Dynasty or fairytale in AFL grand final?

Just as he was in 2017 and 2019, Dustin Martin will be centre stage for Richmond again in Saturday.
Just as he was in 2017 and 2019, Dustin Martin will be centre stage for Richmond again in Saturday.

The reigning champion duels with an ageing contender for the title.

The script is well-worn, yet plays out again in Saturday's historic AFL grand final.

Richmond, the current king, is seeking to confirm a dynasty with a third premiership in four seasons.

Geelong, the perennial challenger, is taking what could be one last shot at the title with the storied Gary Ablett and the oldest grand final team in VFL/AFL history.

The Gabba in Brisbane hosts the flag decider, the first time the sport's showpiece moves from Melbourne.

And the premiership will be decided at night, the first shift from a traditional afternoon slot.

The changes come in a season of COVID-19 upheaval which forced a compressed schedule; teams stationed in hubs; shorter quarters - and a late October decider rather than the last Saturday of September.

For all the changes, much remains the same: Richmond, still the powerhouse; Geelong, still the worthy adversary.

The Tigers, premiers in 2017 and last year, take favouritism into the finale.

And Richmond coach Damien Hardwick puts it on record: this Tiger team is the best of the lot.

"Our game is better," Hardwick declared after the Tigers' nerve-jangling six-point preliminary final win on Port Adelaide's home turf.

"We're more consistent ... we don't rely on any one player to dominate like some other sides do."

Was that a subtle sledge at Geelong and its trumpcard Patrick Dangerfield?

The output of Dangerfield and Richmond ace Dustin Martin is an intriguing sub-plot to the wider script.

Regarded as the competition's best players, both are explosive in midfield. Both potent forces in attack. Both Brownlow medallists. Multiple All Australians. Multiple club champions.

Martin has shone in the spotlight on the biggest stage, with two Norm Smith medals as best-afield in the recent Tiger triumphs - no player has won three since the award's inception in 1979.

Dangerfield, for all his personal gongs, has never played in a grand final at any level.

The 30-year-old was playing with Adelaide when the Cats claimed the 2009 and 2011 premierships. Geelong also won 2007 grand final - three premierships in five seasons.

The Tigers can go one better on Saturday. Only Hawthorn (2013/14/15) and Brisbane (2001/02/03) have a triple treat in a shorter space of time since the VFL morphed into the national AFL.

Geelong great Gary Ablett played in two of those Cat celebrations, in 2007 and 2009. He moved to Gold Coast in 2011 before returning home for the 2018 season.

Will the dual Brownlow medallist retire with a fairytale finish?

The brilliant Ablett is now a crafty member of a Geelong forward line headlined by Tom Hawkins.

No-one kicked more goals than Hawkins' 48 this season, nor had more goal assists - he's credited with 23, the same as Dangerfield.

Hawkins is a weapon that must fire for Geelong boss Chris Scott to add another premiership to that of 2011, his first season in charge.

Scott said unravelling Richmond's renowned defence is "the puzzle" for Geelong, which will field, on average age, the oldest ever VFL/AFL grand final team.

"We are very similar in certain respects but the differences are very stark as well," Scott said of the grand finalists, after Geelong humbled Brisbane by 40 points to snap a four-game losing streak in preliminary finals.

The Tigers want the ball in constant forward motion but their helter-skelter rush is complemented by impeccable defensive zoning.

The Cats prefer to carefully pick their way with a high-possession approach which has its critics but works: they're the competition's highest-scoring team.

Australian Associated Press