By Lance Jenkinson
The formalities are over, now fire up the barbecues and bring on the first bounce.
Richmond and the GWS Giants are set to light up the MCG today for the 2019 AFL grand final.
The storylines throughout the week have been enthralling and the game looks like it will live up to the hype.
Richmond, gunning for their second flag in three seasons, pulled off a selection surprise during the week.
Jack Graham was the hard luck story for the Tigers, dislocating his shoulder in his side’s preliminary final victory over Geelong.
The risk of Graham re-injuring his shoulder was too great and Tigers coach Damien Hardwick ruled him out early in the week.
Whispers of a grand final debutant started as soon as Graham was ruled out.
Then the unthinkable happened, Marlion Pickett was named in Richmond’s grand final side for his first ever AFL game.
Pickett, a mid-season draft pick up this year, stormed into contention with a best-on-ground performance in Richmond’s thrilling VFL grand final win over Williamstown.
Can the 2018 South Fremantle best-and-fairest handle the pressure of that last Saturday in September?
What Richmond is not short of is experience on the biggest stage of all.
Only six Tigers that will run out today were not involved in the 2017 premiership side.
The big stage experience of the Tigers is probably what is swaying the odds makers heavily in their favour.
Richmond is a team that is full of confidence.
The yellow and black army have won 11 consecutive games entering the grand final.
Since round 15, their average winning margin has been 34 points.
During that span of matches, the Tigers knocked off GWS by 27 points.
However, all the stats and what has gone before them will be irrelevant when the ball is bounced at 2.30pm tomorrow.
Richmond needs only to cast its mind back to last year’s preliminary final loss to Collingwood for a reminder that form can be fragile.
GWS Giants will be hoping its form line can stick.
The Giants have some real momentum heading into their first grand final in club history.
The Leon Cameron-coached side has played to its maximum in each of its finals matches, rattling off a massive win over the Western Bulldogs and two heart stopping victories over Brisbane Lions and Collingwood on the road.
The Giants are more than capable of pulling off another upset against Richmond, but some are fearing they might have spent too much of their petrol tickets just getting to the grand final.
That may be the case, but it’s unlikely.
You only need to reference the 2016 premiership win by the Bulldogs to see how much adrenalin can pull you through in the big dance.
The Giants have slowly won the hearts of the neutrals, perhaps accidentally.
A social media frenzy using the hashtag #BigBigSound and the Giants catchy theme song has been a marketers dream for the AFL’s newest club.
It might even lead to a bit more orange in the crowd among the yellow and black crush.
Having survived one-eyed crowds against Brisbane and Collingwood in the lead up finals, the big crowd at the G tomorrow should not spook the Giants.
GWS has brought in two big names for the grand final.
Lachie Whitfield, one of the top ball carriers in the team, and Toby Greene, a damaging ball user, will strengthen the Giants.
Making way for that pair were Lachie Keeffe and Ian Hill.
Keeffe is on standby for a late call up if full back Phil Davis is deemed unfit to play.
Davis suffered a calf injury in the preliminary final, which has kept him on light duties at training this week.
With the build up done and dusted and the players and supporters of both sides eager for the first bounce, let’s take a look at some of the key factors that could sway the game in either side’s favour …
Tigers twin towers
If Tom Lynch continues his sparkling form and Jack Riewoldt plays close to his potential, Richmond could be unstoppable aerially inside forward 50.
Lynch has kicked 61 goals this season, including five in a match-winning performance against Geelong in the preliminary final, but he has never played in a grand final, so with that comes added pressure.
Riewoldt has proven himself on the biggest stage, but his form has been shaky of late.
Perhaps they can help each other in forming a match-winning combination.
The Giants mascot G-Man will be prowling the boundary whipping up support for the interstaters, but it is their D-men who hold the key to their success on the field.
Defenders Phil Davis and Nick Haynes will need to play the games of their lives to restrict the Lynch-Riewoldt combination from kicking a winning score.
Davis is the heart and soul of the Giants and can set the tone for his team with his aggressive attack on the ball.
Haynes is one of the premier intercept marks in the league and will need to show his courage to sit in the hole in front of the Tigers twin towers.
Who to tag?
Good taggers are hard to find, but the Giants have a gem in Matt de Boer.
De Boer’s biggest scalp as a tagger came earlier in the season when he shut Dustin Martin out of the game in a Giants win over Richmond.
With the damage that Martin can potentially do, you would expect de Boer to at least start on him.
If Martin is able to shake the tag, de Boer might find himself on Dion Prestia or Trent Cotchin at stages, or possibly negating inform Tigers half back flanker Bachar Houli.
Irrespective of who de Boer plays on, he will be a huge asset for the Giants.
Few teams launch attacks off half back better than GWS.
In Haynes, Zac Williams and Heath Shaw, the Giants get a lot of penetration out of the back half.
With Richmond having an impressive mosquito fleet forward of centre, could one be sacrificed to stop Williams from setting up the Giants attacks out of defence?
Williams is the kind of player that can hurt you if he is afforded too much room to operate.
The heavyweights on the field are the two ruckmen.
Richmond’s Toby Nankervis and GWS’ Shane Mumford will lock horns in a fierce battle.
The winner of this duel will have a big say in the result of the game.
Expect Nankervis to cover the ground well as a roaming big and utilise his precision tap work to set his star onballers Cotchin, Martin, Prestia and Shane Edwards on their way.
Mumford will be the wrecking bull at the coal face for the Giants, who could be such a valuable asset creating space for gun onballers Josh Kelly, Tim Taranto and Whitfield.
The second tier
Sometimes grand finals are not defined by the performances of the superstars, but the second tier players.
Richmond’s secret recipe is the effectiveness of its role players, who follow Hardwick’s blueprint to the nth degree.
Do the Giants have a second tier to go with the likes of Richmond’s Josh Caddy, Kane Lambert, Bachar Houli, Nick Vlaustin and Brandon Ellis?
It could be what gives the Tigers the edge.
Has there been more publicity surrounding one individual leading into a grand final than Toby Greene?
Greene has divided the public’s opinion because of his close attention to the faces of opponents Marcus Bontempelli and Lachie Neale in recent games.
What is for certain is Greene’s match-winning potential.
He is the barometer of the Giants because of his ability to get involved in scoring moves.
No Rance, no worries
When Alex Rance went down with a season-ending knee injury, there was a question mark over whether Richmond could fill such a big void.
The Tigers have found a way with an all-hands-on-the-pump approach, incorporating Dylan Grimes, David Astbury, Nathan Broad and Nick Vlaustin in mid-sized and key positions.
The Tigers defence will have their hands full blanketing Coleman Medal winning full forward Jeremy Cameron and his more-than-capable sidekicks Jeremy Finlayson and Harry Himmelberg.
If GWS Giants are to win, Jeremy Cameron will need to eclipse his season average of 3.2 goals per game.
Sure, the Giants have a number of scoring weapons, particularly their goalkicking midfielders, but Cameron is the Coleman Medallist and this could be the day he sets the big stage on fire.
A huge concern for the Tigers is they really haven’t handled Cameron well in their two outings this season.
Cameron has averaged 9.5 shots on goal against the Tigers this season, kicking 7.5 and 3.4.
Richmond has reimagined the look of a forward line in recent seasons, deploying three or more genuine crumbing forwards most games, whereby one or two was the norm for most premiership teams in years past.
The likes of Shai Bolton, Jason Castagna and Daniel Rioli do not have to kick bags of goals to be effective, but they do need to bring the forward defensive pressure.
Their ability to lock the ball in and tire out the opposition defence is a key component to the Tigers success.
Those speedy smalls have important roles to play, particularly if Lynch and Riewoldt are having trouble marking the aerial balls.