Premierships - By Denis Pagan

The best team of the year doesn’t win the grand final. The best team on the day does. It’s a football truism I know only too well. In 1998 North Melbourne won 11 consecutive games on the way to the last Saturday in September. We then produced our worst second half of football for the year, on the very day it mattered most. As far as winning premierships is concerned, it all gets down to those last two-and-a-half hours of the season.    

The main pre-requisite for premiership success is obviously talent. Star quality is critical at finals time and the likes of Chris Judd, James Hird, Nathan Buckley, Jonathan Brown and Andrew McLeod have all had their champion status confirmed by performing when the stakes have been at their highest. Then there are others, such as Norm Smith Medallists Andrew Embley and Byron Pickett, who elevate their reputations by rising to the occasion on the most testing day on the AFL calendar.       

You can’t win consistently without talent, but you can lose with it, as many factors come into play. To be a genuine premiership contender your team must have a strong leadership group, the like of which Sydney and the flag favourite, Geelong, have been able to develop. Strong leaders have the capacity to set the team agenda and impose their will on the contest. This is where I was privileged to witness Wayne Carey exert an enormous influence time and again in pressure situations for the Kangaroos throughout the 1990s.

Premierships are won by teams that are both physically and mentally mature, with the core of the playing group in the 80 to 150-game bracket. I’m also of the view that some pain experienced from previous finals campaigns can only strengthen a team’s resolve.  This was certainly the case in 1996, when the heartache of successive preliminary final defeats (including one from a Gary Ablett goal after the siren) spurred on North Melbourne to the ultimate prize.

Teams that are successful in September are even across every line, share the workload and are often supplemented by a sprinkling of emerging talent that provides an infusion of flair and youthful exuberance. Joel Selwood, Scott Pendlebury, Justin Westhoff spring to mind as newcomers who have shown themselves capable of giving their teams an added dimension.  

When preparing for finals it pays to expect the unexpected. Take, for instance, David Rhys-Jones and Greg Williams, both of whom produced Norm Smith Medal performances playing unlikely roles.

‘The Hyphen’ was instrumental in setting up Carlton’s 1987 Grand Final premiership victory, when as a makeshift centre half-back he eclipsed Hawthorn dangerman Dermott Brereton. Then there was ‘Diesel’ - considered the greatest centreman since Ian Stewart -   who earned best afield honours with five goals out of a forward-pocket.

Sometimes it is the unheralded types that can leave the opposition reeling. Long-suffering St Kilda supporters are still be haunted by the mere mention of Shane Ellen, a football journeyman-turned-grand final hero with a five-goal return for Adelaide a decade ago. Coaches who plan for these contingencies and simulate them in match-play situations at training give their teams a greater chance of success.     

To win a premiership teams need luck with injuries. Sydney certainly had a fortuitous run in 2005, with Paul Bevan the only change to the line-up over the last nine games of the season. This is where the professionalism and expertise of your medical and conditioning staff can give you an edge. To this day I still marvel at how Dr Harry Unglick and his team got Anthony Stevens up with a badly injured ankle to take his place in the 1999 Grand Final side.    

Premiership teams play with passion and energy and are defined by courage and a mental toughness that enables them to persevere against the odds and find a way to win from tough situations. For examples of these much admired qualities, you need look no further than the epic Grand Final encounters between West Coast and Sydney. Both games were decided by less than a kick and characterised by countless sacrificial acts and the relentless gut running of Daniel Kerr, Ben Cousins, Judd, Chad Fletcher and Embley going head to head with Brett Kirk, Jude Bolton, Nic Fosdike, Aamon Buchanan and Luke Ablett.

Teams capable of winning premierships display great confidence in their coach, are highly disciplined and execute a simple and efficient game plan that is proven under the intensity of finals football. An ability to conserve energy and cast aside distractions in the build up to grand final day is an enormous plus, as is discreet media involvement. One can only imagine the ire Jason Akermanis raised in Leigh Matthews and his Brisbane teammates when he publicly confirmed Nigel Lappin’s rib injury just days out from the 2003 grand final.        

When it comes down to the showcase spectacle of the season, the team which settles quickly and is able to consistently seize the opportunities when they are presented forward of centre gives itself a terrific chance of success. It’s the reason I still have flashbacks to 1998, when North Melbourne kicked 2.11 in the second quarter and went in at half time with 21 scoring shots to Adelaide’s seven, only to lose the game by 35 points. And it’s why the four remaining finalists each still have genuine claims on the 2007 flag.

That said, I wouldn’t be tipping against Geelong, and not only because of the clinical manner in which they dispensed with the Kangaroos last Sunday to secure the week’s break and a home preliminary final. When you do the analysis, the Cats of 2007 meet all of the key performance indicators outlined above, which I believe are essential for premiership success.

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