The finals are here, and it’s Hawthorn’s to lose
Lance Franklin celebrates a goal in Hawthorn's 2011 final against Geelong (Slattery Images)
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The line “the most even season since” has been repeated ad nauseam from punters and pundits alike throughout 2012, but as we enter a long-awaited finals series, we’re going to find out if it’s actually true.
Hawthorn are the legitimate premiership favourite, and warmly so after finishing on top of the ladder with 17 wins and a percentage of 154.59.
Unlike Sydney and Adelaide, who finished with the same amount of wins, Clarkson’s men did it the hard way. The Hawks earned their McClelland Trophy with repeat matches against top six teams Sydney, Collingwood, West Coast and Geelong.
The Hawks will account for a struggling Pies outfit this week, taking into the match confidence from two victories by a combined twelve goals over them already this year.
As added incentive, if any were required, the pain of last year’s preliminary final loss to the same foe still burns deep.
The loss of Brent Guerra will have an impact, but the round 17 demolition of Collingwood was achieved without him, and there are several able replacements to take his place.
Expect Suckling, Birchall, Gibson, Young and Burgoyne to share the kick-in duties in his absence.
Hawthorn have beaten every other finalist this year except one, and certainly fear no team.
But of course the spectre of Geelong looms large in the minds of every person within the brown-and-gold army.
If the Hawks do somehow stumble along the way, then September could well see a particularly even finals series.
Adelaide have been good enough to turn a fortunate draw into second spot on the ladder, delivering with it a home final and second chance if they can’t get over the Swans.
Most supporters won’t mind if their team has to face the Crows in a final, and they’re the most likely candidate in the top four for a straight sets exit if there’s going to be one.
Adelaide haven’t beaten a legitimate side away from home in the second half of the year and have recorded losses to North, Geelong and Brisbane on the road in this time.
They are in control of their destiny however, and have the chance not to travel until the grand final if they’re good enough.
I count four match-winners in their midst, which I define as players who can turn a game in fifteen minutes, and hit the scoreboard while doing so.
Patrick Dangerfield, Rory Sloane, Taylor Walker and Kurt Tippett are the names in question, and if these guys click at the right time they can have an impact, but one senses they’ll have to catch the opposition on a down day.
Sydney are yet to convince many sceptics, and after losing three of their last four home-and-away matches it’s a reasonable position to take, especially considering that two of them were in their home state.
While Mike Pyke has been a presence and Lewis Roberts-Thompson has averaged a goal a game as a key position role-player, it’s hard to see any team with a forward line containing these two, an out-of-form Adam Goodes and the erratic and injury-clouded Sam Reid standing on the premiership dais come September 29.
The Swans have their mental issues too, most commonly found in matches at the MCG, against Collingwood, and in close matches against strong opposition. Chances are they’ll need to overcome all three to get into a grand final.
The Pies were supposed to be on a slow burn this season, building to peak at the right time of year. As is usually the case though, a side with an interrupted and injury plagued pre-season is finding the task beyond them.
They’re coming into the finals off the back of two losses in their last three games, with the win being a largely unimpressive 32-point victory against Essendon, a side against which a ten goal margin is seen as a failure these days.
But Collingwood is a battle-hardened outfit with extensive finals experience. This will keep them in the race for a long while, as will a host of on-ball stars, but it won’t shock to see them fall victim to an inglorious end.
West Coast are finding some semblance of form at the pointy end of the season, and it’s fair enough to say that injuries have robbed them of a top four and possibly top two finish.
They are a defensively sound team with a reasonably deep midfield and viable forward targets.
While they weren’t disgraced against Hawthorn on Friday night, they never legitimately threatened either, and both sides seemed to be more about self-preservation in the second half.
Unfortunately for the Eagles, they’re going to have to win three matches on the road against top four teams in order to win the flag, and it’s quite simply not going to happen.
They’re a watch team for next year though, while they still have the ageing Cox, Kerr, Embley and Glass at or near their best.
Geelong are most people’s wildcard, and it’s not a hard opinion to reach.
Most of the team seem to have been playing in premierships since the days of black and white TV, and with a nine match winning streak over the prohibitive premiership favourite, can they be truly discounted?
They should beat Fremantle at the MCG this Saturday night, and at $1.30 favourite it would be some sort of upset if they didn’t. Beyond that is getting on a plane to Adelaide or Sydney and if successful, coming back to a well-rested Hawthorn or Collingwood.
I’m not certain they’re playing well enough to beat four finalists in a row, and I expect that if they do happen to run into the Hawks at some point, the Kennett Curse will finally be overturned, and probably in emphatic fashion.
Fremantle and North round out the final eight, and both teams will be travelling via air this weekend, starting as despised outsiders.
The Dockers are at least coming in off the back of some hot form and can give the Cats a shake, while the Roos are merely stumbling in, their defeat of the Pies in round 21 appearing to have been their grand final.
So, are we entering an even September, full of classic clashes and epic encounters, or will Hawthorn make it a one-act affair?
My money is on the latter, as it’s been from the start of the year. Although they’ll have to defy an interesting statistic that has seen only five of the last sixteen minor premiers take home the medallions on grand final day.
While hopes are always high at this time of year, not every finals series can be a truly great one, and this September may actually not provide the best football we’ve ever seen.
But Hawthorn fans won’t care less when their team is victorious on the final day.
Cameron Rose is a born and bred Melbournian, raised on a regime of AFL, cricket and horse racing. He likes people who agree with him but loves those that don't, for there's nothing better than a roaring debate. He tweets from @camtherose.