OPINION

Martin key to the Western Bulldogs' premiership hopes

VITAL: Stefan Martin will have the onerous task of negating the impact of Melbourne captain Max Gawn. Photo: Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images

VITAL: Stefan Martin will have the onerous task of negating the impact of Melbourne captain Max Gawn. Photo: Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images

As recently as three weeks ago, Stefan Martin's AFL journey appeared to be over.

Picked up by the Western Bulldogs in last year's trade period, injuries had restricted Martin to seven appearances with his third club before being plucked from obscurity for the preliminary final against Port Adelaide.

Now the veteran ruckman, who will play his 199th game in Saturday's grand final, will have the onerous task of trying to restrict Melbourne captain Max Gawn.

Martin started his AFL career with the Demons and mentored Gawn as a youngster - can he stop his disciple in their first grand final?

How Demons win

The Demons want to dominate around the stoppages and bank on their intense pressure and fierce tackling, breaking down the Bulldogs. Their backline has been hard to penetrate and they have faith in outscoring the opposition with potent attacking options.

How Bulldogs win

The Bulldogs have the deepest midfield in the AFL and winning the contested ball is their trademark, enabling them to distribute to dangerous outside runners with their creative handball. Negating Gawn's influence is crucial, while Caleb Daniel sets up so many forward thrusts with his pinpoint disposal.

Key match-ups

Max Gawn/Luke Jackson - Stefan Martin/Tim English

Gawn starts the ball rolling in the middle and was devastating in the preliminary final on the ball and in attack. The Bulldogs must negate his influence, so the roles of Martin and English are crucial.

Steven May - Aaron Naughton

May's fitness has been in the spotlight since injuring his hamstring against the Cats and the Demons will need him at his best against the high-flying Naughton, who has shouldered heavy responsibility in the absence of the Dogs' leading goalkicker, Josh Bruce.

Jake Lever - Josh Schache

Schache played the most influential game of his career in quelling the influence of Port Adelaide's Aliir Aliir in the preliminary final and will face off against another All-Australian Lever, whose ability to intercept and create has been so important to Melbourne's success this season.

Jack Viney - Tom Liberatore

Two sons of club greats and hard nuts in the middle who were so influential in their teams' preliminary final triumphs. Melbourne needs to ensure Liberatore does not get off the leash and Viney never stops putting his body on the line.

Clayton Oliver - Jack Macrae

Prolific ball-winners who have had spectacular seasons and are major reasons for their teams' success. Oliver has improved his use of the ball by foot this season and Macrae is an incredible running machine.

Christian Petracca - Marcus Bontempelli

Brilliant midfielders who can go forward with devastating effect and are hard to stop in full flight. Should be a great contest and each will have their moments - whoever has the most influence may decide the match.

Alex Neal-Bullen - Caleb Daniel

Daniel is so creative with his ball use and integral to setting up so much play for the Bulldogs. Neal-Bullen is a tough tackler who may be given first crack at limiting the diminutive Dog.

Experience

The Bulldogs hold a distinct advantage with 10 premiership players in their likely team - nine from the drought-breaking flag five years ago and dual premiership Hawk Taylor Duryea has been a valuable addition in defence. By contrast, Melbourne has only one player who has played in a grand final - Jake Lever's last game in Crows colours was in the 2017 premiership decider.

Will bye impact?

The break has come at a perfect time for the Bulldogs. After travelling all over the country and playing in three finals, the Dogs emerge from quarantine in Perth refreshed and with key players returning from injury.

On the other hand, the grand final will be only Melbourne's second game in almost a month. With most Demons playing in their first grand final, how will they handle the build-up?

Likely changes

Alex Keath and Cody Weightman will return for the Bulldogs, which means two who played in the preliminary final will miss out. Weightman is likely to come in for 2016 Norm Smith Medallist Jason Johannisen or Laitham Vandermeer, who should overcome a hamstring injury. Keath has been a superb performer all season and he will return to line up against Ben Brown.

Apart from Brown, Melbourne's other taller forwards and ruckmen have the potential to worry the Bulldogs defence. For that reason, Zaine Cordy and Ryan Gardner may keep their spots and Roarke Smith could be the unlucky one to miss out.

PREDICTION: Howard Kotton predicts that Marcus Bontempelli will take home the Norm Smith Medal. Photo: Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images

PREDICTION: Howard Kotton predicts that Marcus Bontempelli will take home the Norm Smith Medal. Photo: Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images

Melbourne resisted the temptation to play Jayden Hunt against Geelong and he would be handy against the slick Bulldogs small forwards. Michael Hibberd could make way for Hunt, but it would be a huge risk playing the hard-running defender after being sidelined for two months.

Steven May will be available after tweaking a hamstring and Charlie Spargo is right to play after jarring an ankle.

Who wins?

They are one-all in their games this season, so from a neutral perspective, let's hope it is a close contest, unlike the two preliminary final blowouts.

After a poor finish to the home and away season, the Bulldogs are gathering momentum at the right time, will regain key players and the break should help them.

Bulldogs by 18 points.

  • Email: howardkotton11@gmail.com