It’s the Hawks and the Dogs. Everyone else is kidding
The AFL and NRL are the sporting equivalent of socialism. Between them, the two leagues have the salary cap, the draft and all manner of measures designed to ensure that all teams are as equal as possible.
Even the finals are a way of giving half the teams in the competition a last gasp at glory. If the unstated object of the system is to knock off the top team, then the system usually works. Most years the team who finishes first at the end of the regular season does not go on to win the grand final.
Just four of the last 12 NRL minor premiers won the grand final, while five of the last 12 AFL minor premiers jogged a victory lap. Combined, that’s a ratio of three in eight, which is roughly the ratio of favourites which generally win at your average eight-race thoroughbred meeting. But this year promises to be different.
Season 2012 in both codes has all the hallmarks of a year when the minor premiers will kick on to hold up the big heavy trophy while the prime minister and assorted sporting officials are booed on stage on grand final day. Here’s why.
Hawthorn are peaking at the right time. The fact they score 154 points for every 100 they concede says more than their 17 wins from 22 games. This is a team with serious strike power in the forward 50.
If Buddy Franklin is having one of his Hollywood days when he’s all explosions and no plot, they still have targets galore in Roughead, Lewis, Gunston and Breust. Bookies had Hawthorn as favourites at the start of the year, just ahead of Carlton. It now seems laughable that the Blues were considered worthy of winning anything more than a chook raffle, but the Hawthorn assessment was spot on.
The Hawks have been disappointing since that epic, unbelievably intense ambush of Geelong in the 2008 grand final. The Cats recovered brilliantly from that shock defeat, winning two of the next four flags, while the best the Hawks have managed since is a preliminary final.
This year it’s hard to see who’ll stop them. The Swans tackle ferociously and play with real heart and, but they just don’t seem to have enough genuine goal kickers. Collingwood strung together 10 wins mid-season, but they’ve been hot and cold all year due to injuries. The constant speculation over Travis Cloke’s future probably hasn’t helped either.
Notwithstanding their recent hot streak, Geelong are probably too old, while Adelaide and the Eagles are probably still too raw. That said, the Crows were 50-1 outsiders at the start of the year, so they could be the team that keeps improving. But no one will improve enough to beat Hawthorn. With a resurgent Luke Hodge leading the midfield, the Hawks will beat whoever they play in the grand final by 50.
Over in the NRL, it has been well documented that the new finals system, modelled on the successful AFL system, has at last thrown up a mouth-watering batch of games in the first week of the playoffs rather than the usual drivel.
Todd Carney’s Cronulla faces his old club, the Raiders. Greg Inglis does likewise for the Bunnies against the Storm. There’s a ripper Queensland derby between the Broncos and Cowboys, while Bulldogs coach Des Hasler takes on the Manly team he led to premiership glory last year.
Even if you rub out the bottom three teams – Canberra, Cronulla and Brisbane – there are still five live chances. The Storm and Manly have been there, done that, while the Rabbitohs have strike power across the park. North Queensland have a show too. They’ve got a bloke called Thurston after all, and it’s worth remembering that the Cowboys beat the Bulldogs in Sydney in the 2004 finals series, in the last year the Bulldogs went on to be premiers.
Having given those four teams a rap, forget it. This year is all about the Bulldogs. They’ve lost just once since early May, and that was a loss you sense they had to have, which is kind of ironic because it happened in Canberra, the home of a famous comment about a recession we apparently had to have too.
Across the park, the Bulldogs look strong. They’ve got a no fuss-halves pairing who have clicked all year, they’ve got big barnstorming forwards led by Sam Kasiano, who has been one of the improvers of the year, they made the NRL’s most astute midyear acquisitions with Krisnan Inu and Sam Perrett, and they have a man with mercury for legs in fullback Ben Barba.
Their coach knows a thing or two about the sort of things or two you need to know about at this time of year too.
So that’s that. No wider narrative about which code is more popular or any of the usual fire starters. Just a straight assessment that this will be a favourite’s year, which is poetic justice really, because Tom Waterhouse might wake up in a month and find out that he knows what it takes to cop a few of those brutal hits after all.
Tell me I’m kidding on Twitter, everyone else does: @antsharwood
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