At the conclusion of the regular home-and-away season, Carlton had finished first on the ladder with 18 wins, 3 losses and a draw. Richmond had finished second with 18 wins and 4 losses.
In the finals series leading up to the Grand Final, Richmond defeated Collingwood by 44 points in the Qualifying Final before meeting Carlton in the Second Semi Final. This game resulted in a draw, with both teams scoring 8.13 (61). In the Second Semi Final Replay, Richmond won comfortably by 41 points, sending them straight through to the Grand Final. Carlton then beat St Kilda by 16 points to match up with Richmond once again in the premiership decider.
Richmond went into the Grand Final as the clear favourites. Even though Carlton finished on top of the ladder, they had lost twice to Richmond during the regular season, and then were thrashed in the Second Semi Final replay. The statistics lent further weight to Richmond's favouritism; Carlton had not beaten the Tigers in a final since 1920.
As Richmond coach Tom Hafey recalled: "We were expected to kill in the grand final."
The 1972 Grand Final was played under dull skies but on a superb MCG surface. Carlton made eight positional changes to its team, the most notable was that of captain-coach John Nicholls, who put himself in the forward pocket, and gave first ruck responsibilities to Peter "Percy" Jones.