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We’ve compiled our top five best AFL Grand Finals of the modern era. How’d we go?

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Best AFL Grand Finals

It’s the culmination of a season full of ups and downs; the reward for a year of footballing dominance. Dreams are realised, legends are made and dynasties are created.

For the 2023 AFL Grand Final, it’s Collingwood v Brisbane – the best two teams of the AFL home and away season. The matchup is a repeat of the AFL Grand Finals of 2002 and 2003, when the Lions secured their second and third flags of the famous three-peat.

The Lions will be looking to replicate the 20-year milestone they’ve celebrated this year, while the Pies are on the hunt to bounce back from the heartbreak of their most recent AFL Grand Final in 2018, looking to secure their first Premiership since 2010.

As we look forward to this mouth-watering AFL Grand Final match-up, let’s look back at some of the best AFL Grand Finals we’ve seen since 1990 – the beginning of the AFL era.

2012 AFL Grand Final, Swans, Malceski
Nick Malceski seals the 2012 AFL Grand Final | How high will this game finish in our count?

The 5 best AFL Grand Finals (of the modern era)

5. 2006 – Sydney v West Coast

Result: Sydney 12.12 (84) defeated by West Coast 12.13 (85)

Between the 2005 Qualifying Final and Round 1 of the 2007 season, the Swans and Eagles faced off six times, yielding a cumulative margin of just 13 points. The 2006 AFL Grand Final was one of three occasions in this 18-month span where a game was decided by a solitary point, continuing the incredible rivalry between the two teams.

The Eagles started strongly, booting three goals within the first 12 minutes of the game, and further four in the second quarter, to skip out to a convincing 25-point half time lead. Four third-quarter goals to two in favour of the Swans meant the Eagles’ lead was reduced to 11 at three-quarter time, as an Adam Goodes major just 14 seconds into the final term shaved the lead to less than a goal.

There were another 16 minutes before the next goal was scored, with the Swans breaking the goalless run to be just a point behind. That was the first of a flurry of five goals in the last 10 minutes of the game, with the two sides going goal-for-goal in a frantic end to the match.

A Nick Malceski goal with five minutes to go in the quarter was the last score of the game, with the Swans’ comeback efforts in vain as the Eagles held on to avenge the heartbreaking loss of the year prior.

As caller Anthony Hudson said of the Eagles’ victory – “Who would have thought the sequel would be just as good as the original!”

Extended Highlights of the 2006 AFL Grand Final

4. 2005 – Sydney v West Coast

Result: Sydney 8.10 (58) def. West Coast 7.12 (54)

So let’s take a look at the ‘original’ – so similarly thrilling that the two can scarcely be split. But it’s the context of the 2005 decider that gives it the slight edge over its sequel. The Swans entered the match never having won an AFL Grand Final as Sydney, and with the club’s most recent premiership won in 1933 – an incredible 72 years prior.

The game was evenly contested in the first quarter, the Swans booting three straight goals to the Eagles’ two and four behinds to hold a two-point lead at the first break. Sydney gained the ascendancy in the second quarter, however, holding West Coast goalless as they added another three, to extend their lead to 20 points at the main break.

2005 AFL Grand Final, Leo Barry
THE moment of the 2005 AFL Grand Final: Leaping Leo Barry icing West Coast’s final roll of the dice forward.

But it was the Eagles who bounced back in the third, holding the Swans goalless in response as they shaved the lead back to two points ahead of the final term. Remarkably, the Eagles skipped ahead by 10 points, just five minutes, into the quarter, making it five scores in a row and three in the last eight minutes of play to that point in time.

The Swans then got one back through Barry Hall, adding another through Adam Goodes almost 10 minutes later to hit the front. 

Then, after a rushed behind to the Eagles with just 40 seconds remaining in the game, the Swans’ rebound was cut short by a strong contested mark from West Coast ruckman Dean Cox. Swiftly playing on and kicking it long to the top of the goal square, one of the greatest defensive marks of all times ensued. Swans defender Leo Barry appeared from practically nowhere to float in front of the pack that formed, taking the mark with just 10 seconds on the clock as the Swans held on in similar fashion secured the drought-breaking premiership.

The moment of the of the 2005 AFL Grand Final

3. 2010 – Collingwood v St Kilda

Result: Collingwood 9.14 (68) drew with St Kilda 10.8 (68)

The only thing closer than a one-point Grand Final win is one where the two teams can’t be split at the final siren, and that’s exactly what happened – for the last time – in the 2010 Grand Final between Collingwood and St Kilda.

Playing in front of over 100,000 fans, there could scarcely have been a more fitting occasion for something so historic to take place – a game described by players from both sides as a ‘war’.

2010 AFL Grand Final, Stephen Milne
The moment: The ball bounces at a right angle in front of Stephen Milne and through for a score-levelling point | 2010 AFL Grand Final

Collingwood looked set to hold a strong lead at the first break, but St Kilda booted two goals in the last five minutes of the term to go into quarter time just six points in arrears. But the Pies capitalised in the second quarter, kicking three goals to the Saints’ one to hold a 24-point lead at half time.

The Saints responded strongly in the third quarter, holding Collingwood goalless – in part thanks to the Pies’ inaccuracy – to return the deficit to just eight points. The Pies returned serve early in the last quarter, before St Kilda booted three consecutive goals to go six points ahead with just over ten minutes left in the quarter.

A rushed behind and goal – both off the boot of Travis Cloke – meant that Collingwood drew back in front in with just over five minutes remaining. With two minutes left on the clock, the Saints launched forward from their defensive 50, with Lenny Hayes sending the ball deep to an almost-vacant forward 50, with a bounce seemingly sitting up for small forward Stephen Milne, but a subsequent bounce – one of the cruelest bounces in memory – rolling over the line for a point to equalise the score, eluding Milne with an empty goal-square in front of him.

With 90 seconds on the clock, the Pies could only manage to go as far forward as the attacking side of their wing, while the Saints were able to re-enter their forward 50 but unable to score. A series of physical, scrappy contests on the wing for the final 30 seconds of the game was all that either team could manage from then on, with the scenes of exhausted, disappointed players sprawled on the MCG turf living strongly in the memory of footy fans, as the last of their kind signifying a drawn Grand Final.

The moment of the 2010 AFL Grand Final

2. 2012 – Hawthorn v Sydney

Result: Hawthorn 11.15 (81) defeated by Sydney 14.7 (91)

It may seem a big call given the competition, but of the Grand Finals on this list, 2012 is arguably the most evenly contested. It’s what Dennis Cometti described as “a Grand Final from the top shelf”, and it’s hard to think of another way to put it.

The first quarter was evenly contested, with some inaccuracy preventing either side from gaining a substantial advantage. The Hawks held a 7-point lead late in the term, before two goals in a minute in the dying stages of the quarter gave them a 19-point advantage at the first break.

2012 AFL Grand Final
The Swans celebrate their victory over Hawthorn in the 2012 AFL Grand Final.

It was the Swans who dominated the second quarter, however, hitting the scoreboard a minute into the quarter, and adding a flurry of three more to be five points ahead at the 14-minute mark. The Hawks registered a point in reply, but two further goals – both to Mitch Morton – saw the Swans go into half time with a 16-point lead.

After a point to the Hawks opened the scoring for the quarter, goals to Josh Kennedy and Lewis Roberts-Thomson, followed by another point to Kennedy, saw the Swans take a game-high 28-point lead. But the Hawks weren’t giving up, kicking five unanswered goals in 10 minutes of play in reply to hit the front. The Swans, however, hit the front again with a goal through Jarrad McVeigh late in the quarter, entering the three quarter time break holding a lead of just one point.

Nick Malceski
Nick Malceski: One of the 2012 AFL Grand Final heroes

In true fashion of the game, Hawthorn was back in front less than a minute into the last quarter, adding another goal minutes later and eventually raising its lead to 11 points. But again in customary fashion, the Swans responded strongly, drawing level after goals to Dan Hannebery and Kieren Jack. Another goal from Adam Goodes minutes later put Sydney in front with ten minutes to play.

But the Hawks weren’t giving up. They responded in attacking fashion, but couldn’t produce a major, shaving the Sydney lead to four points. With just over a minute remaining, the Swans’ Lewis Jetta lined up from beyond 50, but the distance was too great, with his kick falling short and the umpire eventually calling a ball-up. The Swans cleared it and it ended in the hands of Nick Malceski, who at the back of the pack was able to launch a high, acrobatic snap that sailed through for a goal, causing Cometti to declare “Sydney are premiers!”

The dying stages of the 2012 AFL Grand Final

1. 2018 – West Coast Eagles v Collingwood

Result: West Coast 11.13 (79) def. Collingwood 11.8 (74)

Perhaps a more football-appropriate version of the old saying, the notion that ‘it’s not over ‘til the final siren rings’ was as true as ever in the Grand Final of 2018. It was the second time in the Finals Series that the two sides had met, with the Eagles earlier securing a home Preliminary Final after defeating the Pies by 16 points in Finals Week One.

With over 100,000 in attendance at the cauldron that is the MCG, however, the Grand Final presented a far grander stage for the Eagles. Collingwood, on the other hand, had produced a near-dream finals run after finishing 13th on the ladder the year prior, defeating GWS in a tightly-contested semi-final before upsetting Richmond, the reigning premiers, in the Prelim.

Josh Kennedy
West Coast key forward Josh Kennedy | Best AFL Grand Finals

In the first quarter, the Pies’ dream finals run looked on track to be a miracle, as they burst out of the blocks and stunned their West Australian rivals with the first five goals of the game. Despite the slow start, the Eagles clawed back two in reply late, but Collingwood retained 17-point advantage at quarter time. The second quarter was far more even, the Eagles booting two goals to one and going into the main break 12 points down.

They trailed by just six points after Josh Kennedy goaled 45 seconds into the third quarter, but it was goal-for-goal as the Pies replied through Mason Cox, and again through Taylor Adams after a Jamie Cripps major. That would be all for the quarter from Collingwood, however, as the Eagles continued their pressure and added another two goals to go into the final change with the scores level.

The Pies weren’t done yet, however, wresting the momentum into their favour at the beginning of the last quarter with two goals in two minutes to open the term. The Eagles replied soon after, but Collingwood added another in reply to keep its advantage at over ten points. It didn’t last long though, with Josh Kennedy booting his third for the day to pin it back to less than a kick.

Remarkably, this scoring flurry took place within the first ten minutes of the quarter, and the Eagles continued to charge, but couldn’t convert their chances. Four consecutive behinds in the following ten minutes meant the Pies’ lead was reduced to a single point, but they ever-so-slightly relieved the scoreboard pressure a couple of minutes later with a point of their own.

2018 AFL Grand Final, Dom Sheed
The moment: Dom Sheed squeezes it through from a tight angle to put the Eagles ahead last in the final quarter | Top 5 AFL Grand Finals of the modern era

It was seven scoreless minutes as the sides tussled for the footy, but the Eagles produced some September magic through a scintillating chain of play starting in their defensive 50 to produce a shot on goal with a mere two minutes remaining. Starting with a huge contested grab from Jeremy McGovern, the Eagles went forward through Nathan Vardy, who kicked to a pack where high-flyer Liam Ryan took another outstanding contested mark against two opponents and a teammate.

It was he who then quickly played on, finding Dom Sheed in an attacking two-on-one in the forward pocket, going back with the flight to take a mark in front of an entire bay of Collingwood fans. Lining up as quickly and casually as ever as Brayden Maynard pleaded with the umpire to pay a free kick for blocking, Sheed, from the boundary, kicked what Channel 7 caller Brian Taylor labelled ‘the most impossible goal’, completing a most impossible comeback for the Eagles, who had been trailing for almost literally the entire game – a remarkable 109 minutes and 49 seconds, to just the five minutes the Eagles had been in front after opening the scoring with a point. 

With less than two minutes left, it was still mathematically possible for Collingwood to reclaim its lead, but the Eagles locked the play down until the final siren rang. A comeback like this is certainly the stuff of football dreams, and on this ‘one day in September’ in 2018, the Eagles’ were certainly realised.  

2018: One of the best finishes to an AFL Grand Final we’ve ever seen.

Now your turn

Do you agree? What’s your take for best ever AFL Grand Final? Drop us a line in the comments.

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