Our AFL experts tackle some of the burning questions ahead of the 2021 Grand Final.
Who wins the premiership and why?
Rohan Connolly: I don't think I've ever had as much trouble deciding who I think will win a Grand Final as this one. The two best teams of the year, with a 1-1 head-to-head record this season, both in terrific form, and the two biggest strengths of each pitted against each other, two superb midfields and the Demons' sensational defence up against the Dogs' scoring power. I'm going for Melbourne -- just -- because I have more faith in the Dees' capacity to limit the Bulldogs' scoring than I do the Dogs' defence to curtail Melbourne's. But I think it's going to be extremely close.
Jake Michaels: I'm also struggling to pick a winner here. After Melbourne's preliminary final thrashing of Geelong, I was convinced they were going all the way, but the Bulldogs' effort 24 hours later against Port Adelaide had me second guessing myself. Even as I write this I'm still unsure, but if I have to pick I think I will take Melbourne, who probably have just a few more options forward of centre. If the Dees play with that same hunger as they did against the Cats, I reckon they edge it.
Matt Walsh: This is a great question. I know the Dogs have done this the hard way (falling to fifth in the last round and fighting through the elimination final route) but they were, for most of the season, a top two side, along with the Demons. Their scoring profile is remarkably similar (in terms of the breakdown of score sources), and they have a split 1-1 record this season. I just can't go past the defensive setup that Melbourne has, however, and I think the edge there will be enough for Melbourne to claim a famous flag win.
Jarryd Barca: Defence wins premierships, and for that reason I'll back in Melbourne to cap off a fairytale season. I think the Dogs need it to be somewhat of a shootout to bring out their best, but unlike the walk-in-the-park preliminary final, the Dees are a different beast. Lever has commanded the skies all season and as the game's best interceptor will be difficult to nullify, and while Luke Beveridge probably has the deeper midfield at his disposal, the contested ball-winning prowess of Clayton Oliver, Christian Petracca and Jack Viney should often give the Dees first look at forward ascendancy.
Who looms as the most important player on Grand Final day?
RC: I can't split two, and I don't think either will be pushing for Norm Smith honours. But the importance of Stefan Martin can't be overstated. The big Bulldog has to keep Max Gawn not only fully occupied in the ruck, but work him over physically, leaving Tim English primarily to match Luke Jackson. Similarly, I also think if the Dogs are to win, Aaron Naughton will have to be prominent, not just in terms of goals, but in not allowing Demon defenders Steven May and Jake Lever to zone off nearly as much and launch Melbourne attacks.
JM: So many stars will be on display come Grand Final night but the one who could have the biggest say on the outcome of the game is Naughton. For the Bulldogs to win, Naughton won't just have to hit the scoreboard, he will also need to make both Lever and May accountable. As one of the game's best contested marks, I think Naughton can really worry and unsettle the Demons' defensive duo, something we haven't seen in some time. Having said that, it's a big ask...
MW: As I mentioned in my response to the last question, Melbourne's defence could be the difference. We saw what Josh Schache has been able to do as somewhat of a defensive forward against Aliir Aliir and Port Adelaide; if he can disrupt the Lever/May presence in the Bulldogs forward -- and maybe snag a valuable goal or two -- he could help pave the way for a Bulldogs upset. Schache looming as an important player on Grand Final day - imagine hearing that three months ago!
JB: He was a pivotal inclusion in their preliminary final win over Port Adelaide, and Stefan Martin will again need to shrug off any persisting pain from a groin injury that sidelined him for 14 weeks if he's to tame Gawn. On face value, Martin's nine-disposal, 13-hitout game against the Power doesn't match Gawn's outrageous 19-disposal, 33-hitout and five goal prelim against the Cats, but the Bulldog brut must do all he can to make the All-Australian and Dees skipper accountable. Throwing his body around and making life tough for the Demons' on-ball brigade and pushing forward Gawn-style to give the Lever-May combination an extra hurdle to leap could go a long way.
Who will win the Norm Smith Medal?
RC: No surprise here, I'm going for Petracca. I think it's more likely Oliver will pick up the bulk of possessions, but Petracca's explosiveness has Norm Smith Medal written all over it, and I can see shades of a Dustin Martin-like performance in the offing. This guy is made for the biggest of stages, and it won't surprise me at all if he ends up with 30-plus disposals and two or three goals to boot in a drought-breaking Demon premiership win.
JM: It's always tricky to pick (unless Richmond's playing, of course) but I think it might be Petracca, too. The Demon bull is built for finals and has enjoyed a career best season, averaging almost 29 disposals and over a goal per game. His ability to dominate in the middle and hit the scoreboard, in a similar manner to Martin, will catch the eye during the Grand Final, and if the Dees get up, he'll certainly be in the conversation for the medal.
MW: Cometh the hour, cometh the Bont. He's had two weeks to get himself fit and right, and I can see him putting in a monstrous captain's performance - win or lose.
JB: Built for the big stage, I'm also tipping Petracca to light up Optus Stadium and add another feather in his cap. He's already averaging 32 touches, six clearances and 1.5 goals this finals series, but somehow I have an inkling we haven't yet seen his best game of this September.
Would a Bulldogs win this year be more impressive than 2016?
RC: Not necessarily more so, but certainly just as impressive, for different reasons. Both sides won 15 home and away games, though the 2016 version was up against more opponents rated higher. But this outfit has not only had to win three finals just to get there, but travel a lot further, from Melbourne to Launceston to Brisbane to Perth to Adelaide and back to Perth all in the space of two weeks. At the same time they've battled key injuries, losing Josh Bruce, Cody Weightman and Alex Keath at critical moments. This flag win would be an incredible feat of resilience.
JM: Gee, this is really tight. Call it recency bias but I actually think it might just edge out their 2016 triumph. Why? Well five years ago the Bulldogs entered the finals series having won three of their past four games and, as we often point out, regaining a host of stars. This year, as Rohan mentioned, they lost key forward Bruce before ending the season with three straight losses. You could make the case they were the most out of form side heading into finals, and many (myself included) thought the Bombers could roll them in week one. They have since won finals in Tasmania, Brisbane and Adelaide, and if they add Perth to that list, I think it tops the incredible 2016 flag ... just!
Is Melbourne's Oliver-Petracca combo the best 1-2 punch in the AFL?
ESPN's Jake Michaels believes the Demons' heavy-hitting midfield duo of Clayton Oliver and Christian Petracca is the best combo in the league by some distance.
MW: No, I don't think it would be. Like this year's Bulldogs side, the 2016 Bulldogs also went on the road (playing West Coast in Perth, Hawthorn at their home of the MCG, and Sydney vs. the Giants), and we're a No. 7 seed. Yes it was a tight season in 2016, but for most of 2021, the Dogs were a top-two side! The fact that they've made the Grand Final shouldn't come as a massive surprise regardless of their late season stumble. 2016 was also a massive droughtbreaker, and Luke Beveridge was in just his second year as coach.
JB: This is a very difficult question, but I don't think so. Although both teams had to endure similar hardship in the form of travelling to a different state for each encounter, the 2016 side overcame slightly more adversity and famously triumphed from 7th place. It's safe to say this Bulldogs side is superior to that of 2016 -- at least on paper, in my opinion -- and let's not forget they sat inside the top two for 19 rounds this season. Once again they'll have to do it without the double chance, but given they were a top-two team for nearly 20 weeks, can we really be surprised they're in the big dance? The droughtbreaker would more impressive.