THE 2021 Grand Final between Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs is hardly short on box-office attractions.
Not only will two of the top three and three of the top 10 in this year's Brownlow Medal count be featured (Marcus Bontempelli, Clayton Oliver and Christian Petracca), there will be no fewer than eight 2021 All-Australians playing, the most in a Grand Final for a decade.
Their performances on Saturday will be pivotal. But not necessarily decisive. Because winning grand finals requires more than simply the stars shining. It's just as much about the capacity of every player across a 22 (or 23 with a medical sub) to contribute at least something in the most important game of the year.
Grand Finals are well-known for throwing up game-turning contributions from more unlikely sources. Think Ted Hopkins' four goals off the reserves bench for Carlton in 1970 as the Blues famously overhauled a 44-point deficit. Think Shane Ellen's five goals for Adelaide in 1997. Or at the other end of the ground, think Brian Lake's Norm Smith Medal-winning defensive display in 2013.
Every player has an important job in a grand final. And while this year's version has more individual stars than most, here are three players from either Melbourne or the Western Bulldogs whose games really could prove the biggest factor in delivering their sides a flag.
They're not the drawcards in the lead roles of an epic tale. But they are a supporting cast who, should their team triumph on the day, may well have delivered an Oscar-worthy performance.
ALEX NEAL-BULLEN (Melbourne)
Every Grand Final side needs a spark to ignite the effort required in the biggest game of the year. The man known by the Demons as "Nibbler" (say the surname quickly) isn't popularly seen as one, but he has a happy knack of an early goal or two to set his side rolling. And Neal-Bullen's importance inside the Melbourne camp has for some time now exceeded the view of him from outside. Neal-Bullen has played two very handy finals for the Demons, one of the handful of best in the qualifying final win over Brisbane, and contributing a goal and solid defensive efforts in the preliminary final. He's quick, has good endurance, and is also ranked second for Melbourne in the tackle count. It means he can play the connecting role as a high half-forward, but also help trap the ball in the Demons' forward 50. And while Kysaiah Pickett and Charlie Spargo may attract most of the Dogs' defensive attention when it comes to small forwards, Neal-Bullen is the one who may slip under their guard.
JACK VINEY (Melbourne)
It seems strange to be talking about the captain of a grand finalist as a support act, but it's far more a tribute to how good Clayton Oliver and Christian Petracca have become for the Demons than any sort of knock on the Melbourne veteran. And the role Viney can play in Saturday's Grand Final, particularly in allowing Oliver and Petracca to shine their brightest, is considerable. It certainly has been in the Demons' two finals victories to date, Viney among the Dees' best handful in both with 28 disposals against Brisbane and 34 against Geelong (22 in the first half when Oliver was relatively subdued), and leading the clearance count for Melbourne each time. It's been that bullocking inside work either time which has been a crucial factor in Oliver and Petracca getting "off the chain", and it shapes as even more critical on Saturday given the sheer depth of the Bulldog midfield.
HARRISON PETTY (Melbourne)
Petty could be forgiven this week for pondering the game's swings and roundabouts. Had Adam Tomlinson not done a knee in round seven against North Melbourne, Petty may not have even had an opportunity of a premiership medal. But so well has he replaced the former Giant in the Demons' backline that, despite his exceedingly low profile, he is an important part of Melbourne's defensive planning. The No.1 backline in the league operates at its best when key planks Steven May and Jake Lever are able to zone off their men and intercept. That means Petty has to play a leading role in quelling Bulldog key forwards like Aaron Naughton and Tim English. He played that role beautifully in the preliminary final on Cats Tom Hawkins and Jeremy Cameron. And he's done it twice this season against the Dogs, too, keeping Josh Bruce quiet in both home and away clashes. If the Demons end up keeping the Bulldogs to a low and losing score on Saturday, Petty will almost certainly have done it again.
STEFAN MARTIN (Western Bulldogs)
There can't have been too many players in the modern era who have played only eight games in a season, ranked as low among the 44 players in terms of natural ability, yet still had such a massive role to play in a grand final. That's no disrespect to Martin at all, though, because his key assets, strength and determination, could be huge in landing the Bulldogs another flag. Martin will have just two words on his mind come bounce down. Max Gawn. Put simply, if Gawn dominates not only the ruck, but like he did in the preliminary final, up forward, Melbourne will almost certainly win. Martin has to work Gawn over physically and stretch him athletically. Doing so will not only curb a Demon key to victory, but allow ruck cohort Tim English to do most of his work up forward, where his height is needed. The importance of Martin's game to the prospects of a Bulldog premiership cannot be overstated.
JOSH DUNKLEY (Western Bulldogs)
The Grand Final pits together the AFL's two best midfield groups. But Melbourne might have a little more homework to do in that area in the lead-up. That's because neither Josh Dunkley nor Adam Treloar played in either home and away game against the Demons. That will stretch Melbourne's on-ball capacity a lot more. And Dunkley, in particular, has potentially a very key role to play. His form curve during the finals has been ominous, beginning with an effective quietening role on Essendon's Darcy Parish in the elimination final, then reducing Lachie Neale's effectiveness in the semi-final and taking Port Adelaide's Ollie Wines in the preliminary final, in each game gradually getting his hands on the football more often. The Dogs' midfield depth might allow Dunkley to play a negative role at the stoppages on Clayton Oliver, yet he is also dangerous on the outside and capable of kicking goals. In a defensive and offensive sense, a big game from Dunkley would make a huge difference.
MITCH HANNAN (Western Bulldogs)
Up against his old side, Hannan can also play a big part in thwarting old teammates' dreams while helping create one of his own. A difficult match-up for Melbourne, capable both in the air and at ground level, Hannan has exerted a significant presence up forward over September with six goals in the three finals wins, and had three goals before half-time in the preliminary final demolition of Port Adelaide. But, again, it's the "under the guard" factor which looms large here. Even on a quiet night individually against Melbourne in Round 19, Hannan was nonetheless able to emerge with a couple of goals. Cody Weightman, for obvious reasons, is going to be more of a Melbourne defensive focus when it comes to the Bulldogs' forward set-up, along with key forwards Naughton and English, and goalkicking midfielders like Marcus Bontempelli and Bailey Smith. And perhaps that may leave the door ajar for the smart medium-sized forward to bob up with what proves a critical two or three-goal game.