When big is better: what the winning AFL finals teams have in common

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West Coast forward Josh Kennedy caused plenty of headaches for the Hawks in their qualifying final. Photo: Getty IamgesFollow the Age Sport on TwitterVote: The Best Grand Final
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What do Fremantle, West Coast, Adelaide and North Melbourne have in common?

Of course there is the obvious – they all won in the first week of finals – but let’s dig a little deeper.

They all have big key forwards who dominated last week’s games? Maybe.

Taylor Walker was “Carey-like” in putting the Western Bulldogs away, Josh Kennedy caused all the headaches for Hawthorn in the second and third quarters on Friday night and Jarrad Waite got off the chain against Richmond on Sunday.

Although you could hardly say that Matthew Pavlich – 16 disposals, five marks, no goals – was the difference between winning and losing against Sydney, despite some critical contests he won in the last quarter.

So maybe it was the small forwards that set these four clubs a part?

Brownlow medallist Gerard Healy certainly thought so.

“For the last 12 months I have been listening to the importance of the power forwards, ‘you can’t win finals without a power forward’, they say. And yet on the weekend, it was the little fellas that got the job done,” Healy said on Fox Footy’s On The Couch program.

He makes a good point. Eddie Betts was so good on Saturday night that he left some only half-kidding that he delivered on his $500,000 annual salary in one night, but there was also a couple of crucial plays that featured Charlie Cameron, like that game-clinching goal setup by Walker late, and that clutch snap in third quarter.

Michael Walters (three goals, 21 disposals) and Hayden Ballantyne (three goals, 16 disposals) carried the Dockers forward line on their small shoulders by combining for six of the team’s 10 goals, and injected emotion into the game with their fiery celebrations.

And what more can you say about Brent Harvey’s 31 disposals, two goals, seven clearances and two goal assists – the last being a veteran gather and hand off in traffic to Lindsay Thomas for the goal that sealed the deal in the last quarter.

West Coast also got a lift from Josh Hill bobbing with some pivotal intercepts and three goals, while Mark LeCras and Jamie Cripps also added two, but they mostly came after Kennedy did his game-breaking business earlier on.

No, it is not the small forwards or the big forwards that provide the common key dominator for these four clubs looking ahead to the rest of this finals series.

Nor is it standout midfielders or dominate key defenders.

It is the ruckmen. The Big Four, you could call them.

Nic Naitanui, Todd Goldstein, Aaron Sandilands and Sam Jacobs are the four best ruckmen in the competition (apologies to Stefan Martin) and they loom large over what will happen in the next three weeks.

All four big men clearly won the hit-outs in their games over the weekend, and their overall performances were a factor (in some cases bigger than others) that generally went over-looked as to why all their teams survived the finals pressure.

Naitanui set the scene on Friday night.

The high-leaping Eagle had 40 hit-outs and five clearances, opposite Ben McEvoy and David Hale, as West Coast won the statistic 59-46.

Granted, the Hawks won the clearances 50-40, and (surprisingly) the centre bounces 15-8, but many of those were hacked from congestion rather than being clean takeaways and, in many cases, the Eagles won first possession from the taps but fumbled or were run off the ball.

Regardless, Naitanui’s overall influence on the match was undeniable.

“He did it again, and it’s the No.1 issue for sides coming up against West Coast,” said Garry Lyon on Footy Classified on Monday night, in reference to Naitanui’s effort against the Hawks and unique skill set.

Sandilands (43 hit-outs, 17 disposals) continued where Naitanui left off on the same ground the following day, monstering Mike Pyke as the Dockers won the hit-outs 60-27 and the clearance battle (always pivotal against the Swans) 42-28.

Goldstein could yet win the Brownlow Medal, and showed on Sunday that he is also a finals performer by clearly beating Ivan Maric – he had 46 hit-outs to Maric’s 19 – to the point where, not only did North win the clearances, but part of the fall-out from the elimination final loss was experts saying the Tigers need another ruckman to either replace or support Maric.

Jacobs’ season probably ranks behind the other three and so to did the advantage he was able to assert over opponent Will Minson on Saturday night.

The Crows won the hit-outs 42-35, but were smashed in the clearances. Jacobs’ only narrowly won the ruck duel overall, and it took until the final minutes for the Crows to land the winning blow against the Dogs.

That might be instructive or coincidental of where the Crows also sit in the bigger picture, depending on how highly you measure the value of ruckmen.

Adelaide are probably the least likely to advance past the second week, given Hawthorn – stung by a rare finals loss – at the MCG is shaping as a tougher challenge than the injury-ravaged Swans for North Melbourne.

One thing is certain. As this season has turned into the home stretch, more and more commentators are starting to respect how important it is to have a high-quality ruckman.

And going forward, there is battle between two of those key figures running parallel to the premiership war.

It’s Goldstein versus Sandilands, despite the fact they might never match-up against each other unless their clubs make the grand final.

Both players over the weekend passed the 33-year-old record for hit-outs in one season set by former North champion Gary Dempsey – which stood at 952 taps in 24 games at an average of 39.7.

Sandilands, who entered the finals on 915 hit-outs, broke the mark first during the qualifying final win over the Swans – moving to 958 for the year – only to have Goldstein eclipse that record a day later by upping the ante to 983 hit-outs.

The 25-tap lead Goldstein has over the Giant Docker means Sandilands would have to play one more game than the big Roo during the finals to overtake him.

Goldstein has the chance to surge further ahead this week in the semi-final against the Swans, while Sandilands waits for the preliminary final, but North could also be eliminated, leaving Sandilands in a race against himself.

Jacobs’ 816 hit-outs this season also puts him at No.8 on the all-time list for most taps in a season, and he could jump as high as 5th if he were to record 45 hit-outs or more against the Hawks in Friday night’s semi-final.  Hit-outs Win% To Advantage Score Involvements Todd Goldstein 1st4th1st1stAaron Sandilands 2nd1st2nd4thNic Naitanui 6th2nd6th2ndSam Jacobs 5th11th3rd5th

  Hit-outs            Win%   To Advantage  Score Involvements

Todd Goldstein             1st                    4th                    1st                    1st

Aaron Sandilands         2nd                    1st                    2nd                    4th

Nic Naitanui                 6th                    2nd                  6th                    2nd

Sam Jacobs                  5th                    11th                 3rd                    5th

ALL-TIME LIST OF MOST HIT-OUTS IN A SINGLE SEASON

          Hit-outs            Games              Year    

1. Todd Goldstein (North Melbourne)          983                  22                    2015

2. Aaron Sandilands (Fremantle)                  958                  22                    2015   

3. Gary Dempsey (North Melbourne)             952                  24                    1982

4. Aaron Sandilands (Fremantle)                   890                  23                    2014

5. Will Minson (Western Bulldogs)                 838                  22                    2013

6. Todd Goldstein (North Melbourne)             838                  24                    2014

7. Todd Goldstein (North Melbourne)             822                  22                    2013

8. Sam Jacobs (Adelaide)                              816                  22                    2015

9. Simon Madden (Essendon)                           812                  26                    1983

10. Gary Dempsey (North Melbourne)              797                  23                    1983

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