Cynics will point to one off-field factor as a major reason why Hawthorn and St Kilda are contesting an AFL preliminary final at the MCG Saturday night.
The Hawks and Saints have been arguably the two greatest recent beneficiaries of football’s socialism structure, where mediocrity earns reward through high draft picks and early access to the best young talent each year.
The draft system – and the salary cap – has ensured a level playing field over the past decade, given every club has reached at least one preliminary final in that time.
But critics argue it is too great a reward to give sides which struggle through the season such a free hit.
St Kilda’s horror years of 2000-02 landed them a clutch of early draft picks which they used wisely to recruit Nick Riewoldt (No.1 2000 draft), Justin Koschitzke (No.2 2000), Luke Ball (No.2 2001) and Brendon Goddard (No.2 2002), who will all be keys against the Hawks.
Throw in elite midfielders Lenny Hayes and Nick Dal Santo, who were also first-round picks, and the pickings have been rich for St Kilda.
Similarly, Hawthorn have enjoyed a bountiful time with early picks in recent years.
The Hawks were the dominant side of the 1980s and were still strong in the first half of the 1990s, but the following decade was a largely barren one for the brown and gold.
But the struggles of 2004, when they won only four games, can be glossed over considering the harvest that came that November.
Hawthorn nabbed superstar forward Lance Franklin at No.5 in that draft and complemented that pick with Jarryd Roughead (No.2) and Jordan Lewis (No.7).
Luke Hodge, the club’s most destructive player behind Franklin, also arrived at Hawthorn via a high pick, although the Hawks traded Luke McPharlin and Trent Croad to Fremantle for that prized selection (Croad returned to Hawthorn after two seasons with the Dockers).
It’s little wonder then, that some in the AFL believe the only way to win premierships is by rebuilding with a handful of early draft picks.
Sydney coach Paul Roos noted as much after his side’s loss to the Western Bulldogs in last weekend’s semi-final, when he said many were following the fortunes of Hawthorn and Carlton – the other great beneficiary of recent high picks – to see if “racing” to 15th or 16th was the best way to build a premiership side.
But it hasn’t all been served on a silver platter to Hawthorn and St Kilda, who have both made their share of tough decisions in recent years.
Upon his appointment in 2004, Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson began building for the future.
There are only 14 players still at the club from the list he inherited, and the large group of players aged 25 or under suggests the Hawks can be a force for years to come.
In the four seasons under Clarkson, Hawthorn’s graph has risen – 14th in 2005, 11th in 2006, sixth last year and now playing off for a berth in the grand final.
While the Hawks’ emphasis has clearly been on youth in Clarkson’s tenure, the club also made good decisions in recycling experienced players Brent Guerra (ex-St Kilda) and Stuart Dew (ex-Port Adelaide), whose excellent kicking skills have been invaluable from half-back.
St Kilda looked to have blown their great chances of achieving success in 2004-05, when their sides full of young guns were beaten in successive preliminary finals, by Port and then Sydney.
That view was enhanced when the Saints were eliminated in the first week of the finals in 2006 – which cost Grant Thomas his coaching job – and in 2007, under Ross Lyon, when they missed the finals altogether.
But in his second season as coach, Lyon recruited Steven King from Geelong and Adam Schneider from Sydney – both premiership players – and reversed the slide.
Hawthorn will start favourite tomorrow night, but the impressive nature of St Kilda’s win over Collingwood in last weekend’s semi-final must give the Saints a chance of reaching only their third grand final since their sole 1966 premiership.
Ten members of the side which lost the 2005 preliminary final won’t be there tomorrow night, with defender Matt Maguire (injured) the only one who could claim to be in the Saints’ best side.
Besides the rebuilding, tomorrow’s clash also carries plenty for the romantics – on both sides.
Shane Crawford, 34, began his career after Hawthorn’s great era and is desperate for his own premiership medal, as is Robert Harvey, 37, whose career will be over if St Kilda lose.
The champion midfielders boast 691 games and three Brownlow medals between them, but the only dream that keeps them going is the hope of tasting elusive premiership success.