After 23 rounds, we are down to eight teams and what a finals series it promises to be as seven other sides look to prevent the West Coast Eagles from going back to back.
The Eagles lost their chance at a top-four berth when they lost to Hawthorn in the final round, meaning they will have to win four consecutive finals matches if they are to go all the way for the second year running.
They will face an Essendon side eager to snap the AFL’s longest finals winning drought, with the Bombers having not won a final since 2004. Further, they have not won a final under the coaching of anyone other than Kevin Sheedy for over half a century.
The first of the qualifying finals sees the Geelong Cats tackle Collingwood at the MCG on Friday night, with captain Scott Pendlebury set to bring up a milestone 300th game for the Pies.
Saturday sees the sequel to the classic 2016 preliminary final between the GWS Giants and the Western Bulldogs when the teams meet in a sudden-death elimination final, while later that evening, the Brisbane Lions will mark their return to finals football with a qualifying final duel with Richmond at home.
Here is your full preview to the first week of the 2019 finals series.
West Coast vs Essendon
Thursday, September 5 at 6.10pm (8.10pm AEST), Domain Stadium
This season: West Coast Eagles 14.22 (106) defeated Essendon 11.5 (71) at Optus Stadium in Round 14
Last meeting in a final: Essendon 22.12 (144) defeated West Coast Eagles 8.19 (67) at the MCG, first semi-final, 1996
Twenty-three years after being stripped of a home final against Essendon due to the controversial MCG finals rule that was in effect at the time, the West Coast Eagles will finally get to play the Bombers in a playoff on their home turf to kick off the 2019 AFL finals series.
The 1990s and early 2000s brought about the start of a dominant period for interstate teams, and so this meant that they could start playing their home finals without the need to travel.
But there was also a contract in place that required at least one finals match be played at the MCG, and this meant that the AFL had the power to schedule an interstate team’s home final at the ground to meet this quota.
In the instance where two interstate teams were each to play a home final on the same weekend, the higher-ranked team would keep their home final while the lower-ranked team would have their hosting rights taken away from them.
As a result, in 1996, the Eagles’ home final against Essendon was switched to the MCG, thus giving the Bombers the home ground advantage, and history repeated three years later when the Eagles’ home semi-final against Carlton was also shifted away from Perth.
On both occasions, the Brisbane Bears/Lions were the higher-ranked interstate club and could thus keep their finals hosting rights as a reward for finishing higher on the ladder.
The Lions themselves would also controversially be stripped of a home final in 2004, when their preliminary final against the Geelong Cats was shifted to the MCG, which many argue conspired against them as they later lost the grand final to Port Adelaide, denying them a four-peat.
So controversial was the MCG finals rule that it was eventually abolished at the end of 2004, in favour of a new contract that requires that at least ten finals matches (excluding grand finals) be played at the MCG every rolling five-year period.
Anyway, let’s now get to the preview of the second elimination final, where the Eagles will be on death row from here on in as they attempt to keep their premiership defence alive.
The Eagles had to settle for fifth place on the ladder after losing to Hawthorn at home in the final round of the regular season, a result which cost them the double chance.
They will face an Essendon side who will be playing in September for just the fifth time since 2004, and attempting to end a long finals hoodoo, having not won a final since defeating Melbourne by five points in the elimination final that year.
The Bombers will also be playing at Optus Stadium for the third time in 2019, after losing to the Eagles by 35 points in Round 14 and defeating Fremantle by 32 points in Round 22.
The Round 14 result would have been more embarrassing for John Worsfold’s side had the Eagles kicked more accurately, with the hosts returning a total of 14.22 (101) on that Thursday evening in mid-June.
There has been a lot of speculation over Worsfold’s future at the club after he signed a two-year contract extension at the start of last season, with speculation he may be moved on if the Bombers are not competitive this Thursday night.
With easily the best playing roster since the Kevin Sheedy days, it was widely expected that the club would make an impact in September, but if they are to live up to pre-season expectations, they’ll have to do it the hard way, starting with trying to knock the Eagles off their Optus Stadium perch.
And despite the Eagles having lost their last two matches, I can’t see their season being ended by their former mentor this Thursday night.
For the winner: Await the loser of the Geelong Cats vs Collingwood qualifying final, with the first semi-final to be played at the MCG next Friday night.
For the loser: Lights out for 2019, and for Essendon, a long trip back home to Melbourne.
Prediction: West Coast Eagles by 25 points.
Geelong vs Collingwood
Friday, September 6 at 7.50pm, Melbourne Cricket Ground
This season: Geelong Cats 10.12 (72) defeated Collingwood 9.11 (65) at the MCG in Round 1
Last meeting in a final: Geelong Cats 18.11 (119) defeated Collingwood 12.9 (81) at the MCG, 2011 grand final
The first qualifying final, to take place this Friday night, will pit the Geelong Cats up against Collingwood in a finals match for the first time since the 2011 decider.
As the reality settled in that the Cats would finish on top of the ladder, as they have done for the first time since 2008, there was talk that they would be forced to play their home finals at the MCG, and that’s exactly what will happen when they face the Pies.
This will give the Pies the home ground advantage, as they play more games at the G than the Cats do.
That, however, didn’t seem to matter when the Cats got up by seven points when the teams met all the way back in Round 1.
Chris Scott’s side got off to a flyer, going into their Round 13 bye with 11 wins and one loss, but would not string consecutive wins together in the second half of the season. Still, it was enough for them to claim their first minor premiership in 11 years.
They made sure of it by thrashing Carlton by 68 points at Kardinia Park, this coming after they’d lost to the Brisbane Lions by a solitary point at the Gabba in Round 22.
Examples of their recent inconsistency came when they also lost to Fremantle in Perth in Round 20, this coming six days after they had played the Sydney Swans at the SCG. Their decision to bypass home completely and fly straight to Perth attracted criticism as a result.
Now they will face a Pies side that rode their luck to claim a double chance – after they defeated Essendon by 11 points on the Friday in Round 23, they watched on as the West Coast Eagles went down to Hawthorn in Perth, lifting them back into the top four.
Their qualifying final against the Cats will be a huge night for the club, with captain Scott Pendlebury to bring up his 300th game. With this game being at the MCG, they can expect to receive the majority of the crowd support for what is, technically, a Cats home game.
But despite the disadvantage the Cats have been dealt, I still think they can get the job done and progress straight to a home preliminary final.
For the winner: A direct passage to the preliminary final to be played at the MCG.
For the loser: Host a semi-final against the winner of the West Coast Eagles vs Essendon elimination final at the MCG next Friday night.
Prediction: Geelong Cats by 12 points.
GWS Giants vs Western Bulldogs
Saturday, September 7 at 3.20pm, Giants Stadium
This season: Western Bulldogs 19.12 (126) defeated GWS Giants 9.11 (65) at Giants Stadium in Round 22
Last meeting in a final: Western Bulldogs 13.11 (89) defeated GWS Giants 12.11 (83) at Giants Stadium, preliminary final 2016
Just three years after they met in a classic preliminary final for the ages, which many consider to be the best AFL match played this decade, the GWS Giants and Western Bulldogs will be at it again in a finals match, this time in a first-week knock-out clash.
After spending most of the season in the top four, some poor late-season form has seen the GWS Giants settle for sixth place on the ladder, which they sealed by defeating the Gold Coast Suns by 72 points in their final regular season match on August 24.
In that match, Jeremy Cameron kicked a personal-best nine goals to snatch the Coleman Medal from Ben Brown, and yet again finish the year as the Giants’ top goal-scorer, as he has done in every season of the club’s existence.
He was one of many players to be absent from their 61-point loss to the Western Bulldogs in Round 22, which was the second consecutive match in which the Giants failed to kick a goal in the second half, following their dry spell against Hawthorn the previous round.
For the Bulldogs, who were playing at Giants Stadium for the first time since their epic preliminary final victory three years ago, it was the second of three straight wins to end the regular season.
They also thrashed Essendon by 104 points in Round 21, in which they kicked all 21 of their goals unabated from the first quarter to the last, and defeated the Adelaide Crows by 34 points to qualify for their first finals series since taking out the 2016 premiership.
Their recent form has many believing that they can rewrite their own history and go all the way once again, though this time they have won three less regular season matches (in 2016 they had a 15-7 record, this year they finished 12-10 after 22 rounds).
They will now return to Giants Stadium for the second time in three weeks hoping to land the knockout blow on the GWS Giants’ season, and perhaps go on another giant killing run of their own.
A Giants loss would cast some doubt over the future of their coach, Leon Cameron, with talk that he may be the first coach to be dismissed if the club regresses in 2020.
As for the Bulldogs, who will start favourites on Saturday afternoon, it would vindicate their decision to re-sign coach Luke Beveridge through to the end of the 2023 season, at the end of which he will have been at the helm at the Whitten Oval for nine years.
For the winner: Watch on and await the loser of the Brisbane Lions vs Richmond qualifying final to be played later the same evening.
For the loser: Season over, and a long summer of soul searching.
Prediction: Western Bulldogs by 18 points.
Brisbane Lions vs Richmond
Saturday, September 7 at 7.25pm, Gabba
This season: Richmond 12.10 (82) defeated Brisbane Lions 8.7 (55) at the MCG in Round 23
Last meeting in a final: Brisbane Lions 20.16 (136) defeated Richmond 10.8 (68) at the Gabba, preliminary final 2001
With no NRL matches to be played in Brisbane this weekend, the city’s eyes will turn to the Gabba as the Brisbane Lions mark their return to the finals with a blockbuster qualifying final clash against Richmond in the second match on Saturday night.
It has been a painfully long decade since the last time the club featured in a finals series, with the club enduring more than anyone could ever imagine over that period.
There was the ill-fated recruitment of Brendan Fevola, who lasted just one season in the sunshine capital before being sacked on medical grounds in 2010, and then the sacking of two club legends as coaches in Michael Voss (2013) and Justin Leppitsch (2016).
During this time, the club also struggled to retain star players, allowing the likes of Sam Docherty (Carlton), Elliot Yeo (West Coast), Billy Longer (St Kilda), Josh Schache (Western Bulldogs) and Jared Polec (Port Adelaide/North Melbourne) to leave in pursuit of opportunities at other clubs.
However, things started to turn around when Chris Fagan was appointed head coach, and David Noble was also hired to head the football department.
In his third year as coach, Fagan, who learnt his trade under Alastair Clarkson at Hawthorn, has taken what was once a basket case of a club to second place on the ladder, easily their highest finish after a regular season since 2004.
In their qualifying final, they will face Richmond, who underwent a similar trajectory earlier this decade and are now one of the competition’s powerhouse clubs, at what will surely be a sold-out Gabba.
Despite losing fullback Alex Rance for the season in Round 1, and being without Jack Riewoldt, Toby Nankervis, Dustin Martin and captain Trent Cotchin for some time this year, the Tigers have done well to again finish in the top four for the third consecutive year.
A stretch of seven straight matches at the MCG to finish off the season lifted them from sixth after Round 16 to third at the end of the regular season, the same position they finished in their premiership year of 2017.
They’ll enter the finals series having not been beaten since their Round 14 bye, racking up nine consecutive victories, including defeating the Lions by 27 points at home in the final round of the regular season. It was their 13th consecutive victory over them dating back to 2010.
One hoodoo is certain to be broken this Saturday night, with the Lions having not beaten the Tigers at home since 2004 (or anywhere since 2009). In addition, the Lions – as well as the pre-merger Brisbane Bears – have never lost a final at the Gabba.
This includes the 2001 preliminary final, in which the Lions thrashed the Tigers by 68 points en route to the first of a hat trick of flags earlier this century.
It now remains to be seen how the Lions – for most of whom it will be their first finals series – handle the September pressure cooker, with only Luke Hodge, Charlie Cameron, Lachie Neale and Allen Christensen having played finals regularly at their former clubs.
Daniel Rich remains the only survivor from their most recent finals match, a 51-point loss to the Western Bulldogs in a semi-final at the MCG in 2009.
Despite this lack of experience, and especially coming up against a seasoned finals team in Richmond, I think the young Lions can cause an upset at home on Saturday night.
For the winner: Direct passage to the preliminary final to be played at either the Gabba or the MCG.
For the loser: Host a semi-final against the winner of the GWS Giants vs Western Bulldogs elimination final at either the Gabba or the MCG next Saturday night.
Prediction: Brisbane Lions by 14 points.