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The second chances are done; now we’re playing for keeps. And the Pies have a fight on their hands to progress to the penultimate weekend of the season.
History says the losing qualifying finalist tends to win their semi final. Since the start of the decade, the losing qualifying finalists has won 12 of their 17 semi finals – Hawthorn becoming the fifth loser last night.
Teams that finish inside the top four generally end up in the final four. It tends to take something unusual for a qualifying finalist to lose two straight games and exit the finals in the second week. In the Hawks’ case, it was running into a team which ultimately was better than them through the home and away season on an underlying basis, and losinf key players both recently and earlier on in the piece.
Collingwood lost last weekend, while the GWS Giants won. The Pies’ loss was a close run thing, and it took an uncharacteristically physical effort from the Eagles (+16 in ground ball gets) in the fourth quarter for them to get over the line. The Giants’ win was not a close run thing, and one may argue it was one of the most comprehensive victories by one finalist over another in 2018.
If the two teams’ respective form carries over, it shapes as a high quality, aggressive, attacking game of football. For the right to a six day break, and a battering by a well-rested Richmond.
The Pies are unchanged for just the second time this year (the other times being Round 5 and Round 22), after its trio of returning players (Tyson Goldsack, Jeremy Howe and Adam Treloar) got through the qualifying final unscathed – each playing a critical role in Collingwood’s performance.
The Giants have made two changes, losing Josh Kelly to a meniscus tear and leaving Harry Perryman out of the team. In come Ryan Griffen and former Pie Lachie Keeffe. The latter would appear to have been selected primarily as a backup ruckman to Rory Lobb, who has the task of taming the man-god Brodie Grundy.
GWS beat the Pies at the MCG by 16 points in Round 2, but given it was so long ago how much can we really read into the game? It was the afternoon the Giants lost Tom Scully to a season-ending ankle injury, and the Pies lost Tim Broomhead to an ugly broken leg (don’t Google it).
GWS still had Jonathon Patton and Heath Shaw, and were playing Lachie Whitfield on a wing and Brett Deledio off half back. Collingwood have seen some changes too: Darcy Moore, Matt Scharenberg and Lynden Dunn were in the back six, and the forward line was 100 per cent small ball (as opposed to 90 per cent small ball).
The game itself was pretty even, the margin swinging back and forth all day, and the underlying performance of each team suggested the game was more or less a coin flip. In a lot of ways, it was a game between equals, though we didn’t realise it at the time.
As for tonight’s contest, markets are certainly subscribing to the long-term trend of top four finishers beating their lesser counterparts. Collingwood is a strong favourite, despite general and professional sentiment running counter.
For me, I see tonight’s game unfolding in a similar fashion to the Round 2 encounter in the aggregate: close all evening, with neither side able to streak its way to an advantage for a long period.
That’s because both teams map against each other well: both have strong and deep midfields, while Collingwood’s defence and GWS’ forward line are probably their weaker spots. Collingwood’s forward line lacks the names, but has been effective for most of the year; ditto GWS’ defence.
Collingwood looked all at sea in the first quarter against West Coast, unable to get their ground game going as the Eagles played in the air. GWS has the capacity to not just match Collingwood on the ground but exceed it, and with Zac Williams (probably my favourite player) back dishing from the half back line they’ve got part of the aerial game sorted too.
And for all of the talk about the Giants being the show ponies of the AFL, the team is sixth in the league for tackle rate (which adjusts for opponent time in possession), and is third for adjusted contested possessions (a proxy for ground ball gets). The Pies are seventh and fifth. Yep, it’ll be a battle of the midfields.
Given this, the loss of Josh Kelly is quite important to the outcome of the game. It gives the Pies a little more flexibility in the match up stakes, though Ryan Griffen is no slouch.
Collingwood will still feel confident its system is strong enough to overcome any razzle dazzle deficit it may have against the Giants. GWS can be one of the silkiest teams in the competition when they’re on, as they were against Sydney last week.
The Giants have one of the lowest disposals per minute of possession in the league in losses, suggesting keeping the ball out of their hands is vital to the win.
Can the Pies do it? The market says yes, the public says no. If I am to break the tie, I say yes. History suggests top four teams finish there for a reason, and the Pies acquitted themselves extraordinarily well against the Eagles last weekend. It took an uncharacteristically stoic showing from West Coast to best them.
The Giants have an element of Jekyl and Hyde about them this year, influenced by injuries and absences, form and some tactical variations. They’ve been more Jekyl of late, but against a primed Collingwood midfield and its swarming game style, I expect they’ll struggle to stay there.
This will be a close game, of that I have no doubt. But Collingwood will be the victor, by six points. That’s my semi final forecast, what’s yours?