History is littered with examples of finals being won at selection, whether it be the incredible reward of Stevie Johnson’s three-goal masterpiece in the 2011 Grand Final, Luke Beveridge’s stunning injection of five underdone players to spark a miracle four game run to glory in 2016, or conversely the ill-fated late-season struggles with injury for Dustin Martin last season.
Or perhaps the clearly hobbled Luke Hodge unable to exert his usual influence in a 10-point loss in the 2012 decider – coaches are on a hiding to nothing to get it right in the only month that really matters.
As we embark on the 2019 finals, it seems there is more uncertainty than ever with team selection and potential line ups as the eight remaining clubs put all their cards on the table in the hope of gaining any advantage and hopefully finding the fabled momentum that will take them to the top of the mountain.
WEST COAST VS ESSENDON
The Eagles, rocked by two losses on the trot and losing the safety of a top four finish, are likely to roll the dice with their talismanic behemoth ruckman, Nic Naitanui in the elimination final tomorrow night. Famously missing the premiership triumph last year as Scott Lycett and Nathan Vardy capably delivered an effective double act, there is no doubt the Fijian former number two draft pick is itching to make his mark on the September stage.
However with only three games behind him in the home and away rounds, the most recent on July 12th, there must be huge question marks on his capacity to play the role pencilled in by the coaching panel early in the year. There were exceptionally promising signs in those few games though – a 25% lift in his career average hit-outs, two games significantly above his average possessions and a commanding impact by delivering double his career average clearances would have last year’s All-Australian coach, Adam Simpson eager to play him. The implications to the rest of the side are significant with the likelihood of Tom Hickey retaining his spot as a back-up in case of emergency, which leaves either of the impressive Oscar Allen* or more probably Jake Waterman the unlucky omissions.
The injury cloud over AFLPA Best Captain, Shannon Hurn would also be clouding Simpson’s judgement as he could conceivably take one risk into this knockout decider but two might be too many. If the inspirational captain puts his hand up you have to back him. He has delivered in spades this season – a career high possessions per game tally brilliantly supported by his elite rating of 85.7% disposal efficiency. Also rated as elite for his intercept and contested marking, he is built to lead his team in finals and I expect that to be the case.
Their opponents, Essendon staggered to the line with an inconsistent run home, but cannot be discounted as their impressive performance at Optus Stadium three weeks ago can attest. History is on their side too as remarkably nine of the nineteen times 8th have played 5th in the current version of the Final Eight, they have knocked off the higher ranked team. From a selection perspective it looks like Worsfold will have a third successive week of five or more changes as proven performers will be wheeled back into the team. Michael Hurley, the defensive general, perhaps unlucky to be overlooked for AA honours missed the last game with a recurrence of a shoulder injury, but the noise coming out of Tullamarine are that he’ll take his customary position patrolling the defensive 50. With an elite rating and career high 8.1 marks this season, Hurley has organised the back six effectively whenever he has played and will be integral in stopping the potent West Coast forward line.
Like their combatants in this match, the Bombers will be hoping they can patch up their skipper, the influential Dyson Heppell who has struggled with a foot injury all season, to lead his side to a first finals victory in 15 years. Despite his injury woes, Heppell has been incredibly consistent, hitting career averages across disposals, marks, inside 50s. clearances and tackles. Like his counterpart from the west, the players in the red sash walk taller when Hep is on the field. As such I expect both to
GEELONG VS COLLINGWOOD
The Cats despite sitting atop the ladder all season are suddenly under intense scrutiny before their Friday night blockbuster against the Pies. One area Geelong haven’t been able to lock down all season, or since Brad Ottens retired for that matter, is the ruck and with a dominating Brodie Grundy likely to revel in the conditions this is a massive headache for Chris Scott. Unsuccessfully trialling Zac Smith, Esava Ratugolea, Ryan Abbott, Mark Blicavs and Rhys Stanley throughout the year, they now have no choice but to turn back to Stanley as the most physically capable of quelling the giant Magpie’s impact. Recording career highs in disposals and hit outs are a positive for the former Saint, but he really needs to get on his bike and contribute forward of centre forcing Grundy to be more accountable which could limit his capacity to hurt them in attack.
High profile recruit Gary Rohan is another player of immense interest at this intersection as his previous finals record could be confused with the script for an amateur horror film. The fact he has only registered double figure possessions twice since round 10 would also be on Scott’s mind as his scoring production has decreased to a trickle, only 4.6 since May 25, when he’d contributed 20.5 before then. Geelong will need a spark in what is likely to be a close fought match in less than perfect conditions, so I’m betting on the powers that be placing their trust in the red-headed number 23, this is truly a boom-or-bust selection though.
Collingwood enter the 2019 finals, a season that promised so much after their barnstorming run last year to be pipped at the post in the cruellest circumstances, with a healthy, albeit underdone list and good recent form that has some comparing them to the 2016 Dogs. And with huge names De Goey, Sidebottom, Moore and Stephenson all likely to be named after enforced layoffs of varying lengths there is great interest in how the Magpies will gel. Livewire forward Stephenson has been particularly missed due to his terrible indiscretion, and with at least one VFL game under his belt could provide a further boost to a Pies forward line who have warmly embraced the return to form of Jamie Elliot. Before his suspension Stephenson was putting together an AA calibre year, in particular increasing his goals per game output into the elite levels for a small forward and delivering a significant improvement on his rookie season which was capped with a runaway Ron Evans medal victory.
De Goey and Moore are two power athletes who rely on their blistering pace and strength to influence contests and after recovering from multiple soft tissue injuries would be a huge concern to Nathan Buckley. The pressure cooker of a packed MCG is not the time to be conservative though and I fully expect the resilient boss to unleash his two weapons against a wary Geelong with a view to break the game open early.
GWS VS BULLDOGS
The sputtering Giants have disappointed again in 2019 and a feeble exit to the Bulldogs at home could be cause for alarm to the senior coach with an impatient AFL watching closely. The Giants have shown glimpses of their best this year, mostly on the back of individual brilliance rather than strategy and teamwork, and therefore the availability of Greene, Kelly and Whitfield for one of the first times this year in particular will ignite hope for supporters of the charcoal and orange. Matt De Boer was a nominal AA before injury struck, and now with two games back should be close to his best and raging to lock down on one of Bontempelli, Dunkley, Macrae or Johannisen.
With everything on the line the Giants need to maximise their advantages over a shorter Bulldogs line up and load up in the forward line with aerial and ground threats Jeremy Cameron, Harry Himmelberg and Jeremy Finlayson and hope that the fitness of their big three – Whitfield, Keely, Greene can supply enough entries to capitalise.
The Western Bulldogs are relatively fit and settled and certainly peaking at the right time, the ruck however remains a problem with the precociously talented but underdeveloped Tim English still being roundly beaten by hardened bodies. In his third season he has improved substantially playing 19 matches for a career tally of 28 and improving in most statistical categories, but he cannot be expected to carry the tall man division in a genuine premiership contender at this early stage of his AFL life. To offset that concern I predict Beveridge will turn to the maligned Jackson Trengove who performed admirably in that role against this opponent a fortnight ago and has the mature body and ability to counter Mumford/Simpson or be used as coverage down back should the Giants three-headed marking monster get on top. Interestingly in the three matches Trengove has spent significant minutes in the ruck he has recorded two games of six tackles, and a further two with six clearances proving he can provide the big bodied support to allow the silken midfielders Bontempelli, Macrae et al to pinpoint forays to sharpshooters like Bailey Dale and Sam Lloyd.
Of all the teams commencing their journey to the 2019 flag this week, Luke Beveridge’s team is probably the most settled and a small switch by adding Trengove should be his only worry, apart from the incredible talent on paper possessed by the Giants.
BRISBANE VS RICHMOND
Finals football returns to the Gabba where the Lions own the enviable record of ten straight victories. They may never have faced such a formidable foe as the Tigerish Tigers though, but with temperatures expected to touch 30 degrees during the day and the imminent return of Allen Christensen they can be rightfully bullish on their chances of winning through to a home preliminary final. Before a hamstring scare, Christensen was hitting a great run of form, delivering eight goals and 22 tackles in the last month in devastating partnership with excitement machine Charlie Cameron and jumping jack Lincoln McCarthy. It’s only 19 days since the hamstring strain though, and recent convention suggests 21 days is the starting point for a return to full strength, Fagan will be hopeful that his flotilla of small forwards can run riot to counteract the squadron they are sure to face defensively on Saturday night.
Elsewhere the Lions have exceeded expectation all over the ground not to mention in their incredible second place finish, but if the selection committee did want to spring a change it might be to sure up an inexperienced line up with the likes of Eric Hipwood, Cam Rayner and Jarrod Berry slightly subdued over recent weeks as the intensity has lifted. Conversely they may just put their faith in the leadership of Zorko, Hodge and Robinson to pick up the kids and drag them to the hellmouth whether they are ready and willing or not!
With superstar captain Trent Cotchin seemingly over his latest bout of hamstring troubles, there is just one question for the Tigers hierarchy in relation to selection and it’s more a riddle of how to squeeze four rucks offering varying skillsets into just two available spots in the 22. The incumbent Ivan Soldo has performed admirably in Toby Nankervis’ extended absence, returning elite ratings for tackles and pressure acts alongside a healthy 26.5 hit outs per game, Nankervis himself, while delivering less from a statistical standpoint than Soldo, is a trusted soldier in Hardwick’s army and at his best returns numbers akin to an extra midfielder. His heroics in the last gasp win for the VFL side last weekend might also come into consideration with the Tigers desperate to win on the road and avoid the potential of moving too far from their MCG fortress.
With a likely nod towards experience for the main ruck position, the question of who will back up that role comes to light assuming they don’t go with the two bulls who are probably too similar and don’t allow the flexibility Balta or Chol will afford. Noah Balta had a strong stretch through the middle of the year collecting 35 disposals, 29 hit outs, ten tackles and two goals across three weeks before dropping form and slipping out of the side, usurped by Mabior Chol. He won his place back last week, and was encouraging with ten hit outs coupled with his ability to play back, forward or middle will likely see him chosen ahead of Chol who lost form at the wrong time of the year with just 18 touches, and 28 hit outs in his last four weeks.
With all four men having legitimate claims to a place in the Tigers Qualifying finals team there will be two unlucky players to miss, without great confidence I’ll suggest Nankervis and Balta to make the trip north for the first chance to consolidate their position for the remainder of September.
*Written pre-selection, Allen to miss with knee soreness.