The AFLW Grand Final Preview – featuring the year’s two strongest teams

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Despite their lowly 5th position on a very tight ladder heading into round 7, the Lions finished the season in second place on both the ladder and in the HPN Team Ratings. The Lions ended up rated second best for their defence and midfield and a weaker 5th for their offence.

By contrast, the Bulldogs were the only team to finish looking above-average in all three areas of the ground, with a well-rounded second best offence, 4th rated midfield and third best midfield.

If we work on these year-long ratings, overall the Dogs should have the edge, but lets look at the selected teams.

The teams

Note that marginal PAV (mPAV) ratings are used here to rate and sort players. This is a per-game application of Player Approximate Value, converting each player’s PAV per game into a rating vs a hypothetical average individual game defined as 0.00 marginal PAV. For an AFLW player in 2018 who played a game, the average mPAV is -0.19. It is below zero because value is disproportionately accumulated by a smaller number of top players who play every week while many fringe and marginal players play less than 7 games each. Replacement value is -0.86 meaning the 22nd player on an average list is rated at that level.

The Bulldogs have barely missed a trick all season, with a core of 13 above-league-average players taking them to a minor premiership. The Dogs used 27 players this year, and their selected side includes some of the strongest players in the league including our MVP tip Emma Kearney, who according to PAV ratings has had a season comparable to Erin Phillips last year.

Isabel Huntington was the most significant absence from their best side over the year, but her early season injury has barely slowed the Dogs down. She looked a revelation in her full five quarters of footy and might have been a top-five most valuable player for the Dogs if she had played (though the impact on Brooke Lochland’s emergence is a more tricky question).

They did fine without Huntington, but now have also lost captain Katie Brennan to suspension, who we think has been the Dogs’ 9th most valuable player, though would probably have been higher if she’d been fully fit all season. With Toogood, and Lochland up forward and Kearney pitching in, they should be able to cover Brennan reasonably well, save for whatever intangible leadership qualities she brings as captain.

The Dogs’ top end of Kearney, Blackburn and Lochland looks superior to the Lions and we’ve seen in this competition that the cream really matters. However, where the Dogs might find an issue is in the middle class of both teams. The Dogs have less above-average players than a settled and relatively even looking Brisbane.

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The Lions only used 24 players this year, and two of those they haven’t picked are emergencies. Hildebrand as emergency is interesting. She was concussed during the season and didn’t play the last two matches, but before that was a handy cog in the Lions’ defence. Being an emergency suggests she’d be fit to play if necessary, which means there was probably a hard decision made about not changing the side who tore apart GWS. Despite this, Hildebrand is likely best-21.

The Lions don’t quite have midfield stars on par with Kearney, and their three most valuable players have been a defender in Lutkins and two forwards in Sabrina Frederick-Traub and Jess Wuetschner. The Lions midfield looks better than the Dogs’ due instead to its depth. The core of Gibson, Randall, Bates and Zeilke haven’t individually been on par with Kearney, Blackburn, Lamb and Gogos but according to PAV, the Lions have had a slightly wider range of midfield contribution from a wider range of quality players who also show up as forwards or defenders. Players like Lutkins, Anderson, and Stanton and even Ashmore and Exon all contribute. It’s a whole-team ball movement and space denial system which shapes to give the Lions an edge in the inside-50 count on Saturday.

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The Lions are fielding 14 of their 16 above-average players in contrast to the Dogs’ 12 of 14, but they also have a few more weak links, fielding more and weaker below-replacement level players than the Bulldogs (4 v 3). One of those turns out to have been Bella Ayre, who the Lions will have hoped could go some way to filling the Tayla Harris gap but so far has struggled to make an impact.

The prediction

Both sides are close enough to full strength that the team ratings we opened with are a fairly reliable guide. The Lions should get their share of the ball, and their deeper list of midfield contributors suggests that as well. Both team strength ratings and the model we’re testing to compare selected teams using mPAV suggests that they’ll edge the inside-50 count, maybe winning about 3 extra across the game.

The difference however comes down to forward line efficiency. The Lions defensive unit is still good at resisting attacks, but not to the level of last year in the absence of Virgo and Hildebrand. The Dogs have an extremely good forward-line and the absence of Kearney doesn’t blunt it enough to suggest they won’t win this without a pretty special effort from Brisbane.

We’re predicting the Dogs to gain a significantly better return for each foray inside-50, maybe about 30% per entry, which is more than enough to give them the edge even if Brisbane win more territory with their slightly wider midfield options. The Lions path to victory is a team defensive effort through the midfield to deny the Dogs time and space (think of how GWS played them) but on exposed form for the year, the Dogs should prevail.

Bulldogs 42 – Brisbane 29

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