Pies and Eagles grand final clash a big tick for the national comp

Collingwood's Josh Thomas passes under pressure from West Coast players.

Collingwood's Josh Thomas passes under pressure from West Coast players. Photo: AAP

For the seventh year in a row, a Victorian team is squaring off against a team from another state in Saturday’s AFL grand final.

If previous years are any guide, that means media outlets who should know better and opportunistic politicians looking for votes will exhort all Victorians to get behind Collingwood against West Coast, ignoring the fact a majority of diehards would prefer hell to freeze over before the Pies won another premiership.

And it means we’ll probably again this week have debated the fairness of the local team playing the game on its home ground when the visitor finished higher on the ladder and has already defeated its opponent this finals series.

They’re perhaps the more tedious consequences of a competition in which roughly half the clubs involved hail from one state and the rest from four others. But Collingwood and West Coast’s clash is another thumbs up for the national concept more than three decades since the Eagles entered the VFL.

West Coast will be making its seventh appearance in a grand final since the VFL officially became the AFL in 1990, equal with Geelong and more than any other club. Collingwood (excluding a replay in 2010) will be in its sixth.

And when you hear about the two teams’ “storied finals rivalry” it’s no idle boast. The Pies and Eagles will be meeting for an eighth time in a final, their previous clashes taking in a draw, an extra-time result, a win to West Coast by just two points and another nail-biter only a couple of weeks ago, in which the Eagles prevailed by only 16 points.

All up, six of their seven finals clashes have been decided by 20 points or less. Let’s hope that’s a portent of things to come, because while the storylines of this finals series have been good, the actual football, with perhaps the exception of that Perth qualifying final, hasn’t been nearly so compelling.

This will be a week in which supporters of both clubs go searching for omens, and that recent qualifying final certainly provides one to give Magpie fans heart and worry Eagles supporters.

Saturday will be the fifth time since the revamp of the final-eight system in 2000 that the grand final has provided a re-match of a qualifying final of three weeks previously. And in each case so far, the qualifying final result has been reversed, West Coast featuring in three of them and the Pies the other.

In 2003, Collingwood beat Brisbane on the MCG in a qualifying final but was trounced by the Lions when it mattered most. West Coast beat Sydney in a 2005 qualifying final but lost to the Swans on grand final day, that scenario transposed the following year. And the Eagles were again on the wrong end three years ago after beating Hawthorn in Perth in week one.

But they should be more confident of repeating the earlier win this time around for a number of reasons.

The vast bulk of coach Adam Simpson’s 2015 version of the Eagles were treading the September boards for the first time, and that inexperience certainly came to the fore on grand final day against a seasoned Hawthorn.

But this is the Eagles’ fourth straight finals campaign. And their supposed aversion to playing on the MCG appears less of an issue now. While they’ve only appeared at the grand final venue twice this season, it has been for two wins, the second comfortably against Saturday’s opponent.

West Coast was impressive indeed in Saturday’s preliminary final dismantling of Melbourne, striking the perfect balance between the sort of defensive grunt required to succeed in September with some at times unstoppable offence.

The Eagles beat the Demons for contested ball, a measure in which Melbourne had led the competition all year. And their forward set-up looked dangerous indeed, key forwards Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling, and medium-sizers Mark LeCras and Jamie Cripps booting 13 goals between them.

Collingwood has some serious thinking to do on the selection front. While the Pies’ terrific win over a hot favourite in Richmond on Friday night logically should lead to no changes, going up against Kennedy and Darling with only Tyson Goldsack and Jeremy Howe as key defensive options is a gamble.

Then again, so would be selecting either Ben Reid or Darcy Moore, neither of whom have seen senior action for a long time.

That poser aside, though, Collingwood has some serious momentum going, and in one of its best finals wins against the Tigers, seemed to reach a new level of outside run and forward potency to go with its undoubted possession-winning ability and hard-at-it attitude.

Big American key forward Mason Cox was a beacon for the Pies, Jordan De Goey a livewire at ground level, and ruckman Brodie Grundy and champion onballer Steele Sidebottom are having superb finals series.

Indeed, there are great stories right across the Collingwood line-up, none the least in the coach’s box, where Nathan Buckley has in 12 months gone from within a whisker of losing his job to the caper’s ultimate prize.

Perhaps that’s the best part of this year’s grand final match-up. Few, if any pundits expected either West Coast or Collingwood to feature on the last day of the season. Absolutely none would have foreseen them playing off against each other for a premiership.

And however you feel about the Magpies or Eagles, that fact alone has to make this grand final good for football.

Read more from Rohan Connolly, formerly a senior football writer for Fairfax, at Footyology, or watch Footyology TV.

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