The cut-throat Preliminary Finals are my favourite footy time of the year.
I love the first week of footy, with everyone’s hopes so high and the possibility that we may see a player or two jump out of the box and take our teams to the next level. I love Anzac Day despite my team never having the option to play, and I love the derbies and showdowns as well – games with genuine feeling.
But when you get the four best teams of the season left in the race for the flag, there is just this special, satisfied feeling that, despite the ups, downs and sideways movements of the weird 2020 season, that there is something all right with the footy world.
And as the teams were released for the Port Adelaide clash, my mind started wandering to the possible matchups we could see, and what a win or a loss would mean to the overall outcome.
I’m a sharing kind of fella. A generous lover, a caring partner… all those kind of things, so I thought I’d share with you my thoughts on the potential matchups in the first Preliminary Final, and follow up with the same for the Brisbane v Geelong game at some point over the next 24 hours.
Both teams go in unchanged, which hilariously gave AFL writers very little to write about – the article released talking about the potential changes, only to conclude that all sides would be named the same as their previous finals outings was laughable journalism.
But what these unchanged line ups give us is the chance to speculate on potential matchups given what we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks.
If you go by the released line ups on the AFL website, it looks like a complete mess – Ryan Burton on Tom Lynch, Tom Jonas at centre half back playing on that renowned centre half forward, Jason Castagna, and Noah Balta manning up on Robbie Gray. We know none of these will happen.
But what do we really actually know? What surprises will Ken Hinkley and Damien Hardwick have in store for us this week?
NOAH BALTA V CHARLIE DIXON
The Tigers have an ace up their sleeve here, in the form of Dylan Grimes, and I expect Balta to get an enormous amount of help from the 2019 All-Australian.
So, how can Port negate the undeniable influence of Grimes to allow Dixon the chance at the occasional one-on-one contest against Balta?
The answer will come in the first quarter. And it will come in the form of the effectiveness of Robbie Gray, Connor Rozee, Zak Butters and Brad Ebert. It will be one of these blokes who enjoys the pleasure of Grimes’ company in the early going. He can play big or small – it doesn’t matter to him which one he picks up, but it matters how Port Adelaide use the footy going forward.
Grimes must be made to play on his man. He cannot be permitted to play ten metres off his opponent and within reach of the Dixon-Balta contest. If he goes to Gray, Robbie has to hurt him. If he goes to Rozee… this is actually my worry.
As good as Connor Rozee is, we have not really seen him improve on his 2019 form… yet. Maybe he is saving himself for the big games? Or maybe he was so good in his rookie year that it is simply too difficult to replicate that kind of form? If Rozee starts deep, I see Grimes going to him, and he’ll definitely be keeping an eye on the Balta v Dixon matchup. It will be up to Rozee to hit up at the ball carrier, turn quickly and get that ball to his big fella before Grimes has the chance to set up.
And if Grimes chooses to sag off, it is up to Rozee to hit the scoreboard. At less than half a goal per game this season, it would be exactly what Port needed.
THREE-HEADED MONSTER V DUSTY, COTCHIN, PRESTIA.
The Port midfield is built for finals footy. Though Tom Rockliff had never tasted finals footy until two weeks ago, he relished the hard-at-it style, and with both Travis Boak and Ollie Wines as his counterparts in the guts, there isn’t a contested footy this trio hasn’t wanted to win.
But this Tiger team has a bit of mongrel in them, too. Trent Cotchin throws caution to the wind in finals, and though many were bleating like sheep that he should be suspended for throwing Zak Jones to the ground, the realists amongst us knew what he was doing – he was putting the St Kilda players on notice that when it comes to this time of the season, the Tigers take no shit.
Cotchin takes no prisoners in finals. He belts in with a reckless abandon, and when you have hard bodies like Prestia working in unison with him, the Tiger midfield are more than a match for Port on their day.
Throw in Dustin Martin and the Tigers have the kind of x-factor that can get on roll and turn a game on its head. Despite an average first week against the Lions where he started fast and faded after half time, Martin was very good against the Saints and will be looking to push hard forward to keep the Port mids accountable. Who goes to him? All of the Port mids have the strength in the contest to match him, but who has the pace and burst speed to go with him when he gets out?
Once again, Martin is the game-breaker. If he is quiet, the Power mids can really get on top, but if he gets room, and starts pumping the Tigers forward, Hinkley will need to make an adjustment quickly to stifle him.
The other mids add more dimensions to this contest – Sam Powell-Pepper has a Martin-like ability to influence contests, yet does it in much shorter, sharper doses. Shane Edwards’ return has added an element of class to the Tiger midfield and he was one of the best on the park against the Saints. Add in Robbie Gray pinch-hitting and Shai Bolton as well, and these two teams are stacked in terms of midfield talent.
I expect Lycett and Nankervis to break-even in this contest. Both are ruck bullies and both love the physical stuff. A nil-all draw would be no surprise.
THE WINGS – PHYSICALITY V POLISH AND RUN
So, as many of you know, I am a big fan of the most neglected position in the game – the wing. As such, all season I have taken particular note of who has been best in these roles, and this four-way matchup is intriguing.
Kamdyn McIntosh has played like a man on a mission this season. After missing the Grand Final last year, he has played a hard-running, take-no-prisoners style all year, whereas Marlion Pickett has had moments of… let’s call it “uncertainty” in the latter stages of 2020.
Damien Hardwick has stuck with the pair, leaving Josh Caddy on the outer, but now Pickett has to deliver.
For Port, the run of Karl Amon on the outside is vital. If he gets clean footy going forward, the Port forwards would be licking their lips. Duursma, like Rozee, has had his colours lowered in year two. His hamstring injury set him back and we are yet to see him run and carry to the level he did in 2019. What a good time to start, huh?
If we’re talking a battle of strength in the one-on-one contests around the ground, you have to give the edge to the Tigers, here. They are more capable of mixing it up physically than they’re Power counterparts, but if it is an up-and-back kind of game, this is the type of matchup that Port can gain a real stranglehold in.
In other encounters this season, I feel like Pickett’s been a bit of a weak link for the Tigers in recent weeks, with some Richmond fans expressing the desire to have Josh Caddy back in the team over him. This week will make or break him, as Hardwick has clearly seen something that I am continually missing.
That said, I loved his hit on Rowan Marshall last week – that saved a goal.
THE LYNCH MATCHUP
With Jack Riewoldt no doubt looking to draw heat away from his big forward, the question of who stands next to Tom Lynch is a big one.
Trent McKenzie went to Tom Hawkins in the first final, and whilst you could say he held him goalless, Hawkins did have six shots at goal, registering just five behinds – it was more a team defence that forced him out wide to take difficult shots that was the winner. Do Port roll the dice again and hope that Lynch has the same misfortune in front of goal?
This is a huge ask for the Port defence, and a true test of the cohesiveness. They have been stellar all season in holding the fort when things get tough, but when the pressure is at its highest point this week, can they stand up?
The role of their captain, Tom Jonas, will play a vital role in defence. If he can manufacture a match up on someone a little less dangerous, and drop back to help out McKenzie, it will be up to how well players like Hamish Hartlett, Darcy Byrne Jones, Dan Houston and Ryan Burton can cover the Tigers’ ground crew.
Players like Castagna, Rioli and Bolton relish the certainty of their big forwards bringing the ball to ground. Even if Lynch is stymied, a breakeven inside fifty allows the Tiger smalls the chance to pounce.
This will be an integral contest right from the start – Lynch’s presence, not only in marking, but in crashing the pack and clearing a path for his teammates will be pivotal.
STEVEN MOTLOP V NICK VLASTUIN
Sure, I can never pronounce Vlastuin’s name correctly on our podcast, and sure he is one of the best intercept defenders in the game, but we got a bit of a blueprint on how to play Vlastuin a couple of weeks ago, and it was provided by Cam Rayner and the Lions.
St Kilda tried to replicate it by putting Jarryn Geary onto the Tiger defender, but that last just over a quarter as Vlastuin was easily able to get rid of him in the air. Who can Port throw at Vlastuin to counter him in the air and remain dangerous enough that he has to pay respect to them?
It’s not often that Steven Motlop puts two games together in a row that are of high standard. That’s not being dismissive of the bloke – it’s just being honest. Three in a row is virtually unheard of when it comes to Motlop. So it is a little concerning that he has five goals from his last two games coming into a prelim final. Could it be time to give him a job?
Vlastuin is great in the air – supreme judgement and undeniable courage. Motlop is more the sort who hits the ball hard at the drop of the footy and can conjure something out of nothing. Is it beyond the realms of possibility that Hinkley would walk over to Steven, look him in the eye and express how important it is that Nick Vlastuin not be permitted to take an intercept mark this week? Would Motlop rise to the challenge, or baulk at the idea of NOT playing his natural offensive game?
Despite reports before this season to the contrary, Ken Hinkley is a good tactical coach. He has set up this Port team to run and penetrate from defence with names like Hartlett and McKenzie playing behind the footy – each capable of carrying 60m by foot. If he can pull the right string here, get Motlop dialled in and ready to take on Vlastuin in a negating role, the Port enigma is dangerous enough at ground level that Vlastuin would need to be mindful of where he is at all times.
Rayner was able to do it. Could Motlop do it and snag a goal or two in the process? And if he can’t, would Brad Ebert be a better option?
PLEASE LET THIS OCCUR
I am a massive Liam Baker fan. Really jumped on board this season as I watched him move into the midfield as several Tiger stars went off to play the Bushfire Relief Game – remember that? Seems like so long ago.
Tonight, I am hoping that we get a bit of a dream matchup, seeing baker take responsibility for the electrifying Zak Butters.
Butters has made the step this season – he has provided the kind of kick to the Port offence that few can, and he does it with desperation and a willingness to throw his body into harm’s way. Or cause harm to others.
Can you stop that kind of play? Can you put the brakes on a player who can impact the game without the footy?
Baker v Butters is not the kind of matchup that tickles the fancy of most, but on the team-sheet, I have to admit to having a when seeing their names next to each other. Baker has plenty of mongrel in him – as does Butters. It may not be the marquee matchup of the midfield, but this one will have plenty of spice in it.
Our massive Prelim Preview is below for members only.
Got any potential matchups you’re looking forward to? What are you expecting this evening?
We’re all ears at The Mongrel. Comments section is below, and you can hit us up on our socials as well.