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AFL premiership rankings: Giant leap shapes the finals race

Steve Johns and Tim Greene, Alastair's favourite players. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)
Expert
11th September, 2016
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2959 Reads

Who’s closest to the flag after the first week of finals? There’s a big, big sound telling us it’s the GWS Giants.

Yes, that’s right. A club that hadn’t played a single finals match a few days ago is now best placed to go all the way.

An absurd proposition? Hardly.

We thought the pressure might show up the 16 players without finals experience against the September-hardened Sydney Swans. Instead, the Giants played the most September-worthy footy of any side at the weekend. They laid 17 more tackles than the next best side across the board and 32 more than their opponents on the day.

If there were nerves, they pushed past them. The Giants had the strongest disposal efficiency differential across the board, using the ball at a 5 per cent better rate than the minor premiers.

The players who’d been there and done that stood up (see Heath Shaw) and those who hadn’t were ready (Toby Greene, Tom Scully), really ready (Lachie Whitfield, Stephen Coniglio) or so very, very ready (hey Jeremy Cameron).

Now, it’s another week off and then a home preliminary final. Only one other team is in the same position and the Giants might just have their noses in front.

With one week of finals down, here’s our ranking of those closest to farthest away from lifting the cup:

1.GWS Giants

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Through to preliminary final vs Hawthorn/Western Bulldogs
The risk with placing the Giants on top is what could happen at the match review panel. Worst case scenario – losing Steve Johnson and Shane Mumford for the preliminary final – would move the calculations around. But after such a strong win over the team that previously looked most likely, they’ve earned top billing.

2.Geelong

Through to preliminary final vs Sydney/Adelaide
Had Isaac Smith kicked as truly as his previous 11 shots at goal in finals, the conversation around the Cats would be very different today. It missed though, meaning Geelong can boast a home preliminary final and a gritty win over a team considered expert at closing out games.

A fair position to be in, to be sure. What’s scary looking ahead is that wile his numbers were impressive, Patrick Dangerfield is capable of better footy than his game against the Hawks.

As these rankings are forward-looking, we’ve also taken into account possible opposition in a fortnight’s time. On that front, the Cats can expect a big challenge regardless of who wins out of Sydney and Adelaide. For mine, they’re definitely on the tougher side of the draw.

3.Adelaide

Semi final vs Sydney (SCG, Saturday 7.25pm)
If you take the body of work that Sydney and Adelaide have put together this season, you’d have to say the winner of this weekend’s match is a very good chance to go all the way. Playing four consecutive weeks is the barrier, but Hawthorn showed what was possible last year and the week off this year could help push things along.

For the Crows, they were expected to beat North Melbourne and to do so with a decent margin, so we can’t read too much into the result alone. The key was that round 23 was made to look like an aberration and not the norm.

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With Eddie Betts, Tom Lynch and Taylor Walker all prominent, there’s clearly no shortage of firepower up forward with this side. One man the Swans will have to study this week is Brodie Smith, who gained 927m and delivered his 29 disposals at 86 per cent efficiency against the Roos.

4.Sydney Swans

Semi final vs Adelaide (SCG, Saturday 7.25pm)
Could the Swans be headed for a straight sets exit? It’s entirely possible. Could they bounce back and go on to do a Hawthorn? It’s entirely possible.

Awkwardly, the ledger now shows the Swans have lost their past four finals. Still, we know the Swans can apply more pressure than they did against the Giants. We have to expect it this week against the Crows.

What bumps them to fourth here is the injury toll to come out of the weekend. With Callum Mills sidelined by his hamstring and Kurt Tippett ruled out this week, things get more difficult.

5.Hawthorn

Semi final vs Western Bulldogs (MCG, Friday 7.50pm)
Let’s talk about the kick first. Isaac Smith’s shot didn’t look particularly comfortable. Compare this picture of Smith kicking pressure-free at training during the week to this one from Friday night.

Maybe the timing of these two images is a bit off, but there are a few differences in posture that can be studied. His body is more upright and his right foot happens to be pointed further outwards. Looking at that image alone, it isn’t surprising a high arching ball to the right was the outcome.

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Over-analysis aside, the Hawks were a kick away from a preliminary final so perhaps the fifth-spot ranking is harsh. But here’s their record against the teams that are left this season: three wins by under a goal and four losses (with margins stretching as far as 75 points).

6.Western Bulldogs

Semi final vs Hawthorn (MCG, Friday 7.50pm)
Not many gave the Dogs too much of a chance on the road against West Coast. Somehow, this team keeps winning – despite all the setbacks, and there was another when Lin Jong did his collarbone.

Who’s to say the winning has to stop here? It was a strong victory over the Eagles, powered by seven unanswered goals in the first half.

Luke Dahlhaus, Liam Picken and Tom Liberatore all showed good form, while Marcus Bontempelli has room for improvement, which can only be a good thing. Another star of the Eagles win, Caleb Daniel, played a big role on Sam Mitchell when the sides met in round 3 (a three-point Hawks win).


Three questions for the week ahead:

1. Will the week off prove to be the great leveller?
There’s a theory that the post-round 23 bye has given a leg up to teams that didn’t earn the traditional perks of finishing higher up the ladder.

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Would the injury-plagued Western Bulldogs have had the same performance last Thursday without being able to bring back five players? Perhaps not. Did the extra break reduce the impact travelling across the continent? Perhaps it did. Could the week off help facilitate a run by a team outside the top four? Perhaps it can.

2. What will the match review panel verdict be on Steve Johnson?
There will be nerves in the Giants camp right now. Johnson’s collision with Josh Kennedy will no doubt be heavily scrutinised and as it stands there’s a big chance he won’t play in the preliminary final.

The argument that the vision isn’t conclusive enough will probably fall short. That hint of a raised arm in the footage could be what sways things towards a ban. Kennedy’s medical report, given he returned to the field, might offer a lifeline.

Then there’s Shane Mumford, too. The tackle on Kurt Tippett will have to be looked at, though you suspect the risk of suspension is lower than with Johnson.

3. Will Boomer play on?
North Melbourne’s loss brought the curtain down on at least two careers. Michael Firrito and Drew Petrie aren’t expected to play on, though the question is being asked of Brent Harvey and Nick Dal Santo.

The answers aren’t yet apparent and in Boomer’s case, he was politely dismissing the question in the aftermath of a finals loss (which is fair enough). In coming days we might get a clearer sense of his intention.

The loss to Adelaide was far from his best performance, but look back to his last game before everything went down a few weeks ago (32 disposals, three goals against Sydney) and it’s not so clear-cut.