The 2013 AFL finals series is finally here, and what a line-up of matches that we will be treated to as the number of contenders for the AFL premiership start winding down, culminating in the AFL grand final on September 28.
It all kicks off on Friday night with the grand final rematch between Hawthorn and the Sydney Swans.
This will be the second leg of their finals warm-up, albeit with the second leg taking place in Melbourne and in an actual finals series. Hawthorn won the first leg in Sydney by 12 points after being in trouble midway through the match.
The Hawks will be without their superstar forward Lance Franklin, who is out suspended after he bumped Nick Malceski early in the second quarter.
But the Hawks can still be a dangerous proposition even without Buddy, as proven by only one loss in the last 12 games in which he has missed.
This will partially make the Swans’ task easier, but it is already hard given the fact that the match will be played in the Hawks’ backyard and the fact that their defence will have their hands full trying to contain Coleman Medallist Jarryd Roughead.
This will be the third time that they have met this year, and the sixth in the last two years.
Hawthorn have won three of those meetings, however Sydney claimed two monumental victories in that same time period, in Round 5 last year in their Launceston debut, and in the match that mattered the most – the grand final.
Already the Hawks have triumphed over the Swans twice this year, thus John Longmire’s men will be hoping to try to avoid a hat-trick.
The second match will see a bit of AFL history made, as the Geelong Cats play host to Fremantle in what will be the first ever final at Simonds Stadium, and the first final to be played in Geelong since 1897.
Previously, if Geelong had been granted a home final by finishing first, second, fifth or sixth, they would have had to play their match at either the MCG or Etihad Stadium, as their primary home ground was not deemed suitable enough to host a finals match.
But as Simonds Stadium has since been redeveloped, with a larger seating capacity and new flashlights installed, allowing for night matches to be played at the venue, the ground will make its long-awaited AFL finals debut and the biggest winners of this historic event won’t be just the Cats players themselves, but also the fans.
Already, the Dockers are the biggest losers from this decision; not only have they not won at the venue since 2005 (a match which I still vividly remember), but also their fans are the ones missing out.
Had this match been played at Etihad Stadium, then not only would the fans be able to experience the Dockers play finals, but also the chances of victory would have been so much bigger.
Until last week’s loss to his old club St Kilda, Ross Lyon was undefeated as Dockers coach at the Docklands venue, and he hadn’t lost a match at the venue since St Kilda crashed out to the Sydney Swans in the first round of the 2011 finals series.
But the Dockers will be prepared for anything that looms ahead of them.
They can take light of the fact that they did beat the Cats in the corresponding weekend last year, supposedly ending the Cats’ period of dominance which had seen them net three flags, three different Norm Smith Medallists and two Brownlow Medallists.
The Cats being granted a home final at its’ primary ground will raise a few questions.
In the near future, when the Gold Coast Suns and GWS Giants make their debut in the post-regular season, where will they play their matches?
Metricon Stadium on the Gold Coast is deemed suitable enough to host a final, as it has been redeveloped into a world-class stadium and will be again for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, whereas Skoda Stadium in Sydney, while it has been redeveloped, wouldn’t be deemed suitable enough due to the low seating capacity.
This would leave the Giants to take a home final to the nearby ANZ Stadium, which seats more than 82,000 people. That’s in the event that the Giants make a finals series in the near future, something I cannot see happening for at least the next five years.
The third match of the series, and the first of the elimination finals, sees Collingwood up against Port Adelaide at the MCG.
Interestingly, this match will indirectly mark the first anniversary of the tragic death of John McCarthy, who represented both clubs in the AFL and was highly respected by his peers.
This will be Port’s first finals series since being crushed in the 2007 grand final by Geelong, but the 20-goal massacre has rarely ever been mentioned since.
So bad was the loss that it had psychologically and mentally scarred the team for the following five years in which it did not play in the finals series.
Up to five players who survived the massacre could line-up for the Power this weekend.
Collingwood, for the first time since 2008, find themselves in the sudden death zone, but being at home against the Power, to whom they lost to back in Round 14, and having had sufficient finals experience, should be heavily favoured to win here.
And last but not least, the second elimination final pits Richmond, who will be playing in their first finals series since 2001, up against the lucky losers, Carlton, who came out as the biggest winners of the Essendon drugs scandal.
The last time Richmond played a finals series, this was the state of affairs:
John Howard was the Prime Minister of Australia, George W Bush was the President of the United States, the iPod was invented, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were not invented yet, Sydney was coming off hosting the most successful Olympic Games ever, and to a lesser extent, the likes of Van Tuong Nguyen (a Richmond local), Schapelle Corby and the Bali Nine were free people.
A lot has changed significantly since but it’s the players who will finally relish in playing in a finals series for the first time in their careers.
It has been so long for Tigers fans who during the 11-year finals hoodoo were forced to endure four coaches, two wooden spoons and a range of uncompetitive performances from the men from Punt Road.
Two crushing victories over the GWS Giants and Essendon is proof enough that the Tigers are ready to play finals football.
This is the second time in a year in which a significant drought in world sport has ended.
At last year’s US Open, Ana Ivanovic reached her first Grand Slam quarter-final since winning the French Open in 2008, but the occasion got too much for her as she was crushed by the eventual champion, Serena Williams, in the final eight.
Ivanovic, like the Tigers in the AFL, had seen success hard to come by in recent times. The Serbian had fallen far from the top and while she has hauled herself back into the world’s top 20, is still struggling to remain in contention in big tournaments.
So how will the Tigers handle their first AFL final since being thrashed by the eventual premiers, the Brisbane Lions, back on September 22, 2001?
By the time they take the field this Sunday, it will be 4369 days since they last played a final.
They will take on traditional rivals Carlton, ironically the last team that they beat in a final, back on September 15, 2001.
That equates to 4376 days since their last finals victory.
The Blues can consider themselves to be the lucky losers in this year’s finals series, given they have had an ordinary first season under Mick Malthouse and had it not been for the Essendon drugs scandal, would have finished ninth.
That would have meant a lack of progress being made from Carlton, who after missing the finals last year sacked its’ coach Brett Ratten after they were widely tipped to contend for the premiership on the back of a strong 2011 season.
But now the Blues are here and they will be hoping to short-live the Tigers’ long-awaited finals campaign.
The two teams have met twice this year with the results being evenly split.
Richmond won a first round thriller back in March while Carlton conjured a comeback 10-point victory just recently.
So what an intriguing finals series it promises to be. This is how I think the finals series will turn out:
Week One (caps indicates my prediction)
HAWTHORN versus Sydney Swans
GEELONG CATS versus Fremantle
RICHMOND versus Carlton
COLLINGWOOD versus Port Adelaide
SYDNEY SWANS versus Richmond
FREMANTLE versus Collingwood
HAWTHORN versus Fremantle
GEELONG CATS versus Sydney Swans
GEELONG Cats versus Hawthorn
For the fourth odd year in a row, the Cats song will blare out of the speakers on grand final day.