash as deserved favourites, but the Swans were the most convincing performers in last week’s Preliminary Final clashes and it’s likely that they’ll take confidence from Hawthorn’s almighty struggle to get past Adelaide last week.
Both teams have stalwarts down back, with Ted Richards credited with holding together the Swans’ miserly defence this year and Josh Gibson (unfortunate not to make the All-Australian team) excelling for the Hawks. As usual, however, it’s the enticing midfield match-ups that will have most commentators talking. Hawthorn boasts a strong mix of skilled ball-users and contested possession winners in Luke Hodge, Sam Mitchell, Jordan Lewis and Brad Sewell, while the Swans have been carried on the back of the ever-green Jude Bolton and Ryan O’Keefe, as well as the burgeoning Kieren Jack and Josh Kennedy. It’s hard to pick a clear winner in this department, one thing for sure is that there’s hardly a better group of Indigenous stars going round in the AFL right now than the Sydney and Hawthorn contingents lining-up this Saturday afternoon.
For the Swans, Lewis Jetta has shone. A tough pre-season shadowing Kieren Jack was the first step toward the 23-year-old combining his blistering speed and silky skills with the work ethic and fitness base he had lacked in his first two seasons at the club. His five goals (two against Adelaide and three last week against Collingwood) in the finals so far, have marked Jetta’s return to his best form after a quiet month leading up to this year’s finals series. Playing in what will be his 319th game, Adam Goodes appears to have overcome the quadriceps injury and patchy form that dogged a large part of his home-and-away season. His dominant performances in Sydney’s two finals will have sent Hawthorn a timely reminder of just how dangerous the Brownlow medalist is when at his inspirational best.
Hawthorn’s enigmatic talisman Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin is, on his day, undoubtedly the most dangerous player in the AFL. His strength, allied with his freakish skills, gives him the ability to split any game open in the space of a mere few minutes. Cyril Rioli and Shaun Burgoyne will also have the Swans sweating feverishly ahead of Saturday’s decider. Rioli and Burgoyne are two key reasons why the Hawk’s are the best ball users in the competition this year. All three were instrumental in the final five minutes of the Preliminary Final against Adelaide. For a brief moment it seemed that Adelaide may have finally overcome the Hawks, but late goals to Rioli and Franklin sealed the win, with Burgoyne influential in winning clearances and propelling the Hawks forward.
As Saturday fast approaches and the wet weather rolls in, any prediction would be a gutsy call. My head says Hawthorn by a kick, my heart says Sydney- and that’s what I’ll follow.
2012 GRAND FINAL TEAMS:
B: Grant Birchall, Josh Gibson, Benjamin Stratton
HB: Matt Suckling, Ryan Schoenmakers, Shaun Burgoyne
C: Jordan Lewis, Sam Mitchell, Xavier Ellis
HF: Jack Gunston, Lance Franklin, Isaac Smith
F: Cyril Rioli, Jarryd Roughead, Luke Breust
Foll: David Hale, Luke Hodge, Brad Sewell
I/C: Clinton Young, Liam Shiels, Shane Savage, Paul Puopolo
Emg: Max Bailey, Thomas Murphy, Kyle Cheney
In: Luke Hodge
Out: Thomas Murphy
B: Rhyce Shaw, Ted Richards, Martin Mattner
HB: Alex Johnson, Heath Grundy, Nicholas Smith
C: Lewis Jetta, Kieren Jack, Daniel Hannebery
HF: Craig Bird, Sam Reid, Ryan O’Keefe
F: Jarrad McVeigh, Adam Goodes, Lewis Roberts-Thomson
Foll: Shane Mumford, Josh P. Kennedy, Jude Bolton
I/C: Nick Malceski, Mike Pyke, Luke Parker, Mitch Morton
Emg: Trent Dennis-Lane, Tony Armstrong, Tommy Walsh