2023 AFL Grand Final Preview: Defining match-ups, Norm Smith predictions and more

AFL Grand Final 2023 Preview
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You’ve likely locked in your AFL Grand Final plans for this Saturday, but it’s time to take your social game to the next level with some footy insight for those inevitable sweeps or reckless punts on the day.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Collingwood will take on the Brisbane Lions in Saturday’s ‘Big Dance’ from 12.30pm WST at the MCG. Both teams finished in the top two after the home-and-away season, so this Grand Final match-up feels quite fitting.

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The bookies have the Magpies as the early favourites. In saying that, there’s an argument to be made for both clubs. Brisbane have won the past six encounters with Collingwood. Only a month ago, Brisbane beat the Pies by 24 points when they met in Melbourne, but that game was at Marvel Stadium, not the MCG where Saturday’s GF is played and where the Lions have a pretty horrible recent record, losing 14 of their past 15 games at the venue.

Collingwood were minor premiers and sat atop the AFL ladder for 17 of 24 rounds this season. They’ve been flag favourites for a long time, but did wobble late in the home-and-away season, losing three of their final five games, before narrow finals victories over Melbourne (seven points) and the GWS Giants (one point).

Defining match-ups

A lot of media attention will go to the gun midfielders like newly crowned Brownlow medallist Lachie Neale or third-placer Nick Daicos but there’s a lot more to the story on Saturday when it comes to match-ups. In terms of game style, Brisbane are the competition’s clearance leaders, so their on-ball bulls like Neale and Josh Dunkley play a huge role in getting first hands on the ball enabling them to gain territory from stoppages, which is crucial in finals.

Two years ago, Collingwood ranked 17th for clearances, so rectifying that department has been a huge focus for coach Craig McRae (who took over prior to 2022), hence Tom Mitchell’s recruitment in the 2023 off-season. Jordan De Goey has emerged in this area too, having five centre clearances alone and 17 contested possessions last week against GWS. Monitor that clearances and contested possessions battle between those four, as it often defines Grand Finals.

On another note, only one team (Adelaide) has averaged more goals per game than these two sides in 2023, with Brisbane and Collingwood both boasting outstanding forward lines. Lions small forward Charlie Cameron has kicked 56 goals this year, sixth overall in the AFL, including four last time these sides met when Isaac Quaynor started on him. Maybe Brayden Maynard gets the job this time?

Brayden Maynard
Image Credit: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images via AFL Photos.

Pies skipper and All-Australian full-back Darcy Moore was absent for that recent Round 23 game, so his inclusion is a huge factor, with a potential match-up against Lions man mountain forward Joe Daniher, who has booted 58 goals this year.

The Magpies’ main forward weapons are unassuming, led by the clinical Brody Mihocek and ice cool Jamie Elliott, with Jack Payne (if fit/included) or Darcy Gardiner (who kept Charlie Curnow to one goal last week) to get the job on the former. Brisbane will want to keep co-captain Harris Andrews free to mark long balls, rather than matched up on Mihocek. The under-rated Brandon Starcevich likely takes Elliott.

Norm Smith medal candidates

The Norm Smith medal goes to the player adjudged best afield in the Grand Final. If Monday night’s Brownlow medal count is anything to go by, Neale and Daicos are good at drawing votes. But the Norm isn’t voted by the umpires, instead it’s a five-member AFL-appointed panel of ex-players and journalists who will determine the winner. But like the Brownlow, the Norm is typically a midfielder’s medal, so consider that.

There’s been some backlash about Neale winning a second Brownlow but make no mistake he’s a top-notch onballer, especially around the contest. Only one player, Christian Petracca, has had more contested possessions than Neale this year, so you know he’ll have his nose at the coalface trying to extract the footy for first use. Neale is also second in the AFL for effective disposals, so he doesn’t cough it up. That’s a winning formula, so he’ll be up there if Brisbane win.

Lachie Neale
Image Credit: Albert Perez/AFL Photos.

Second-year sensation Nick Daicos is a completely different player to Neale, preferring to get his footy on the outside, utilising his speed, work rate and skill. Daicos cops flak for not winning his own ball, but that’s nonsense given how hard he runs and how precisely he uses it. He’s fifth in the AFL for average uncontested possessions per game this season, while he’s kicked 18 goals and managed 12 goal assists which is excellent for a half-back/midfielder. He had 28 disposals on his return from a six-week knee injury last week, so those cobwebs are blown out and he probably deserves a medal or two this year after his late-season injury ultimately cost him his Brownlow lead.

Nick daicos
Image Credit: Collingwood Football Club.

Beyond those two, De Goey must be considered given his best afield display against GWS last week and the significance of the contested footy battle. He booted three goals in the 2018 GF too, so he likes the big stage. There’s a lot of goodwill around Darcy Moore, so he’s a Norm smokie, along with Josh Daicos after fellow winger Isaac Smith won last year’s medal.

Dunkley is Brisbane’s probable next best chance behind Neale given his contest work and ability to accumulate lots of footy, while forwards Daniher and Cameron could clinch it with a bag of goals. I’ll throw in half-back flanker Keidean Coleman as another smokie after his near best-afield display last week showcasing his skill and flair under pressure.

Prediction of the winner

As per above, the clearances/contested possessions battle will be critical to deciding the victor. In last year’s Grand Final rout, Geelong won contested possessions 151-110 which is very, very lopsided. These things matter on the final Saturday of September. That area is Brisbane’s strong suit, but the Pies have made up ground.

Then there’s Brisbane’s MCG hoodoo, which they partially broke with last year’s semi-final win over Melbourne. A week later, however, they were walloped by 71 points by Geelong at the MCG and in 2023 they lost upon both visits to the venue, going down to lowly Hawthorn as well as an almighty late choke against Melbourne. Lions coach Chris Fagan will dismiss it, but the ‘G must hold some scars for his side.

Chris Fagan
Image Credit: Brisbane Lions.

They were 6-6 on the road this year, so their 0-2 MCG form isn’t good. It must be noted, the Lions appeared to have overcome those issues against the top-four Demons in Round 18 with a compelling performance, before attempting to shut up shop late, which incredibly backfired allowing Melbourne to kick the last four goals in the dying minutes to win. Winning that game would’ve been a big scalp at the ‘G. Maybe it was just a good lesson to apply on Saturday?

Collingwood are lauded as the close-game specialists and the masters of the final-quarter surge. But that wasn’t quite the case in big games 12 months ago, losing two finals in 2022 by a goal or less. McRae’s side have learned their lessons. This year they’ve won seven games by single digits, losing only once by a single-digit margin. Their composure and game management late last week against GWS was a case in point, so you know if it gets close, the Pies will be best placed to win.

For mine, both sides 2023 form is compelling, but Collingwood get the edge due to the venue, which is their home ground. They also boast a bit more big-game experience, with nine members of the 2018 Grand Final losing side likely to suit up on Saturday.

First goal scorer candidates

Finally, picking the premiership winner or Norm Smith medallist won’t be the only topics of conversation on Saturday, with interest in a range of categories but everyone loves the first goal scorer. Geelong key forward Tom Hawkins took the honours last year, while it was Christian Petracca in 2021, Dion Prestia in 2020, Jeremy Cameron in 2019 and Travis Varcoe in 2018. It’s hard to pick up any trends, with forwards and midfielders getting in on the act, including from both the winning and losing sides.

Collingwood have kicked the first goal in 14 of their 25 games this year, although that only happened once in the first seven rounds of the season, so it’s an area they’ve improved. De Goey has booted the first goal twice relatively recently in Rounds 20 and 23. Small forward Bobby Hill has been the first goal scorer three times this season, while Josh Daicos has managed it twice.

Brisbane have kicked the first goal once in their past four games and, despite their dominance, only 11 times across their 25 games all year, so you may favour Collingwood on this one. Charlie Cameron, Zac Bailey and Lincoln McCarthy have all kicked a first goal in a game twice this season. Callum Ah Chee was the first goal scorer when the Pies and Lions met in Round 21.

Charlie Cameron
Image Credit: Brisbane Lions.

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