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Stars will collide when Richmond and Geelong meet in AFL grand final

The Guardian logo The Guardian 18/10/2020 Scott Heinrich

Sport rarely goes to script. Brisbane were meant to win through to the first and likely last AFL grand final to be played at the Gabba. Port Adelaide were the best team this season and should have cashed in on their preliminary final home-ground advantage. Many neutrals might have wanted these teams to face off this coming Saturday. But there will be nothing of the sort. There will be no fairytale grand final at home for the Lions, no shot at the title for the Power. There will be no changing of the guard.

Impartial supporters might bemoan the lack of an underdog to cheer when Richmond face Geelong, but whoever wins the decider will tell a story to reverberate through the ages. If Richmond are not already headlong into a dynasty, a third flag in four years will guarantee it and elevate them into the discussion as one of the all-time great teams. A premiership for Geelong will be a fairytale of its own. It would be a winding back of the clock to their own period of pre-eminence and the perfect full-stop to the career of Gary Ablett. It would scratch an itch for Patrick Dangerfield and put an end to the conversation of the Cats’ finals woes under Chris Scott.

Related: The end is nigh for Gary Ablett; we will never see a player like him again | Dean Sherr

Neither Richmond nor Geelong were best placed to win their preliminary finals but the gateway to the grannie for qualifying final winners isn’t the sure thing it once was. It is now five seasons since the pre-finals bye was introduced and in that time just four of the 10 teams to win a qualifying final have gone on to contest the grand final. In the five seasons prior to 2016, nine of the 10 qualifying final victors made it through to the big dance. Perhaps a greater sample size is needed, but on evidence to date the week off prior to the prelim is no longer a godsend.

Not that Port or Brisbane will point to one game in three weeks as a decisive factor in their demise. The common theme for both teams was a telling lack of experience at this stage of the season and defeat by teams with plenty of it. But that is where the similarities end. The Power gave it their all against the Tigers and depart with heads held high. Quite what the Lions gave against Geelong is still to be identified. The margin was 40 points but it should have been greater. They were belted.

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Last year’s straight-sets exit can be, and has been, written off as a learning experience for the Lions. Twelve months on there is no sugar-coating this colossal failure. Brisbane had it all teed up - a home prelim and a home grand final in the offing - but their shot at history was insipid. Chris Fagan’s men were good against Richmond a fortnight ago but they regressed in the pressure cooker of a preliminary final. Port can at least find solace in the fact they went down swinging; there is no such comfort in the post-mortem for the acquiescent Lions. The glass-half-full view of Brisbane in 2020 is they took another step forward in making the last four. The contrary view is not so kind. There are no guarantees in AFL football and the Lions might well have blown their best chance of winning a premiership with this group. Right now, they are not ready.

Brisbane’s flaws were exposed by a Geelong team who have a hellbent look about them. Their ball-hungry game has been supremely effective and, as they did to Collingwood, the Cats simply didn’t let the Lions near it. Richmond dismantled Geelong’s modus operandi in round 17 but there is reason to think things will be different on Saturday.

One of the reasons is Ablett, who demonstrated against Brisbane he does not need 30 touches to impact a game. Ablett kicked two goals, had a hand in others and made every one of his 14 disposals count. He did not play when Richmond beat them and nor did Gary Rohan, so with Dangerfield spending more time forward the Cats will be a more potent scoring proposition. The Cats have a finals record to set straight under Scott. Undoubtedly they would have won more had Ablett stayed, but he is back where it all began and will have a key role to play in his final act. With Ablett on the way out, and Dangerfield (who’ll finally play in a grand final) and Joel Selwood nearer the end of their careers than the start, time is of the essence for Geelong.

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Standing in the way is the gargantuan figure of Richmond. The Tigers did it the hard way on Friday night, in tough conditions, against an opponent that would not lie down. Their composure in big moments was pivotal but they also showcased their versatility and ability to switch gears. The Tigers were a poor clearance team during the regular season but it is too simplistic to just accept this is a part of their game they are willing to concede. The Tigers would always prefer to get first use and they did just that in the final quarter against the Power, winning clearances 16-4 in a decisive turn of events. Heavily involved, as ever, was Dustin Martin.

Dusty, Ablett, Dangerwood, Selwood and several more: Geelong versus Richmond might not be the grand final everyone wanted, but no contest in the game can match it for star power.

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