And then there were two. With St Kilda’s 24-point victory over the Western Bulldogs last night, and Collingwood’s emphatic win over Geelong a night earlier, this year’s grand finalists are now locked in.
It wasn’t the greatest preliminary final weekend. While last night’s game featured a competitive first half, the other three halves of the weekend could not be described the same way.
But we have our two teams – one the biggest club in the country and 20 years on from their last premiership, the other out to redeem their grand final loss from last year while breaking a 44-year drought.
Collingwood were simply awesome in bringing down the Cats.
The final margin was 41 points, but their lead got to as many as 81 at one point. They made the reigning premiers, and dominant team of the past three or four years, look slow and well out of their depth.
The star midfielders were firing, with both expected Brownlow winner Dane Swan and Scott Pendlebury on song.
Nick Maxwell was inexplicably allowed to play the loose man in defence and, as has been happening all season, this thwarted many of the opposition’s attempts going forward. However it must be said, the entire backline – from Harry O’Brien to Ben Reid to Heath Shaw to Alan Toovey – were magnificent.
Positively, up the other end of the ground, inaccuracy didn’t appear to be an issue at all. Travis Cloke bagged three goals and even the most inaccurate Pie of them all, Dayne Beams, nailed a set shot from almost 50m out on a difficult angle at one stage.
Grand Final week would not be complete without concerns over player availability, and the Pies will be in the middle of it this week. Luke Ball’s hamstring will be one of the biggest stories of the next six days, while Dale Thomas will sweat on the match review panel after clashing with Harry Taylor.
At the ‘G last night, it was St Kilda’s turn.
The first half did not look pretty for the Saints. The Dogs looked on, leading by eight at quarter time and six at half time. It wasn’t until the third quarter that the Saints broke away, courtesy of one of the most dominant individual quarters of the season from the captain Nick Riewoldt.
In a positive sign for next week, Justin Koschitzke and Michael Gardiner joined Riewoldt in looking formidable up forward, as did the dangerous small forwards, Adam Schneider and Stephen Milne.
When it comes to beating the Dogs, though, it seems no role is more important than shutting down Barry Hall and for doing that (Hall nabbed his only goal late) Zac Dawson deserves a lot of praise. The backline as a whole held the opposition to just five goals up to three quarter-time, another noteworthy achievement.
In the middle, Lenny Hayes was instrumental in keeping the Saints in the game in the first half. Leigh Montagna had a game-high 33 possessions. Clint Jones laid a game-high eight tackles.
By the end of it all, St Kilda were sitting so comfortable they played with five players on the bench in the final few minutes. All in the name of preparing for next week.
Next Saturday’s game will be a replay of the 1966 Grand Final, the Saints’ sole premiership. The historians have already began salivating over that one and with only one point separating the two teams in ’66, one hopes the similarities don’t stop at the teams involved. Another close contest would be great.
Either way, it will be huge. Next weekend can’t come soon enough.
Where to now for the Cats?
Debate has raged in recent years where this Geelong side ranks among the best of all time, and that debate has just been given a severe reality check. In the eight weeks I wrote would seal their place in history, the Cats lost three times – twice to Collingwood and once to St Kilda – and couldn’t make it to their fourth-straight Grand Final.
Now, their era is almost certainly over.
Gary Ablett, who had a remarkable 37 possessions to three quarter-time on Friday night, is now likely to head to the Gold Coast Suns. Darren Milburn (at 33), Cam Mooney (31) and Brad Ottens (30) are also a chance not to return.
The Cats may remain a strong player next season, as there were quality players on the sidelines Friday night (like Max Rooke and Andrew Mackie) and the club has some promising youngsters, but going all the way will be a tough challenge from here – especially if expected off-season moves do take place.
And the Dogs?
A season that promised so much came to an end last night. After the Dogs added Barry Hall and won the NAB Cup, even yours truly – a Bulldogs sceptic like few others this season – admitted it might be their time.
In the end, players went backwards, injuries came up, the forwards not named Barry stopped firing, Jason Akermanis (one such forward) created headaches … the list of troubles was endless.
Dogs supporters can take heart from the similarities between their side this year and Collingwood last year. The Pies struggled big time at the business end of last season due to injuries to key midfielders (a bit like the Dogs with Adam Cooney and Shaun Higgins).
However the Dogs, like the Cats, face the prospect of retiring players (Brad Johnson for one) and the Gold Coast Suns taking their talent (Jarrod Harbrow has been a rumoured mover for some time).
Remarkably, and worryingly, this was the Dogs’ third straight preliminary final exit.