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The AFL finals are wide open and anyone can win (for a change)

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2nd September, 2019
5

A bit of an oddity for footy fans: the Australian Football League’s finals series may unfold in quite unpredictable circumstances this September.

In most seasons, finishing in the top four on the league’s ladder, or even the top two, would normally possess an advantage to capturing the Premiership, with the teams finishing in fifth to eighth places there to merely make up the numbers.

Not so this season, it would appear. Anyone among the top eight could build a case for teams from outside the top four to spring enough surprises to mount a run towards playing on the fabled Melbourne Cricket Ground oval on the last Saturday in September.

Before the Western Bulldogs went on a late-season surge to cap off a Cinderella run with the 2016 Premiership, you’d have to go back to Adelaide in 1998 under the old McIntyre finals system to find a team to win the grand final from outside a top-four spot – such is the inherent advantage that having the coveted double chance presents.

But looking at the chasing pack teams, the expression of “anything can happen” in a knockout-round match rings the bells loudly. Has a decisive Round 23 loss at their Optus Stadium fortress to Hawthorn deflated West Coast’s chances of going back-to-back?

Underachieving sides, such as Greater Western Sydney and Essendon, have to overcome injuries to key players if they are to play a second week of finals, let alone beyond that. And could the Western Bulldogs be getting hot at the right time to spur memories of that Premiership-winning campaign of three years ago?

West Coast vs Essendon – Thursday, 5 September, at Optus Stadium, Perth
The Eagles, under coach Adam Simpson, found themselves back in the top four for much of the season thanks to their dominance in playing contested footy and making the most of their opportunities in a forward line led by spearhead Josh Kennedy.

The likes of Lewis Jetta, Elliot Yeo, Luke Shuey and Andrew Gaff will give the Eagles a great influence not just in this match but throughout September.

If a majority of those players are on song, then West Coast have no problem looking to rebound after the disappointing loss to Hawthorn, to spur on their bid to win back-to-back flags.

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For the Bombers – whose finals win drought is now stretched back to 2004, or specifically 5479 days, to the date of this match – the expected return of inspirational captain Dyson Heppell will bolster their chances. But their revelation this season has been the form of Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, whose blistering pace, sure hands and accurate foot skills can rip any defender to shreds.

Yet a M*A*S*H* unit of a medical room may be just as influential as their Tullamarine training ground in Essendon’s preparations for this match, as stalwarts Michael Hurley, David Zaharakis, Orazio Fantasia, Jake Stringer and Cale Hooker all fighting to pass fitness tests for a cutthroat match.

Geelong vs Collingwood – Friday, September 6, at the Melbourne Cricket Ground
Despite a perceived slump in the second half of the season, only a loss to Brisbane in the penultimate week of the home-and-away season prevented the Cats from leading the competition atop the ladder from wire to wire. They beat Carlton in the final home-and-away round and benefited from Richmond beating Brisbane at the MCG on the season’s final day to rebound and finish at the top.

In spite of the team’s 2019 successes, Cats supporters may feel hard done by. The AFL has ruled that Geelong – despite earning the top seed for the finals – must play all of its “home” finals at the iconic MCG rather than at the cozy confines of GMHBA Stadium.

Perhaps Cats coach Chris Scott, who’s been very critical of the AFL for their stance on the issue, can instead use it as a motivational chip on the Cats’ collective shoulder.

For Collingwood, hoping to avenge a 2011 grand final loss to the Cats in the last finals match between these clubs, everything starts with dominant ruckman Brodie Grundy’s tapwork and mobility around the ground. Captain Scott Pendlebury leads coach Nathan Buckley’s side by example, with high-flyers Adam Treolar, Jamie Elliott and Jeremy Howe easily adept at the run-and-carry style of play as they are at taking high marks that could bring down rain.

Scott Pendlebury Collingwood Magpies AFL 2017

Scott Pendlebury of the Magpies (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

That run-and-carry style into the attacking half will challenge Geelong’s resolve, with defenders Tom Stewart and Mark Blicavs highlighting a back six that has proven to be very stingy in preventing points.

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In addition to the influential Tom Hawkins, the Cats’ small forwards Gryan Miers and Quentin Narkle and classy midfielder Tim Kelly can cause defenders headaches of their own, not to mention any team with Patrick Dangerfield and the evergreen Gary Ablett in it can produce points in bunches.

Brisbane vs Richmond – Saturday, 7 September, at The Gabba, Brisbane
Thirteen days after Richmond thumped Brisbane at the MCG, these teams head to Queensland in what may the most anticipated match of the weekend.

The Lions were the AFL’s surprise packet this season – few so-called experts would have been brave to pick them as a finals-quality side, let alone finishing in the top two.

And the Tigers are just two seasons removed from winning a Premiership for their rabid base of supporters, and having won their last nine home-and-away matches, their form suggests they are a mighty threat to win another flag.

Chris Fagan’s pragmatic coaching and man-management have brought the Lions to where they are now. Riding an aggressive weekly game plan spearheaded by great teamwork among Dayne Beams, Lachie Neale, Dayne Zorko and Mitch Robinson, with small forward Charlie Cameron always capable of kicking a bagful of goals.

One can never underestimate the multi-Premiership-winning influence of Luke Hodge – can the Lions give Hodge one more flag before he rides off into the footballers’ sunset?

Midfielder Dustin Martin may be playing his best footy of the season now, ahead of the finals, and that has to be a scary thought for any opposition. Having the twin towers of Jack Riewoldt and Tom Lynch in the forward line to kick goals would be imposing for any set of defenders to face, and that will present quite a test to Harris Andrews and Marcus Adams leading a highly underrated back six for the Lions.

Dustin Martin

Dustin Martin and the Tigers have a battle on their hands thanks to injury. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

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Greater Western Sydney vs Western Bulldogs – Saturday, 7 September, at Spotless Stadium, Sydney
This match presents itself as a classic tale of teams heading in opposite directions. Pressure could be mounting on Giants coach Leon Cameron to put wins together in this year’s finals series – this club was arguably set up to win immediately since its inception as an AFL expansion team in 2012, but now could see its Premiership window closing without any silverware to show for it.

Meanwhile, Luke Beveridge’s team may be getting hot at the right time. Round 21 and Round 22 witnessed the Bulldogs employing a running style so fast and lethal, they more accurately resembled greyhounds at times, drilling home 21 straight goals against Essendon and the last 12 majors against GWS in those respective matches.

Such form at this stage of the campaign can certainly awaken the echoes of their 2016 flag run.

To avenge their 2016 preliminary final loss to the Bulldogs, the Giants must overcome a rash of injuries for this September run.

Gun midfielder Stephen Coniglio and key defender Brett Delidio exist as Cameron’s biggest concerns to pass fitness tests. But the x-factor for Cameron, captain Phil Davis, and the Giants isn’t just how many goals star forward Jeremy Cameron will kick, but rather how well they can respond to the “win now or else” pressure, whether it is real of manufactured.

Beveridge, meanwhile, can rely on the experience from having nine Premiership players in the Bulldogs’ current best 22, most significantly midfielders Marcus Bontempelli, Easton Wood and Jason Johannisen as well as key forwards Matt Suckling and Jack Trengrove. That, as well as being a potent side on good form and one that has tasted recent Premiership success, may be enough to advance to Week 2.