The WAFL Grand Final returns to Optus Stadium this Sunday, with local powerhouse East Fremantle looking to end a quarter-of-a-century premiership drought against Fremantle affiliate Peel Thunder.
The Sharks were minor premiers and go in as the bookies’ favourites against Peel who finished third on the WAFL home-and-away ladder, beating Subiaco in last weekend’s preliminary final by four goals to earn their spot in the decider.
Last year’s decider was played at Leederville Oval with Optus unavailable due to a T20 International, attracting a crowd of 16,791 but it’s hoped for more than 25,000 this Sunday, with almost 30,000 attending at the same venue in 2021 when Subiaco beat South Fremantle.
With neither West Coast or Fremantle competing in this year’s AFL finals, footy fans have been starved of live action, which should add an additional layer of attraction to Sunday’s decider, while success-starved Sharks should salivate at the prospect of their first Grand Final appearance since 2012. The Dockers’ lack of September action means Peel have some handy availability too.
Bouncedown is at 3:20pm, preceded by the Colts Grand Final between Claremont and Perth at 12:10pm and the Reserves Grand Final between Swan Districts and West Perth at 9:20am.
East Fremantle may not have won a WAFL premiership for 25 years, but they are the most successful club in league history, with a record 29 flags. Sunday’s decider will be the club’s 59th WAFL Grand Final appearance too.
This is a club that has produced WA footy icons like Simon Black, Chris Mainwaring, Paul Hasleby, Patrick Cripps, Josh Kennedy, George Doig, Jack Clarke, Brian Peake and Ben Cousins.
In that context, East Freo’s premiership drought is something akin to Carlton’s September run this year, as a big club starved of recent success. East Fremantle’s current premiership drought is the longest in club history, while it’s the seventh longest in WAFL history. It is also the second longest active premiership drought in the WAFL, with only Perth’s wait longer, dating back to 1977.
Since the Sharks’ 1998 triumph, they’ve lost grand finals in 2000 and 2012. More recently, East missed finals seven seasons in a row from 2015 to 2021, including the club’s fourth wooden spoon (for last) in 2018.
That underachievement turned to optimism when they finished second last year and won the qualifying final, before being bundled out of the finals without reaching the decider, extending the club’s pain. Lessons have been learned in 2023, with the Sharks topping the WAFL ladder by two wins with a 14-4 record before edging Peel a fortnight ago to clinch their Grand Final berth.
Peel had only been in the comp two years upon East Freo’s last flag, with the Thunder easybeats in their early days, regularly suffering 100+ point defeats. The Thunder actually only won two games in their first three years of existence.
The Thunder came last nine times in their first 17 seasons before becoming aligned with Fremantle in 2014, allowing them access to AFL-listed Dockers players, leading to their emergence.
Peel subsequently made finals for the first time in 2015 and were back-to-back premiers in 2016 and 2017, benefitting from the availability of a raft of Dockers in September, storming to the flag from fourth and third respectively.
This year’s Grand Final marks Peel’s third in club history in their fifth finals campaign, having lost to Claremont in the semi-finals last year.
Who are their gun players?
East Fremantle are captained by Matthew Jupp who was huge in defence in their qualifying final win over Peel, but their star player is onballer Milan Murdock who finished equal fourth in this year’s Sandover medal and had 31 disposals a fortnight ago.
Veteran East Fremantle junior Cameron Eardley has lifted the side in the back half of the year too, with 30 possessions, 10 marks and a goal in the qualifying final victory.
Dangerous forward Jono Marsh is under a fitness cloud with a leg injury, while Cody Leggett, Dillon O’Reilly and Brayden Lawler have all booted 25+ goals this season, offering a varied threat.
Peel are permitted 12 AFL-listed players in their 22 for finals games (they had 11 last week against Subi), and they must have played six home-and-away WAFL games to be eligible to play too, so don’t think this side is just a Freo reserves team.
In fact, two of their best players are locally produced duo Ben Hancock (Warnbro JFC), who polled 12 Sandover medal votes, and veteran Blair Bell (South Mandurah JFC), who was the club’s leading goalkicker in the previous two years.
Of course, the Dockers players play a big role, with Will Brodie best afield against Subi last week with 25 disposals, six clearances and eight tackles, while former AFL premiership-winning key defender Joel Hamling and Karl Worner influential too.
Who are the coaches?
East Fremantle are led by ex-Subiaco and Peel full-back Bill Monaghan, who is a WAFL premiership-winning coach with West Perth back in 2013. He also led Subiaco to the WAFL reserves premiership twice in 2003 and 2005.
Monaghan led the Falcons from 2009 to 2018, also losing two grand finals, before taking over at East Fremantle from the 2019 season, charged with reviving the struggling club which has taken him some time. He was voted this year’s J.J. Leonard Medal winner for WAFL Coach of the Year.
Peel are coached by Geoff Valentine who is in his second year in the job, taking over from the 2022 season from Cam Shepherd, who had led the Thunder for nine years including their two premierships.
Prior to that, Valentine coached West Perth from 2019 to 2021, guiding the Falcons to three straight finals appearances. He previously played 56 games for West Perth in the 1990s.
What’s their head-to-head record?
Recent history is tight between these two clubs who have met three times this year, with East Fremantle squeezing past Peel by only five points a fortnight ago in the qualifying final. The Sharks actually led by 28 points in the fourth quarter in that game, before Peel’s late charge, which has been a feature of their finals campaign.
The two sides also met in Round 14 in Geraldton, with East Fremantle winning by 19 points, while the Thunder triumphed by four points in Mandurah in Round 1. Honours were even in 2022 as well, with both sides winning one of their two encounters.
Over the course of history, East Fremantle have won 41 of their 64 meetings, which is no surprise given Peel’s early struggles. The two sides have never met in a WAFL grand final before.
How big will the crowd be?
Good question. It’s a bit of an unknown given recent data has been skewed due to COVID in 2020 and a venue change in 2022.
Typically, the size of the competing supporter bases plays a big role, but East Fremantle’s lack of recent grand final appearances offers no recent data, however you’d think their success-starved supporters will turn out in numbers.
Peel’s supporter base is among the smallest of the WAFL clubs, but they managed 3,798 fans at Lane Group Stadium for last week’s preliminary final win over Subiaco, so there’s a decent contingent. Whether they all make the one-hour trip north remains to be seen.
But as mentioned earlier, something around 25,000 would be a good result for Sunday.
Since the turn of the millennium, WAFL grand finals have averaged crowds of marginally above 20,500, while that’s dipped further towards 17,000 over the past decade.
Optus has hosted three WAFL grand finals, with crowds of 29,879 (2021), 18,941 (2019) and 25,064 (2018). Subiaco competed in all three. The last time a WAFL GF crowd exceeded 30,000 was way back in 2002 when East Perth rounded out a rare three-peat over West Perth.
What else is happening on gameday?
Given the WAFL Reserves Grand Final starts early, gates open at 9am for the general public, so it’s a full day if you want it to be.
Beyond the three games, there will be live DJs, half-time entertainment, team mascots, inflatables, free kids’ activities, giveaways, tasty food trucks, junior premiers’ parade plus kick-to-kick on Optus Stadium after the WAFL Grand Final.
How to get there?
Parking is very limited at Optus Stadium, but the good news is public transport is included in your ticket, so take a bus, train or ferry. There are taxi and Uber drop-off spots nearby too.
Cover image credit: Shazza J Photography via Peel Thunder (Facebook)