It's the third year into the AFLs pre-finals bye era and it looks like it's here to stay. I will admit there certainly at least appears to be a greater ability for players with injury to gain that extra few days inside a hyperbaric chamber, so they can run out on the field with the hopes of their supporters at an all-time high. Whether this practice has led to a better standard of finals football is debateable and realistically, the sample size is too small to declare one way or the other.
The warmer spring weather has been keenly anticipated, signifying as always, a new champion will be crowned at the end of the month, and finally supporters of all eight finalists have something to distract themselves from the Ticketek fiasco. Opinion is divided on who will remain standing at the end of the series, the reigning champs are rightly favoured to repeat, but building support for the exciting Dees, perhaps peaking as the Doggies and Tigers had over the past few seasons, the Hawks with possibly the greatest ever at his craft pulling the strings, the reinvigorated Bucks and his band of precocious youth, or the forgotten (by those east of the border) Eagles with their significant home court advantage. The history book has yet to be written, each of the fortunate eight are entitled to dream of what may be, and those behind their computer screens are making assumptions, educated or otherwise, to try to be the first to predict the outcome.
Richmond vs Hawthorn
If the AFL had any concerns about backlash from the elongated wait for the start of finals action, it will surely be washed away (possibly by the predicted deluge) as 95,000 fans pack the mighty MCG on a Thursday night to signal the remarkable first ever meeting between league heavyweights, the Tigers and the Hawks. Much has already been spoken about the fact these powers have never lined up together in a match worth more than points, but here we are, and anticipation is high.
Clarkson has swung a mild surprise at the selection table opting for a taller line up with Ceglar effectively replacing Miles. The two-pronged centre bounce attack designed to unnerve Richmond who have gallantly persisted with an undermanned Grigg for nigh on two years in this role. The other benefit is both of the Hawk talls are accomplished in the air and could unsettle a disciplined Tiger backline used to getting their own way. I don’t believe the Hawks can compete with Richmond’s pace across the ground, so I like the move based on the fact it looks like Clarkson is throwing down a challenge to his close mate and rival Hardwick, rather than being led. As one of the famous commentary doyens of the past, Tiger great Jack Dyer used to exclaim ‘fast players slow down, but tall players don’t get any shorter’.
In saying that however, the Tigers aren’t reigning premiers for no reason and 21-successive wins at the MCG is testament to their belief, drive and trust in their game plan. Every player knows their role and implicitly supports each other to achieve. The form line of Dusty has been trending up for over a month, and with high quality personnel like Cotchin, Lambert and Prestia, their Hawk opponents will have their work cut out. I see the game going in the manner most Tiger games do with a struggle for up to three quarters and then the class and relentless pressure of the yellow and black providing too many forward opportunities in the last to run away winners by 4 goals.
Melbourne vs Geelong
Probably the most intriguing matchup of the first round, supporters of the Demons thrilled to be back in September after a dozen lonely years in the wilderness, and genuinely buoyed that their momentum could take them deep into the month. Meanwhile loyal Cats fans point to their exceptional mental ability to finish stronger in tight games, plus their AFL-approved dream team midfield combination and proclaim with a tinge of arrogance they are also here for the cup. In reality both are probably right, yet only one can proceed on the path to glory.
While selection is still unknown at time of writing, it is almost certain that Melbourne will receive a guaranteed boost from the return of their spiritual leader, Jack Viney. His presence may somewhat nullify the incredible powers of resilience and determination exhibited by the skipper of the Cats, responsible for so many times lifting his team onto his back and dragging them across the line. The midfield battles will be enormous, I lean towards the Dees here though, with cleaner disposal and greater defensive capability offered by Oliver and Jones.
Max Gawn may end the month with the Chas Brownlow draped around his neck, but for now his job is to destroy whichever cannon fodder Chris Scott sends out to the centre circle on Friday night. So dominant has Max been that he has returned the traditional art of ruckwork to the lofty heights it has enjoyed for much of Australian rules’ existence. Abbott, Stanley, Smith, Blicavs, it really doesn’t matter, at best they can only hope that Danger, Gary et al somehow read the delicate palms and destructive punches better than their direct opponents.
Rarely is a game with so much on the line have such a compelling backstory. The two previous fixtures this season were both decided by one of the final kicks of the match. Both times the Cats prevailed despite the Dees being superior for the majority of the game. Geelong have racked up sub-continental cricket scores the last two rounds against sub-AFL opponents, while Melbourne have shown great maturity in finally dismissing two worthy finals opponents. I think the wave of emotion and a new sense of freedom from Goodwin’s men will sweep them to a convincing victory against a Cats side that after 9 losses in the home and away probably over estimated their list pre-season.
Sydney vs GWS
The 2nd finals ‘battle of the bridge’ match up will be highlighted by the names brought back into both line-ups at selection this evening. Sydney superstars, Franklin and Parker are certain to return while the Giants are likely to bring in 2 and maybe all four of the following, Greene, De Boer, Deledio and Griffin. The old adage of not bringing in underdone players to finals seems to have been thrown out the window in this era of sports scientists and conditioning, but it’s a big risk if something goes awry.
Both teams from the Harbour city had relatively impressive form leading into September, both defeating fellow finalists and contenders, but struggling to really get a consistent run to build that unstoppable impetus that would have driven them into the top 4 and into premiership calculations. As it stands with each team banged up not given much hope of winning four games in a row, this match is all about pride.
The Giants have been massively let down by Rory Lobb in the ruck this season, and the improving Sinclair should take him to the cleaners. The impressive GWS mids in Shiel, Kelly, Coniglio and Ward will generate enough inside 50s, but with a dysfunctioning Cameron, oft-injured Greene and no real stability, I can’t see them posting a winning score on a ground the Swans will defend to within an inch of their lives. On the other hand, the Swans midfielders; Kennedy, Heeney, Parker along with smalls Papley and Ronke should contribute enough scoreboard pressure to help out the All-Australian skipper to post a winning total.
West Coast vs Collingwood
The final match of the round is a beauty, with the irresistible Magpies against the hardened home-town Eagles in a match which will likely determine a Grand Final berth. I’ve been so impressed with the Pies all season, their revolving backline, hard running half backs and wings, multi-headed scoring threats and of course the big guy with the designer glasses outrageously overlooked in the top 5 of MVP voting, Brodie Grundy, but alas at Optus Stadium they meet their match.
West Coast started the season with a flurry of victories bookended by losses to the Swans allowing them to shore up a top two place and an incredible advantage towards a showdown for the cup. With Kennedy returning alongside Darling, Waterman, Le Cras, Rioli and Ryan they have too much firepower for an inexperienced Magpie defence. Howe and Treloar back in provide a great boost, but on the big ground in a warmer climate their conditioning may be a factor.
Grundy should be feared, but Lycett is no novice, and while the talented Gaff’s absence will be keenly felt the depth of Shuey, Masten, Sheed, Redden, Yeo can tame and conquer the vaunted Magpie line up. Up forward the Pies have shown great flexibility, but desperately struggled last time against the same opponent at the friendlier confines of the MCG, McGovern, Hurn and Sheppard combining for more than 20 intercept possessions.
Massive strides forward by the black & white in 2018, and they’ll live to fight another day, but this clash is a bridge too far at this stage in their development. Eagles by 30+
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