Ten Things I Learnt After The Prelim Finals

 

1. Brisbane played their “Grand Final” against Melbourne

It seems to be an old cliché we bring out most years when we see a side pull off a huge and often unexpected win in a final only to come out the following week and not give a yelp. Last week against Melbourne in their semi-final, Brisbane played their best football for the year after half time breaking an eight year winless streak at the MCG and sending their more fancied opposition out of the finals race in straight sets. On the back of this performance, some even dared to dream that they might be a genuine challenge for the Cats who would need to be at their best to progress through to the big dance, but it was obvious early in the game that Brisbane were off the pace. The Lions were 5 goals down by half time but it could’ve been so much more. By the end of the game, it was a lot more.

Looking at the statistics, just one Lions player managed 20 possessions for the game. That was Lachie Neale who battled hard, but his influence on the game was kept well below his usual standard by the close-checking work of the Geelong midfield. Geelong’s coaching team did their homework and they now go into the Grand Final as raging favourites despite the Swans getting the better of them earlier in the season. That was way back in Round Two would you believe, and it was at the SCG where the Swans won by five goals. It was also at a time where the Cats were still finding their feet and looked nothing like the machine they’re looking like now.

The Swans victory over the Pies was nowhere near as convincing as the win by the Cats, but Sydney have proven time and again that they can perform when it counts. Based on what we saw this week, they’ll have to play a blinder to even come close.

 

2. Dangerfield knows the end is coming

This may come across as a strange thing to say after the bloke was pretty much best on ground, but as good as he played against the Lions, the 32 year old is probably very sore after each game and the recovery time is growing longer than his younger days. When I’ve been watching him play during this finals series, there’s a sense of urgency I can see that he may feel this is his best chance at being a premiership player and he knows it.

He came out firing early against the Lions, kicking two goals in the first quarter to set the tone for the match. Patty is playing like a man who knows this may be his last chance. I’m even wondering what may happen should the Cats become premiers. Does he play on? Only he truly knows where his body is at, and I imagine he’d be pretty banged up at this stage of his career.

Dangerfield left the Crows at the end of 2015 moving back to his home state and to his origins near Geelong. No doubt he would’ve felt some angst watching his former team play off in the 2017 Grand Final, but ever since then it would clearly seem the right choice has been made. Geelong have gone deep into the finals since acquiring the former Crow in several seasons but have fallen agonisingly short so far casting doubt on the club’s finals credentials. They came into this week’s game having played in five preliminary finals since 2016 with only one win in 2020 where they went on to lose to Richmond in the Grand Final. This year looks like the Cats are well placed to take out the premiership a lot more than all of those previous occasions. Watching the game on Friday night and seeing the desperation shown by Dangerfield tells me he knows that this is the one. He’s won countless awards including a Brownlow, but I think he has a special place reserved on his mantelpiece for a premiership medallion.

 

3. The Hawkins/Cameron combination is the league’s best

A recipe for success in the modern game appears to be not one gun tall forward, but two. We saw the early strong form of Carlton on the back of their stars in Curnow and McKay causing headaches for opponents and scoring at will, but the combination of Hawkins and Cameron is still the one for me. It’s very rare to see a game in which neither is firing. When they both fire the Cats destroy their opposition, but when one is down, the other usually fills the void with a few goals to his name. This is demonstrated perfectly by the two finals they’ve played in so far.

In the Qualifying Final, Hawkins was not at his best kicking just one from his 10 touches while Cameron gave the Magpies trouble kicking three. This week, Cameron had a quiet one by his standards with just one goal from 12 possessions, but Hawkins had a strong game booting four goals in what could have been more had he kicked straight before half time.

It seems close to impossible for opposition sides to be able to stop both of them in games. The Swans will have their work cut out next week. I’m wondering if the job will go to the McCartin brothers, but whatever the case, even then they’ll need to look out for the likes of Stengle and Close around goals. Tom Hawkins is now 34 years old and is still in hot form equal to the best forwards in the competition. Each time he puts in a game that may not be his best, he usually follows it up with a solid effort. There’s not really any signs suggesting he can’t play another year or two. It’s a testament to his fitness and conditioning as he rarely misses games through injury as well. Jeremy Cameron turns 30 next April and he has had the odd issue with hamstring strains. This combination is the best in the business and it will be interesting to see how long it can be sustained.

 

4. Max Holmes looks set for heartbreak

In what has been a breakout season for the 20 year old Cat in which he played in 17 games and had clearly cemented his spot in the top 22 at the club, it looks as though the one dark cloud over Geelong’s big win and subsequent berth in the 2022 Grand Final will be the injury sustained by Holmes in the 3rd quarter of Friday night’s clash. It looks as though it’s a hamstring strain, and although the club has cause for optimism due to reports it may not be as bad as first thought, even a low-grade hamstring strain is usually not right within a week.

If Holmes was to play next week, it would be hard to believe he would be moving freely and able to play at his best. Of course, I would be more than happy to be wrong and he comes out in full force and has a blinder, but it didn’t look good. His initial reaction was telling when he lay face on the sidelines and whacked the turf in frustration.

My mind goes back to 2010 when Simon Prestigiacomo was named in the team but told those at the club he wasn’t right due to groin soreness. There are many other stories of Grand Final heartache including his teammate Leon Davis being omitted for the Grand Final Replay as well as Kevin Sheedy leaving out Derek Kickett for the 1993 Bombers premiership match. More recently we saw the Cats enter the finals without Tom Stewart in 2020, and many get the feeling it was a factor in their loss to the Tigers on the last day in September. It’s now a waiting game for the young Cat. It will be an almighty bitter pill to swallow if he was to be unable to take his place and the Cats go on to win the flag. I wish all the best for the young man, but whatever the case, he has a long career ahead of him.

 

5. Joe Daniher is under the pump

There’s been a fair amount of criticism of Joe Daniher following the loss to Geelong on Friday night. The suggestion is that he doesn’t play smart football and will need to find a way to raise his football nous to a much higher level in order for his team to have any chance of ultimate success. Against the Cats, Daniher failed to kick a goal and was seen to make some poor choices that resulted in missed shots for goal and turnovers.

There’s no denying that Joe is a very talented footballer, but are we ever going to see the best of this guy? That’s the question everybody is asking after two ordinary performances in this year’s finals series when it really counted. It may seem harsh to put it in those terms, but the Lions have given a lot to get Daniher to the club and it was with premiership glory in mind that such a decision would’ve been made.

It came with huge risk, however. When playing for the Bombers he missed a lot of football due to injury. When he first crossed to the Lions it looked as though he had finally got his body right much to the frustration of Bomber fans. He has played 42 games for the Lions in just seasons while managing just 108 for the Bombers in 8 seasons. So it seems he has been the fittest during this later stage of his career. He is the leading goalkicker at Brisbane this season finishing with 46, but he managed just two majors in his two finals games and wasn’t the presence the Lions would’ve been hoping him to be. He will be 29 years of age shortly after the season begins in 2023, and one gets the feeling that next year he will be priming himself for the biggest year of his career. The impact that a 60 goals or more season from Joe could have on the Lions could be the difference between missing finals or going all the way. The Lions are still in that premiership window, and the form of Daniher would be one key ingredient.

All eyes will be on him next season. The Brisbane forward line could be without McStay as he seems likely to move to Collingwood. With Hipwood showing a little more late in the season, could we be talking about the Hipwood/Daniher combination in the same way we currently speak about Hawkins/Cameron this time next year? For the sake of the Lions’ chances, they would hope so..

 

6. Collingwood’s luck with close finishes finally ran out

You have to admire what Collingwood has been able to achieve this season. Last year was a stinker by any measure, and nobody saw them as potentially playing finals this year aside from a few diehard believers. The amount of close finishes they were involved in this season alone would have to be some kind of record in AFL/VFL history. And the amount of times they won in those games is amazing to say the least. It is often said that in tight contests that are decided by single digits that it boils down to good fortune to the team that happens to be in front when the siren sounds. The Pies also did so after trailing by as much as five goals during some games. Their never say die attitude coupled with a real sense of self-belief was incredible. When the game is on the line, their ability to execute under such intense pressure never ceased to amaze us. They fell short to the Cats by just 6 points in the qualifying final, and now they’ve missed out on a place in the Grand Final by the slimmest margin possible. How did this happen, and why were they so unlucky just in the finals only?

Well, I felt against the Cats they had every right to win that game as they lead for quite a lot of the duration of the match, and it was just that little extra bit of class and poise right at the end that enabled Geelong to find a way to win. It’s usually the Magpies who have been able to do that, but on the big stage in a final, the cream did rise and we saw the result.

On Saturday night, it was a very different story with the Swans looking like they were in control until late in the game when the Pies came at them and nearly reeled them in. The Swans had opened up a 36-point lead during the third quarter, but most of us knew not to write Collingwood off. The Magpies might be ruing the fact that their normally good starts to matches was absent this week. They were outplayed for the best part of three quarters and it would’ve been the steal of the century if they got up. It’s a shame, because there’s something about a Geelong v Collingwood Grand Final that would’ve set the MCG alight next week, but hopefully the Swans can regroup after the fright they got and be competitive against Geelong. The concerning thing for me seemed to be the loss of run late in the game, and how much of a factor that was in the Magpie revival.

 

7. Sam Reid might be the other heartbreak story of the finals

Much of Sam Reid’s career has seen him miss many games through injury. This year was finally one of those years where he was stringing games together and was looking dangerous up forward. In the second quarter of Saturday night’s clash, Reid was subbed off due to a groin injury and now looks unlikely to take his place against the Cats next week. This would be a tragedy for the 30 year old Reid who would’ve been thinking that things were finally going his way for a change.

He’d already scored one goal in the first term and had five score involvements from his 6 disposals before leaving the ground. With a forward line comprising of Franklin, Reid and McDonald as the talls, the Swans have scored more freely this year.

Reid started with the Swans in 2010, now in his 13th season. He has managed just 178 games at an average of just 13-14 games a year shows he has missed around a third of the potential games he could’ve played. It was a similar story with his brother Ben who had an injury-ravaged career at Collingwood who managed just 152 games in 14 years at the Pies. We can all hope for a minor miracle that enables Sam to play in next week’s Grand Final, but, the good news is, just like his older brother Ben, the two boys already have a Premiership Medallion each with Ben’s coming in 2010 and Sam played in the Swans’ 2012 flag win.

All of us wish Sam Reid and Max Holmes all the best for a speedy recovery in the hope they can be a part of Saturday’s action.

 

8. Tom Papley is a very important player for the Swans

Most clubs have that one player that does the flashy things or who interacts with the crowd and pumps his team up on the back of some good work on the field. Tom Papley is that player at the Swans. When he’s up and about, it seems to infect the whole playing group who seem to draw inspiration off of his exuberance on the field. He was terrific in the first half kicking two goals, and when he got his third at the 16 minute mark of the final term we thought he may have kicked the sealer, but of course the Pies had other ideas and kicked the last three goals of the game to eventually lose by a point. But, for the most part, it didn’t seem that the Collingwood defence were able to stop Papley from making his mark on the game. He finished with 16 touches and three goals, but it’s his spirit on the field that lifts his whole team that is something to be admired.

For the Swans to be any chance against the Cats, one gets the feeling it might require some more Papley brilliance and excitement, particularly early in the game. If the Sydney mids can get the ball into their forward line early with Tom crumbing off the marking contests and finishing with a snag or two early, you can bet that this will lift the Swans and the pressure on the Cats will be intense. It won’t be easy though, as demonstrated by the magnificent job the Geelong defence did in keeping the equally dangerous Charlie Cameron to just one goal from eight touches on Friday night.

Will Jed Bews be given the task of keeping the excitement machine in check again? Judging by his performance on Friday, it would seem almost a certainty. And with Tom Papley almost proving to be the barometer at Sydney, quelling his influence might be as important as any tactic in the game.

 

9. Scott Pendlebury will reach 400 games

The Collingwood captain is still playing elite football at the ripe old age of 34. There are no signs of his slowing down, and it appears as though his body is still as durable as ever. So there’s virtually no reason why he couldn’t play until the age of 37 or more in the same vein as David Mundy or Brent Harvey and achieve that milestone that only five other players have managed to do. In a huge game like a preliminary final on such a big stage, once again he was outstanding finishing with an equal match-high 29 disposals while managing to lay six tackles as well. He is one of, if not the best captain in the league right now. He almost got his team across the line in yet another close one as good leaders often do.

Pendlebury currently sits on 357 games. If he was to play just the next two seasons without missing much football that would get him over the line, especially if they play finals. It would be a very fitting thing to have on his epitaph at the end of his career. We’ve all admired his consistency and skill, always looking as though he has more time than anyone on the field with ball in hand. It’s an amazing attribute that so many of these high-end AFL stars seem to possess. Greg Williams comes to mind as having that ability to find his way through traffic despite not being blessed with great pace. I’d say Scott is quicker than Greg was, but both at their best have the uncanny decision-making skills in a confined space that is simply sublime. I think we’ll see Pendles running around for at least two more years and I am pretty confident he will be the 6th player to make 400 games. And Joel Selwood may not be far behind him…

 

10. It really is looking like a Geelong Premiership to me

I know some strange things can happen, and I’m aware that some may see this is being disrespectful to the Swans, but it’s just an opinion and a Swans victory is not something that would completely shock me either. It’s just that everything seems to be going right for the Cats. Other than their small issue with Max Holmes, their list is so healthy that an absolute gun like Sam Menegola isn’t getting a game as well as the likes of Brandon Parfitt. There is some serious depth at the club, and even though it’s an aging list, boy are they in good nick. And yes, they were made to work for their first win of the finals against Collingwood, but the manner in which they dismantled the Lions on Friday night was an ominous sign. The other key ingredient which was missing from their 2020 Grand Final loss was the presence of Tom Stewart down back. He’s fighting fit and doing what he does best taking intercept marks at will and repelling opposition attacks.

Then at the other end you have the smiling assassin in Hawkins with his buddy Cameron combining to give defensive units too much to think about. Tyson Stengle got the nod for All-Australian honours and his good form has continued on throughout the finals campaign as well. Sure, the Swans have Papley at the other end, but Stengle will also be a massive handful for the Swans defence. The battle in the middle will be huge with the likes of Dangerfield, Selwood and Blicavs up against Parker, Mills and Warner. Tom Hickey is also in fine form so the Geelong midfielders will need to be ready for his tapping skills. I just can’t see the Cats letting this one slip. There’s a resolve you can see that tells me we may even have a slightly lop-sided result in their favour. Time will tell if I’m right or not, but for me, it’ll be the Cats by 28 points, and Patrick Dangerfield for the Norm Smith with 30 touches and a couple of goals.