The penultimate week of football has arrived and excitement levels are quickly reaching fever pitch with the majestic MCG and Optus Stadium both sold out earlier in the week. The incredible resilience of the Magpies in 2018 face the juggernaut that is the now fully awoken Tiger army, while the feel good Demons cross the Nullarbor to tackle the ever professional Eagles. One thing I’m sure all impartial fans can agree upon is that clearly the best four teams of 2018 are now the only ones standing in the race for the coveted premiership cup.
General consensus is that Preliminary Final weekend is for the fans, the most pure football in front of packed stadiums with legitimate club members in attendance, and it often results in the best quality games with the highest level of drama. I’ve been fortunate to have attended some of the greatest Prelims in history, from the infamous Gary Buckenara after the siren goal in 1987, the 1998 Andrew MacLeod masterclass, the 2010 Collingwood first quarter demolition of Geelong, and the 2013 ‘Hearse for the Curse’ last man standing affair. I’ve been known to drift off on nostalgic tangents when recalling some of these great moments in football and indeed my life, but personally nothing is better than the following week, albeit the one that cannot occur without victory in this match.
RICHMOND VS. COLLINGWOOD
The MCC are anticipating a crowd in excess of 97,000 which would break the record for most 90K+ crowds in a single season with an almost guaranteed addition to that tally the following week. In reality if the AFL had access to a stadium capable of fitting 150,000 this would also be sold out in what is one of the most keenly anticipated showdowns of the modern era. Two traditional powerhouses with incredible supporter bases meet in a do-or-die match at the home of football on a glorious spring evening - can it get any better than this? Well actually, yes it can, and that is due to the fact each team play a scintillating style of football that captivates even the neutral fan and both teams are littered with genuine match winners who can create a lasting legacy through their performances tonight.
The Tigers have been almost unbackable favourites to claim back-to-back crowns ever since the wider football world reflected on their stunning run to September glory last season, and confirmed their standing by finishing two games clear after the home & away season, easily dispatching the Hawks and enjoying a week off to rest some tired bodies. Collingwood on the other hand have taken a completely different path, amid coaching turmoil early in the season and dealing with significant injuries to key players. They lost Elliot, Reid, Dunn, Moore and the recently returned Treloar, Howe and Goldsack. They were criticised for an easy draw and their inability to claim victory against top 8 opposition. However, a closer inspection of their form line provided a more accurate assessment. With a game style built around hard running, precision possession from the backline and a multi-pronged forward beast with a stellar midfield comprising Grundy, Sidebottom, Pendlebury, Treloar and Adams, the Pies are a legitimate threat tonight.
In my time watching football I don’t recall a team playing as selflessly for each other for the entire four quarters in the way the Tigers d0. Perhaps only the ruthless ’88 Hawks could lay claim to matching their intensity, but the game is very different now 30 years on, built on tackling pressure, strategic positioning and electrifying counter attacks. Their discipline is astonishing, and their ability to retain continuity with a core group of 16 players without injury is unbelievable management sprinkled with a modicum of good luck. Richmond enter the Prelim unchanged, perhaps hampered by their VFL side’s inability to progress past week two which has limited the opportunity for Dan Butler and Brandon Ellis amongst others to push their case for reinstatement. The changes from their drought breaking triumph last year include Short, Higgins and Conca who have added the necessary hunger and enthusiasm to drive the remaining nineteen to want to climb the mountain again.
Collingwood also go into this match unchanged, on a high after besting the Giants last week in an impressive hit out. It was a match they probably should have won by 6 goals or more but for poor conversion. Long term absentees, Howe, Treloar and Goldsack now have two matches under their belts and can be expected to be at their absolute best tonight.
They’ll need to be.
Captain-in-waiting Steele Sidebottom has followed up his debut AA-selection with 15 coaches votes in the Gary Ayres medal to start the finals series and has accepted the mantle as his team’s best player by ascending to an even higher level of output. The forward line comprising Stephenson, Thomas, Hoskin-Elliot will need solid contributions from Mihocek and Cox to nullify the Tiger team defence and provide enough opportunities, or they could all leave the zone and allow the raging bull, De Goey to go mano-y-mano (which means an academic decathlon – unashamed Billy Madison reference) and fulfil his destiny in a coming out party for the ages.
KEY MATCH UPS
McIntosh vs. Treloar
The Tiger tagger was a standout in the Qualifying Final, not only limiting the output of hard working Hawk, Liam Shiels but also pushing forward to kick 3 goals. If he can limit Treloar to an average output and also stretch the Collingwood defence through hard running and smart positioning this will go a long way towards the setup of a jumbotron at Punt Rd Oval on Monday.
Nankervis vs. Grundy
Fashionable Brodie Grundy belies his off field persona which brutish performances in the clinches. Tiger Toby is not averse to getting down and dirty either, and has been a revelation in this era of success for the yellow and black. Breaking even would be a win for the Tiges, but don’t count out Grundy being a match winner. He has long been appointed as a great in waiting, and is certainly fulfilling those lofty expectations in 2018.
Martin vs. De Goey
I don’t expect these two talismanic beasts to play anywhere near each other, but each possess the talent and charisma to drive their team to victory. Martin the best player in the game last season has been in that form for close to two months now, while De Goey standing grows by the day. There isn’t an AFL fan anywhere who won’t be spellbound when these incredible specimens take centre stage tonight.
It is a disservice to describe the 2018 Magpies as brave - they have been so much more, and much credit to the Coach Buckley who trusted his abilities and is now starting to reap the rewards. Collingwood have an extremely bright future with a well-rounded list of established champs, up and coming stars and grizzled role players. However this test will prove a bridge too far as the irrepressible Tigers storm through to a second successive Grand Final with a 28 point victory.
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WEST COAST VS. MELBOURNE
The fairy-tale story of the 2018 finals series - the Demons return to Preliminary Final action for the first time since 2000. And awaiting them will be the home-town Eagles, widely predicted to drop out of finals contention this year after the retirements of Matt Priddis and Sam Mitchell and ongoing injury concerns to Nic Naitanui. The Eagles in particular, partially due to the tyranny of distance and partially through recent history and the unfortunate injury to Nic Nat and season ending suspension to Andrew Gaff have not received their fair share of credit for an excellent year. Starting the season with a 10-2 record, bookmarked by losses to the Swans, set them up perfectly for two home finals and the “easy” passage to a Grand Final. In their only meeting with the all-conquering Tigers they took their best punches and then streaked away with a 47-point win. Admittedly this game was a long, long way from where a potential GF playoff will be held, but ought to fill them with great confidence.
Melbourne, condemned throughout the year as a team without killer instinct have suddenly found the switch, confirming Coach Goodwin’s musings after an earlier heartbreaking loss to the Cats. They have now beaten four top-8 sides on the trot, including the Eagles in their own backyard. Their fearsome attack on the football is unparalleled apart from the Tigers and the injection of Viney in the past couple of games has taken this to astounding new levels. An old-school dominant ruckman who even plugs the hole in front of the rampaging power forwards is a necessity this week with the Eagles twin towers, Darling and Kennedy currently 10-0 in the Win/Loss column when playing together this year. It’s not just the Demons’ big names that have made the difference however and valuable output from lesser lights such as Hannan, Melksham, Harmes and the unsung Jetta have propelled them into the final weeks of competition and having their fans dreaming of an end to the longest premiership drought in the AFL.
West Coast made one forced change with the underrated but extremely important Shephard out with a bad hamstring tear, replaced with the experienced Schofield, while Melbourne pulled a beguiling surprise with Smith the beneficiary of Fritsch’s misfortune. I suggest Dom Tyson should buy a tattslotto ticket, or at least the Chairman of Selectors an icy cold beer as this move could potentially derail a team with outstanding chemistry. Fritsch, while down over the last few weeks, has been a mainstay this season and is capable of playing any position, I see the Demon hierarchy are concerned about the height in the Eagles attack, especially on a hot sunny afternoon, but I’d personally rather concentrate on your own strengths than trying to minimise the oppositions.
KEY MATCH UPS
McGovern vs. McDonald
Knights vs. Van Der Haar, Carey vs. Jakovich, Kernahan vs. Langford… perhaps in time the McGovern vs. McDonald match up will be spoken of in the same wistful terms. Both are absolute powerhouses, and both are in stunning marking form. I wrote last week about the Frawley/McDonald match up determining the result of the Hawthorn-Melbourne game, and despite the significant step up in three time-AA McGovern’s class this head-to-head may also provide the overall victor.
Darling vs. Frost
Carrying the burden of several poor finals displays in years past Jack Darling started the season as THE power forward in the competition. His contested marking, immaculate disposal and regularity in hitting the scoreboard had fans and onlookers finally seeing this incredible talent in all its splendour. An ill-timed ankle injury prevented him taking his rightful position as the AA-CHF, but a bigger prize is in his sights. Standing between him and that return bout with the MCG is Sam Frost, also a maligned figure, and not just for his star turn on the Bachelorette, but his confidence to trust his run has been invaluable in their successful campaign thus far.
Shuey vs. Jones
The West Coast dynamo has enjoyed the rise of Yeo and Redden to elite standing, freeing him up to do what he does best - set up attacks to the dangerous flotilla of talls in the Eagle forward line. Dees skipper Jones has probably been down on his expected output throughout this series but can be relied upon to do everything in his power to drag his beloved red and blue into the premiership decider. The tagging role on Shuey might be the challenge he needs to return to form.
Melbourne are so close they can taste it, and I’m jealous of the excitement and anticipation of those thousands of fans heading over to Perth to watch their team attempt to qualify for a rare Grand Final appearance. However, I suspect the Eagles will be too strong for too long. Melbourne didn’t play overly well last week, but capitalised on the many Hawk errors to run out deserved victors. The Eagles weathered a brutal Collingwood onslaught and had an extra week to refresh and regroup before trying to find the answer to the midfield exuberance of the Demons. It will be tight, but I see the home side carried along by a vocal majority to renew acquaintances with that last Saturday in September to the tune of 11 points.
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